A Regency Bicentennial:   Prinny and the Head of Charles I

At about two o’clock in the afternoon, on Tuesday, 30 January 1649, King Charles I stepped through the northern-most second-storey window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, from which the window frame had been removed, onto a scaffold which had been erected just outside it. It was a cold day, and aware he would not be allowed to wear his jacket, the King wore two heavy shirts for warmth, as he did not want those watching to see him shiver and think he was afraid. After a brief speech, he said his final prayers. The King then knelt, laid his head on the block and stretched out his arms to indicate his readiness. Moments later, the executioner raised his ax, and mercifully for the King, struck his head from his body in one blow.

Charles I’s body was placed in a wooden coffin, covered in a black velvet pall, and was carried by several of his royal retainers to his apartments in St. James’s Palace. There, the head was sewn back onto the body, by permission of Oliver Cromwell, and the body was embalmed and wrapped in fine linen. Cromwell refused to allow the King to be interred in Westminster Abbey, the traditional burial place of the Kings of England. But, within a few days, a Committee of Parliament authorized the burial of the king at Windsor Castle. The wooden coffin was sealed inside one of lead which was covered by a second black velvet pall and transported by hearse to Windsor. There, since no monument was allowed, and there was no inscription on the outer coffin, a workman cut a band of sheet lead and punched out the words, "Charles Rex 1648." [Author’s Note:   At this time, the new year began on Lady Day, 25 March, so according to the English calendar in use on that day, the King’s execution occurred in 1648.] This lead band was wrapped around the outer coffin prior to the interment. On the night of Sunday, 7 February 1649, in a private ceremony attended by only a few royalists and loyal retainers, Charles I was laid to rest in St. George’s Chapel, in the vault in which lay Henry VIII and his wife, Jane Seymour. To protect the martyred king’s remains, those in attendance at his burial took the secret of his resting place to their own graves.

And so, the location of the corpse of Charles I was nearly lost to history, until the death of the Prince Regent’s aunt and mother-in-law …

Princess Augusta, George III’s eldest and favorite sister, married the Duke of Brunswick, in 1764. Her third child, a daughter, Caroline, grew up to marry her cousin, George, Prince of Wales, in 1795. In 1806, as the French army was advancing on the Duchy of Brunswick, the British ambassador advised the Duchess to flee. She escaped with a niece to Augustenborg, east of Jutland. The Duke of Brunswick died of wounds received during the Battle of Jena, in November 1806. The widowed Duchess requested that she be allowed to come to England, but King George III, already suffering bouts of mental instability, did not give his permission until July 1807.

When she arrived in England, the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick first moved in with her daughter, Princess Caroline, at the latter’s home, Montague House, in Blackheath. However, it was not long before mother and daughter fell out, and George III acquired a home for his sister in Hanover Square, which she dubbed Brunswick House. It is here that she lived out the balance of her life, with occasional visits to her brother and sister-in-law, the king and queen, at Windsor Castle. The Dowager Duchess was seventy-six when she died of a severe attack of asthma, at about nine o’clock in the evening, on Tuesday, 23 March 1813, in her home in Hanover Square. Queen Charlotte decided that if George III had been in his right mind, he would have wanted his sister buried at Windsor Castle.

Orders were given for the Royal Vault in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor to be opened in preparation for the interment of the deceased Dowager Duchess of Brunswick. But as the workers were clearing a subterranean passage into the Royal Vault, which had been constructed for the burial of the late Princess Amelia, they discovered that the vault entrance, which had been wide enough for the small coffin of the Princess could not accommodate the larger coffin of the Duchess. While the workers were widening the vault entrance, they accidentally broke though the wall of the Quire vault. This older, smaller vault had been constructed on the orders of Henry VIII upon the death of Jane Seymour, in 1537. King Henry had directed that he be laid to rest next to his favorite wife upon his own passing ten years later.

