Review: Frances Larson’s ‘Severed’

December 26, 2014 5:17 PM

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Review: Frances Larson’s ‘Severed’

Beheading really is not at all funny, though at times it does lend itself to a certain macabre humor, as at the beginning of Severed, in which Frances Larson describes the strange travels of the head of England’s self-styled Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It was sliced off in 1661, three years after his death, “impaled on a twenty-foot pole and mounted on the roof of Westminster Hall for the whole of London to see,” found its way “into private circulation,” then was “transformed into a curiosity, a precious relic and a business opportunity.” Finally, “in 1960, during a small, private ceremony, Cromwell’s head was buried in its old oak box somewhere beneath the floor of the ante-chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.”

If that sounds a bit to you like a skit from Monty Python, you can be forgiven. Larson takes it rather more seriously: “The story of Oliver Cromwell’s head is extraordinary, not simply because it survived intact for three centuries, but because it was recast in so many different guises over the year...

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