Famous Death Masks Oliver Cromwell

About the history of the plastar death mask made of English lord protector Oliver Cromwell.


OLIVER CROMWELL (1599-1658), English lord protector

King in all but name, the bloodthirsty Puritan dictator ruled England for the last five years of his life. Like many historical idealists who have gained power, Cromwell's idolatry to his principles warped his humanity and vast abilities. Three hundred years later, he still compels historians and biographers to "take sides."

Cromwell's strong, intelligent face was marked by a large nose and several warts, the most prominent above the left eyebrow, which appear in contemporary portraits. Weeks of increasing debility, apparently caused by a bladder stone infection, culminated in his death on Sept. 3, 1658. (Because of "this small piece of gravel," reflected French philosopher Blaise Pascal years later, "he is dead, his family is cast down, all is peaceful, and the king is restored.")

Cromwell was buried on Nov.10 in Westminster Abbey. According to the royal custom, later elaborate funeral ceremonies centered on his life-size wax effigy. (See "Another Look--Exhumations" in this chapter.) The death mask was probably taken by official engraver Thomas Simon for the purpose of creating this effigy.

Several plaster casts of the mask exist. The Hutton Collection at Princeton University acquired its cast from Cromwell descendants in 1859. The cast owned by London's National Portrait Gallery is not exactly identical to the others, indicating that perhaps two masks were taken.

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