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Posthumous Execution

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The execution of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw in 1661, from a contemporary engraving.

Oliver Cromwell, the 1st ruler of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was born in Huntington, Cambridge on April 25, 1599. He died on September 3, 1658, from sepsis following a urinary infection. And he was executed on January 30, 1661—more than two years after his natural death. This makes Oliver Cromwell one of very few people who has been executed posthumously.

Throughout history there are several cases from different parts of the world, where the dead has been ritually “killed” a second time. Discounting mob justice, like what happened to Rasputin and the Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, which were outright vandalism and disrespect for the dead, there are also examples where bodies have been exhumed, trails held and the dead executed whenever the authorities have felt that the guilty had escaped justice in their lifetime.

Let’s look at some of the most dramatic examples of posthumous executions.

Oliver Cromwell

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Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, and his head on a spike following his posthumous execution. 

When Oliver Cromwell was born at the turn of the 17th century, England was a Protestant country ruled by a King who believed in his divine rights bestowed upon by God. Cromwell, who converted to Puritan in his late twenties, found the views of King Charles I too Catholic. Many of Charles I’s policies, such as the levying of taxes without parliamentary consent, generated antipathy and mistrust among his subjects who found their King’s actions akin to those of a tyrannical absolute monarch. The stage was set for a Civil War.

A series of armed conflicts followed, and King Charles I was overthrown and executed. Oliver Cromwell, who had led the Parliamentarians as a military commander, was one of the 59 who signed the death warrant for Charles.

Following the King’s execution in 1649, the Commonwealth of England was introduced to replace the monarchy, and Cromwell became Lord Protector, a role in which he remained until his death five years later. Cromwell was succeeded by his son as Lord Protector, but he did not last long, and was overthrown by the army a year later. The monarchy was restored and Charles II became the new king.

Immediately after gaining power, King Charles II ordered the arrest and trial of all who played part in the overthrowing of the monarchy. Of the 59 who signed the death warrant, several were hanged while others were imprisoned for life. Even those who had died were not sparred. Several had their body exhumed and reburied in communal burial pits, but Oliver Cromwell and three others—John Bradshaw, the judge who was president of the court, Henry Ireton, a general in the Parliamentary army and Cromwell's son-in-law, and Robert Blake, a military commander—were awarded death sentences.

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The death warrant of King Charles I of England containing seals and signatures. Oliver Cromwell’s signature is the third down on the left.

On the 12th death anniversary of King Charles I’s death, Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and his disinterred body was hanged in chains at Tyburn. In the afternoon, the body was taken down and beheaded. Cromwell’s head was then placed on a 20-foot-tall wooden spike and raised above Westminster Hall where it remained for nearly twenty five years. For the next two centuries, the dismembered head rolled through the possession of many until it was given a dignified burial in a secret place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

Pope Formosus

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The posthumous trial of Pope Formosus

Pope Formosus was the Bishop of Rome from 891 until his death in 896. Immediately after ascending the papal throne, Formosus immersed himself in dispute with the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Emperors.

Deeply distrustful of the growing power of the Roman Emperor Guy III, Formosus persuaded Arnulf of Carinthia to invade the Italian peninsula, and liberate Italy from the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Arnulf’s campaign was a success and by a stroke of good luck, Guy suddenly died leaving Arnulf a clear route to the highest seat of the Roman Empire. Formosus was more than happy to crown Arnulf the new Emperor, while Guy’s son Lambert went into exile. Arnulf continued his campaign southward but a sudden stroke forced him to call off the campaign and he return to Bavaria. That same year, Formosus died, leaving Lambert once again in power.

Emperor Lambert decided that Formosus needed to be punished for acting against the Holy Roman Empire, ignoring the fact that he was already dead for nine months. A mock trial, which came to be known as Cadaver Synod, was organized. The new Pope Stephen VI, following instructions from Lambert, had the partially decomposed body of his predecessor dug up, clothed in papal attire and propped upon a throne. Unsurprisingly, Formosus was found guilty and had his papal vestments stripped of. Pope Stephen then ordered three fingers of his right hand to be cut off, and the body was thrown into the Tiber River.

Gilles van Ledenberg

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Posthumous hanging of Gillis van Leedenberg

Gilles van Ledenberg was the secretary of the States of Utrecht. While still in office, Ledenberg was arrested in 1618 for causing social unrest during the Twelve Years' Truce—a period of ceasefire during the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain.

Fearful of the conviction and the torture that he would be subjected to, Ledenberg committed suicide. Ledenberg hoped that with his death, the trial would end and the court would not be able to seize his property. But he was wrong. Ledenberg was still convicted and along with another conspirator, was sentenced to death. Ledenberg’s embalmed body, still in its coffin, was hanged from a gibbet.

John Wycliffe

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John Wycliffe's bones being burnt in 1428.

John Wycliffe, often called “The Morning Star of the Reformation”, was one of the most influential priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wycliffe was a staunch disbeliever of the papacy, maintaining that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He spoke out boldly against the privileged status of the clergy, the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies. He disapproved of clerical celibacy, pilgrimages, the concept of purgatory and praying to saints. He thought the monasteries were corrupt and the immorality with which many clerics often behaved invalidated the sacraments they conducted. His unorthodox views gained him as many followers as enemies.

In 1415, Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic and banned his writings. The Council also decreed that Wycliffe's body remains should be removed from consecrated ground. This act was performed in 1428, forty four years after his death. Wycliffe's corpse was exhumed and burned and the ashes cast into the river.

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