A body of evidence

Oliver Cromwell, whose headless remains are said to rest at Newburgh Priory, near Coxwold

In my dad’s column from 8th September 1979 he talks about the remains of Oliver Cromwell supposedly resting at Newburgh Priory, near Coxwold.

Although now a stately home, it is called ‘Priory’ because it stands on the site of an Augustinian settlement founded in 1145 by Robert de Mowbray, who was gifted the land by William The Conqueror. Not much is known about the priory apart from the fact that it fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, passed into private hands, and has remained in the same family ever since. It was owned first by Henry VIII’s chaplain, Anthony Bellasis who, along with his brother Robert, was responsible for the dissolution of eight northern monasteries besides the priory. The property was then inherited by his nephew Sir William, who converted it into a private residence. William’s grandson, Thomas, took the title of ‘Baron of Fauconberg’ in 1625 and then ‘1st Viscount’ in 1643. His grandson, also Thomas, was appointed ‘Earl of Fauconberg’ and it was he who married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter, Mary, in 1657.

But the story of how Cromwell’s remains came to be there are the subject of much debate, for if we believe all the tales about his final resting place, then the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth must have had several heads and torsos. There are various claimed locations including London, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire as well as Yorkshire.

What is not in dispute is that he died aged 59 on 3rd September 1658 of complications of malaria and kidney problems. He was quickly buried at Westminster Abbey and succeeded by his son, Richard, who was no match as a leader, so by 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II took the throne.

On 30th January 1661, the 12th anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Cromwell’s body was exhumed, along with several of his republican contemporaries, and removed to Tyburn where he was posthumously hanged and beheaded. The heads were placed on spikes and the bodies supposedly buried beneath the gibbet.

However, rumours quickly spread that the body, which was heavily swaddled, was not actually Cromwell’s. There were whispers that it had been switched and the genuine remains whisked away. A theory went that it had been reburied several times in different places after his death to protect it from vengeful royalists.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that it ended up in Coxwold (minus the head, which itself had an eventful 300-year journey to its final 1960 resting place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge). The Earl of Fauconberg was politically very astute, and had cultivated a huge network of influential friends. Once Cromwell had died he set about gaining allies among the royalists, and it was during this period that he learned about what was in store for his father-in-law’s corpse. Fauconberg’s influence, so the story goes, enabled his wife Mary to secretly travel to London with trusted escorts to collect her father’s body and bring it back to Yorkshire, while a different body was buried beneath the gibbet.

The corpse was placed in a specially-constructed tomb at Newburgh, hidden in the roof gables. It was only later, when the roof was raised, that the tomb became exposed. However, the family have resisted pressure over the years to open it. My dad tells the tale of a visit by Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII, who was desperate to open the tomb, but the family would not relent. So the story, and the contents of the tomb, have never been, nor are ever likely to be, verified.

Two thank you’s this week to relatives of twin sisters Minnie and Fanny Benson, who featured in my column in July. Their niece Ann Mansfield (nee Rowntree) wrote in with some reminiscences including a favourite phrase that Fanny used when the phone rang: “You answer it sister, in case I’m not in.”

Mervyn Thompson, who grew up in Ampleforth, also got in touch. His father Les was the twins’ cousin, and he remembers spending time up at the garage when it was owned by their father, his Uncle ‘Tal’.

He says: “Aged about four I had a camp fire. Unfortunately it was upwind of Tal’s barn on a windy day. Bad plan!”

Thankfully, the tin-roofed barn survived but, alas, the hay was not so lucky!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th September and the Gazette & Herald on 4th September 2019

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