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Sotheby's to auction military and political leader Oliver Cromwell's coffin plate
This plate was “found in a leaden canister, lying on the breast of the corpse" by the man in charge of exhuming Cromwell’s body. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- A unique Cromwellian relic will come to the auction block on 9th December when an exquisitely engraved brass plate found resting on Oliver Cromwell’s chest when his body was exhumed in 1661 appears at Sotheby’s London auction of English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations.

With the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, it was decreed that the bodies of those who had signed Charles I’s death warrant and subsequently become leading figures in the Protectorate but who had, rather inconveniently, already died of natural causes, should suffer the indignity of posthumous execution. Cromwell, the former Lord Protector, was subsequently disinterred from the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey on 26 January 1661. Having been laid out at the Red Lion Inn in Holborn overnight, his corpse was conducted to Tyburn and hanged, drawn, and quartered, and his head placed on a spike above Westminster Hall.

According to contemporary accounts, this plate was “found in a leaden canister, lying on the breast of the corpse" by the man in charge of exhuming Cromwell’s body - James Norfolke, Serjeant of the House of Commons.

Just two years before, Cromwell had been buried with the pomp and ceremony of a king. The lying in state and funeral that had followed his death on 3 September 1658 took their form from royal funerals, principally that of James I, with an effigy (bearing orb, sceptre, and crown) lying in state at Somerset House from 20 September - one of the escutcheons used in the ceremonials was sold in these rooms on 10 July 2013 - until the state funeral at Westminster Abbey on 23 November.

The grandeur and ceremony that characterised Cromwell’s funerary rites extended to his coffin (and the plaque inside it) as Privy Council orders of the time make clear: “his Highness Corps being embalmed, with all due rites appertayneing thereunto, and being wrapped in Lead, There ought to be an Inscripcion in a plate of Gold [i.e. gilded metal, not necessarily gold] to be fixed upon his Brest before he be putt into the Coffin. That the Coffin be filled with odours, and spices within, and Covered without with purple Velvett, and handles, Nayles, and all other Iron Worke about it, be richly hatched with Gold.” (Order Book of the Privy Council, 14 September 1658, quoted Fitzgibbons, pp.37-38)

This brass plate was not the only relic to survive from the event: Cromwell's head remained on its spike above Westminster Hall for more than twenty years until it eventually blew down in a gale and was taken by a sentinel on guard below. It was passed through numerous private hands until it was interred in a secret location in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

Estimated at £8,000-12,000, it is has been in the collection of the Harcourt family since the 19th century.

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