Off With Their Heads

NPG D1306,The execution of  King Charles I,after Unknown artistToday is the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, following his overthrow by Oliver Cromwell. No one knows who wielded the axe because the executioner wore a mask to hide his identity. It is also the anniversary of the time, in 1661, we ritually executed Oliver Cromwell by hanging and beheading his body over two years after he died. We put his head on a pole and left it outside Westminster Hall for fourteen years. His empty tomb was used to bury the remains of King Charles II’s illegitimate 01 30 execution of cromwellchildren. After that Cromwell’s head passed through the hands of several private collectors and was finally re-interred in 1960. No-one is now completely sure that it was even Cromwell’s body that they dug up in the first place. Neither of these events exactly represent our country’s finest hour, but it seems both factions were still commemorating the whole regrettable thing many years later. King Charles was styled as a martyr by the Church of England. The day of his death was declared a day of fasting and repentance. He was canonised in 1660 and remains the only person to be formally made a saint by the Church of England.

In contrast to this, it seems that, there were a group of people who continued to celebrate the beheading of their king as late as 1735. They called themselves ‘The Calves Head Club’. We know about them partly because of an altercation in that year between the celebrants and a mob who thought the whole thing was a disgrace. We also know about them because of a book titled ‘The Secret History of the Calves Head Club’ which was revised and reprinted several times between 1693 and 1716. They adorned their meeting place with an axe, which they hung on the wall. The evening featured a lot of drinking to specially composed toasts. There was also a meal which we are told included a dish of calves’ heads “dressed several ways” to represent the king and his friends. ‘Dressed’ probably means either the sauce or stuffing used to prepare the dish, but it is a bit fun to imagine that they might have put wigs on them or something. There was also a pike’s head, with the head of a smaller pike in its mouth, to represent tyranny. There were also a cod’s head and a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth that specifically represented the king. Basically they spent the evening drinking (sometimes out of a calf’s skull) and eating some heads. After that they took a book called ‘Eikon Basilike’ which was supposed to have been written by the king before he died, and burned it on the table.

According to ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, on January 30th 1735, several young noblemen had met for their feast at a tavern in Suffolk Street at Charing Cross. They dressed a calf’s head in a napkin and threw out of the window onto a bonfire in the street below. Passers by were pretty upset when they saw people having a massive celebration on a day when everyone was supposed to be fasting and being very sorry about what had happened to the king. But then, the club members made things a lot worse by leaning out of the tavern windows, toasting the crowd and waving handkerchiefs dipped in claret that looked a bit like blood. The people outside, who had also had a fair bit to drink (and probably on an empty stomach) grew angry and started to throw things. Another account says that they threw stones, broke all the windows and tried to set the building on fire. The celebrants were lucky to escape relatively unscathed.

01 30 calves head club

The men who attended the dinner tell a different story. According to them, they met on January 30th by accident and definitely didn’t stick a calf’s head out of the window. There is a letter from Lord Middlesex to his friend Joseph Spence which also tries to explain the event. It begins: “Dear Spanco…” He admits that everyone was very drunk and that they had looked out of the window to see: “a little nasty fire made by some boys in the street”. They had immediately wanted a fire for themselves and ordered their waiter to build them one. He then refers to the waiter as “an impudent puppy” and more or less blames him for following their orders. Then, suddenly, they realised what day it was and that people might be upset by the bonfire. They thought a good way to alleviate the situation would be to lean out of the windows and drink a toast to the passers by. The toast was definitely to the king and not to the executioners of Charles I, But people had got annoyed anyway and started throwing stuff at them.

As a person who is often in charge of small children, I have to say that this sounds like the sort of made-up-on-the-hoof, and immediately detectable lie that I’ve heard a ton of in the playground. It is akin to ‘I don’t know how it happened, I put out my fist and he must have somehow run into it.’ Quite a lot of the people at this dinner became politicians in later life.


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