Behold, the head of a traitor

In late 1995 I came to Cambridge from California to go through the interview process. Because I wasn’t sure what department I’d be applying to, I interviewed with both History and SPS (that’s Social and Political Sciences to you foreigners and/or young people). 

The SPS interviews didn’t go too well, but I had an excellent conversation with my history interviewer. We spent a lot of time talking about commemoration and how the US has a very funny attitude about commemorating the Civil War. Like, right near Washington there’s Fort J.E.B. Stuart — that is, a US military base named for an officer who betrayed the army he was supposed to be in and the country he was supposed to serve. 

Now, the plain fact is that, by the standards of most conflicts, Stuart was a traitor who rebelled against his government and lost. The logical thing to do, at least in terms of the past conflict, would have been to stand him up against a wall and so on. But that is not really how these things work — the fact is that even in a case where there are unequivocal bad guys, we have a more ambivalent relationship to them. And when the facts on the ground are more ambiguous, things get even more murky. 

I am off to Ely on Friday, and as you may recall in Ely they are big on Cromwell. We like us some Cromwell here in Cambridge, too — we have the ghost of his severed head, don’t you know? (In the process of finding that link I have discovered that Cromwell’s ghost haunts like four different places. Busy guy.)

Now, Cambridge has the severed head of Cromwell — and none of the rest of him — because after the Restoration, Charles II had him dug up, dismembered, and displayed. I have never understood the logic of that act. “Here’s what happens to people that fuck with the Stuarts: they die of old age, in their beds, wealthy and powerful, surrounded by their toadies and flatterers … hang on …”. 

But I guess the same was true of others. it didn’t wholly take. If you go by the Houses of Parliament today, you will not fail to notice the statue of Oliver Cromwell. 


I always feel like that statue should be closer to the sovereign’s entrance, you know? “I’ve got my eye on you, china,” it would say. But so yeah — Cromwell, the great champion of the people. Or, y’know, military dictator.

Behold, the head of a traitor

4 thoughts on “Behold, the head of a traitor

  1. Tony Benn claims that he tried to have a stamp issued to commemorate George Washington, but this was vetoed on the the grounds he (GW) was a traitor.

    George V wouldn’t let Churchill name a battleship after Cromwell.

  2. Sean says:

    Interesting. The whole reverence for the South here baffles me as a California Yankee. To me the Stars & Bars is akin to the Swastika but that doesn’t appear to be the majority view. Digging people up and defiling their corpses seems a little extreme.

    1. Defiling corpses was pretty much the norm — they just usually killed ’em first rather than waiting until years after their deaths and digging them up.

      As for the Confederacy, I mean …

      … I understand showing mercy to a defeated opponent, and I certainly understand recognising that people often fight on the side of *where they’re from* rather than out of some ideological commitment. More than that, a lot of the time the ideological commitment is dependent on where you’re from.

      But how do you make sure you’re saying “we remember these people and are merciful to them *in spite of* their beliefs” and not get people thinking you’re saying “these beliefs are OK”?

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