Heads With a Life of Their Own

Grim Tales of Loose Skulls

A good juicy beheading is nothing unusual in world history. (Just ask Robespierre, who oversaw hundreds of beheadings and then went to the guillotine himself.) But a few separated skulls have gone on to take a special place in history all by themselves. Herewith we present Heads With a Life of Their Own.

Sir Walter Raleigh

SIR WALTER RALEIGH was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, but he ended up on the chopping block courtesy of her not-so-friendly successor King James I. (Raleigh made time for one last quip, fingering the executioner’s axe and saying “This is sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases.”) After the blade did its work, Raleigh’s body was buried but his head was given to his wife Elizabeth, who was just a teensy bit quirky about it. According to Shepherd of the Ocean, a Raleigh bio by J.H. Adamson and H.F. Holland, “She had [the head] embalmed and kept it by her side, frequently inquiring of visitors if they would like to see Sir Walter.” Many sources say that Bess lugged the head around with her at all times until her own death 29 years later. Finally, Raleigh’s well-travelled noggin was interred with his body at St. Margaret’s church near Westminster Abbey.

Him and His Big Mouth

The great Roman orator CICERO played his cards wrong after the death of Julius Caesar, agitating against power-hungry Marc Antony and in favor of a return to rule by the Roman Senate. When Antony grabbed power anyway, Cicero fled the country with Antony’s centurions hot on his heels. He got as far as Capitie, where the pursuers caught up with Cicero’s party and disrespected the famous senator by putting him to the sword on the spot. They cut off Cicero’s head and hands and returned to Rome, where Antony had the body parts nailed to the podium of the Senate — a subtle reminder of the price to be paid for writing or speaking against Marc Antony. In a grisly burst of bonus vengeance, Antony’s wife Fulvia drove pins through Cicero’s tongue.

John the Baptist

No severed head is more famous than that of JOHN THE BAPTIST. As the colorful story is told in chapter 6 of the Gospel of Mark, John was arrested and held by Herod (aka Antipas), the son of King Herod. (Among other offenses, John preached that Herod Antipas had sinned by stealing his brother’s wife, Herodias.) One night after a lavish birthday banquet, Herod was entertained by the sensual dances of Herodias’s daughter Salome. Herod found Salome so thrilling that he promised the girl anything she wanted. After a few whispered words from Herodias, a champion grudge-holder, Salome piped up: “Bring me the head of John the Baptist on a platter!” Herod blanched, but having given his word he sent soldiers to do as she asked. The resulting tableau, with John’s head presented to Salome amidst a creeped-out banquet crowd, later became a favorite subject of artists from Caravaggio to Titian.

Oliver Cromwell

The head of OLIVER CROMWELL — what a tale. Cromwell helped get King Charles I imprisoned, tried and finally beheaded in 1649, then ran Britain as Lord Protector until his own death in 1658. When Charles II reclaimed the monarchy a few years later, it was payback time. The new king had Cromwell’s body exhumed from Westminster Abbey, hung from a gallows, and then publicly beheaded. The head was then stuck atop a tall pole at Westminster Hall, where it remained for over 20 years. Eventually the head disappeared (some say it blew off during a storm), only to reappear in the 1770s in the possession of a thespian named Samuel Russell. The gruesome artifact passed from owner to owner to until the 1930s, when scientific analysis determined that the head really was that of Cromwell. (X-rays showed the stake still embedded in his skull.) In 1960 the head was given to Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge, where it was finally laid to rest in an unmarked spot near the college chapel.

More Than Bed Head

And now for a touch of mythology. According to ancient lore, the head of the Gorgon MEDUSA was so horrifying that anyone who gazed on her would be turned to stone. Medusa was slain by the hero Perseus, who lopped off her head while looking at her reflection in his shield. Afterwards he kept the head in a pouch and (shades of Walter Raleigh) carried it with him. Unlike Mr. Raleigh, Perseus used his souvenier as a weapon: when facing a particularly daunting foe, he would pull out Medusa’s head and turn the enemy to stone.


Philosophers and historians love to joke about the head of RENÉ DESCARTES, which went missing sometime in 1666 or so. Descartes is known for exploring mind-body dualism, philosophically certain only that his mind existed and wary of trusting the physical senses that told him his body existed. For three and a half centuries Descartes has been an example of how the mind is separate from the body — with his skull in one place and his body in another. Descartes died while he was in Stockholm in 1650. Sixteen years later a group of loyal chevaliers dug him up and returned his body to his native France. Along the way someone took a finger as a souvenir, and another bone was removed and made into jewelry. And his head disappeared. It resurfaced many, many years later and since the first part of the 20th century has been at the Muse´e l’Homme in Paris. The rest of his body — mostly — is in a church in Paris.

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