Press & Communications

04 Aug 2009

Visitors to Westminster Abbey until the end of August will be able to see the original grave of English Civil War revolutionary Oliver Cromwell for the first time in over 60 years.

The site of Cromwell’s grave is marked by a large 19th century stone tablet, which is usually covered by a carpet in the Abbey’s RAF Chapel. However, it will be on show to the public for a limited time while the carpet is frozen for a few days to eliminate an outbreak of moth.

Cromwell was buried in a vault beneath the east end of the Abbey’s Henry VII chapel, along with members of his family - including his mother and sister. Fellow-republicans Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw who had signed Charles I’s death warrant with Cromwell in 1649 were also buried there.

Though they were all buried in the coronation church between from 1658 and 1661 they were not destined to lie there for long. When Charles II was restored to the throne, the King ordered the Abbey authorities to dig up the corpse of the man who signed his father’s death warrant. Cromwell’s body was hanged, decapitated and the head displayed on a spike.. The remains of his family and supporters were removed at the same time.

In a final stroke of irony, the Cromwell vault was then used as a burial place for Charles II’s illegitimate descendants: including Charles, Earl of Doncaster, Charles, Duke of Cleveland and Southampton and Charles (Fitz-Charles), Earl of Plymouth. It was also a temporary final resting place for the John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough in 1722 before he was moved to Blenheim twenty-four years later.

The chapel which houses the vault later became the RAF Chapel in 1947. It honours the Allied fighter pilots who died in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The chapel’s floor will be uncovered whilst its carpet, which is air-force blue and bears the RAF crest, is sent to the Horniman Museum, Dulwich, to be put in a giant freezer at -30°  Centigrade to kill off moth larvae, which are eating their way through the carpet. This is standard conservation practice and part of the Abbey’s regular programme of upkeep.

The principal feature of the RAF Chapel is a beautiful stained and painted glass window featuring the badges of the fighter squadrons which took part in the battle. It was unveiled by King George VI on 10 July 1947.

Pictures courtesy of Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

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