Science, Whimsy

The real Oliver Cromwell – beautiful healthy skin cells and all

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the first of three that I wrote: on the story that Oliver Cromwell may have been less cavalier about his image than we may have been led to believe.


Audio file available here: 


The cosmetics industry prides itself on maintaining a scrupulously clean image. Celebrities who front international campaigns frequently have morality clauses inserted into their contracts in an attempt to ensure that their insides are as smooth, clean, radiant, perfumed and hairless as their outsides are meant to be.

So one can only imagine the outrage that would have rippled through the upper echelons of the 17th Century cosmetics industry when one of their most famous faces was found to have ordered the death of a king. Hardly the sort of publicity that sells skin cream.

This was where my thoughts ran off to this week when Scientists at the University of Exeter announced that Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England from 1653 till 1658, was quite the dandy. Chemical analyses on the contents of a number of small glass pots which belonged to Cromwell revealed that the Roundhead took great care of his Softface.

Preserved for over 300 years in a small wooden chest, some of the 55 pots were found to contain soft soap, made from the comparatively expensive olive oil as opposed to the animal fats which were more usual at the time. In the words of Sally Pointer, one of the experts involved in the analysis, “This is real top-of-the-range stuff – like going into Harrods and shopping from the most expensive make-up counter.”

Cromwell, the man who put the Model in New Model Army, is of course best known for his enormous, bright red wart, which shone on his lower lip like a beacon of puritanical righteousness.

Doubtless the extracts of “jasmine”, “orange tree flowers”, “bitter oranges” and the cinnamon-like spice “cassia” would have helped give his skin that fresh, school girlish hue that all regicidal tyrants so crave.

The chest, which has been described as “a thing of great beauty; of fine Florentine mosiac enriched with fruit and flowers in pietra dura, containing numerous vases of opal-colored Venetian glass filled with soaps, powders, and oils”, has been in the possession of the Oliver Cromwell museum in Huntingdon since 1962, though this is the first time the contents have been subjected to chemical analysis. The museum’s curator, John Goldsmith, said: “There is no evidence that the contents were medicinal, so if they are not medicinal, they can only be cosmetic.” He went on to point out that despite being associated with a rough-and-ready lifestyle, “Cromwell wasn’t necessarily walking around all the time with mud on his face”. Clearly some beauty treatments were too far fetched even for the 17th Century.


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