Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A KING IN ALL BUT NAME' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A KING IN ALL BUT NAME' page

Oliver Cromwell's lying in state

By David Evans

Purple velvet, gold lace, ermine trimmings, a sceptre, an orb and, most surprising of all, a crown, formed part of the lying-in-state at old Somerset House of Oliver Cromwell, His Highness the Lord Protector, from mid-October until 10th November 1658.

Cromwell had died on September 3rd and following what might have been a badly performed embalming process, was most likely buried, privately and quietly, in Westminster Abbey well before his state funeral on 22nd November. For this reason, the elaborate lying-in-state arranged for him was probably centred on an empty coffin placed under a bed of state which stood five feet high and on which lay a life-size wax effigy of the Lord Protector. Such effigies were very much part of royal funerals in England and the custom continued here with the public passing through three rooms at Somerset House in order to reach the one set aside for the “body”. Each of these was shrouded in gold-trimmed black velvet which set off the chairs of state in the first room and the coats of arms in this and the others. The fourth, lit by eight five-feet high silver candlesticks around the bed of state, held Cromwell’s effigy

This was dressed in black velvet and more than one layer of purple velvet trimmed with gold lace and ermine. An engraved and gilded sword was placed around its waist and in its left hand was an orb and in the right hand a sceptre. Most striking and extraordinary of all was a crown placed on a gold chair behind the effigy’s head. Midway through these quasi-regal proceedings the effigy was placed in an upright position and its glass eyes, which had been closed when it was recumbent, were opened, fully, and the crown was placed on its head. This process seems to have been based on the one adopted for the effigy of King James I (VI of Scotland) at its lying-in-state in 1625 and was quite possibly intended to impress and overawe those paying their respects with all its “kingly” power and glory. It is hard to believe that Cromwell, who refused the crown in 1657, would have approved of this approach.

For the state funeral, the effigy was placed in an open chariot covered in black velvet and this rode in a long procession made up of many participants - from foreign ambassadors to the Lord Protector’s personal servants – and which took several hours to reach Westminster Abbey. There, without any service whatsoever, the chariot or hearse was simply placed in the Henry VII chapel where it and the effigy stayed for several more months. Cromwell’s body had most likely been buried somewhere under the chapel and even today some question whether the body, exhumed for public humiliation and “execution” at Tyburn in January 1661, was really his. What cannot be denied is the fact that the man, in effigy, had been treated as a King in all but name during a nearly month-long lying-in-state at Somerset House - something many a true monarch might have envied.

This page was added by Adrian Autton on 17/05/2014.

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