News of the break-through into the Quire vault was reported and soon reached the ears of the Prince Regent. There had been rumors for well over a century that the remains of Charles I had been interred with those of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. But not only was there no documentary evidence, no one was quite sure where that vault was located. It is believed that King Charles II was informed of the location of his father’s coffin and instituted a search for it when he regained the throne. But during the time Cromwell ruled England, St. George’s Chapel was badly defaced and there were no landmarks left to guide the search conducted by the few courtiers still alive who had been present when Charles I was laid to rest. It would have been considered nothing short of desecration to excavate the subterranean chambers of St. George’s Chapel in search of any royal remains without any details of their probable location. Thus, the final resting place of Charles I remained unknown. But with the vault now opened, the Prince Regent intended to seize the opportunity to explore the contents of the Quire in order to finally determine if it was indeed the location of Charles I’s coffin.

Despite his eagerness to investigate the open vault, the Prince Regent knew he must observe the proprieties. Nothing could be done until the Duchess of Brunswick had been laid to rest. At eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, 31 March 1813, a hearse drawn by six black horses came to a stop in front of Brunswick House in Hanover Square. Surrounded by several troops of Hussars to keep the crowds at bay, the coffin of the Duchess was placed into the hearse. It began its slow and solemn journey to Windsor Castle with the Hussar troops serving as a guard of honor. Several coaches of mourners joined the funeral procession, including that of the Dowager Duchess’s son, the Duke of Brunswick, her daughter, Princess Caroline, her grand-daughter, Princess Charlotte and her nephew and son-in-law, the Prince Regent, followed by all of the Royal Dukes. The funeral procession reached Windsor at eight o’clock that night. After a service in St. George’s Chapel, the coffin was carried down to the Royal Vault, but the vault was not sealed that night.

On the following morning, Thursday, 1 April 1813, the Prince Regent descended into the vaults of St. George’s Chapel. He was accompanied by his brother, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, the Hanoverian envoy to London, Count Münster, Benjamin Charles Stevenson, Esq., the Dean of Windsor, and Sir Henry Halford, the royal physician. Inside the Quire vault they found four coffins, a very large lead coffin which had been damaged, next to an intact smaller lead coffin, and some distance away, another coffin draped in black velvet, on top of which was the mahogany coffin of an infant, covered in red velvet. The first two coffins were clearly those of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. When the small coffin was set aside, and the black velvet pall was removed from the coffin beneath, a lead band around the coffin was revealed, into which had been punched the words:   "Charles Rex 1648." After more than a century and a half, the mortal remains of Charles I, the martyr king, had been found.

The Prince Regent ordered a plumber to make a square opening in the upper half of the lead coffin. Inside was found a very badly decayed wooden coffin through which could be seen a corpse carefully wrapped in cerecloth. Cerecloth was a length of cloth, usually linen, impregnated with some waxy or glutinous substance to exclude air when wrapped around a corpse. Cerecloth had been used as winding sheets for the bodies of the wealthy since at least the thirteenth century. The cerecloth was carefully lifted away, and in it could be seen the features of the head which it had covered. Dr. Halford later said that if plaster-of-paris had been poured into the stiff cerecloth, a death mask of the face could have been made. The long oval face was instantly recognizable as Charles I, based on the many portraits of the King which were known. When in was first exposed, the left eye was open and full, but it disintegrated within a few minutes. The complexion was dark and discolored, but the musculature of the upper face was still full and firm. The cartilage of the nose was gone, but most of the teeth were still in place. In addition, the hair on the head and the beard were intact and perfect. The beard was a reddish brown, while the hair on the head was still quite thick and was a very dark brown. Though Charles had worn his hair fairly long, the hair on the back part of the head was barely an inch in length. It may have been cut prior to the execution to ensure a clean ax stroke, but the records of the execution clearly state that Charles had actually tucked his hair under a close cap before placing his head on the block. It is more likely that locks were cut after the execution for mementos for family and friends.

The fibers which had been used to stitch the head back onto the body after the execution had rotted away and the head was found to be loose. It was lifted up for closer inspection and the hair at the back of the head was still moist, with what all agreed to be blood. Though the body had been embalmed, there had not been enough time to fully drain it, or the head, of blood first. The doctor, Sir Henry Halford, speculated that the blood had slowly seeped out of the head after the body had been placed in the coffin, and the combination of the cerecloth and the lead coffin had excluded enough air to prevent it from drying out. When the head was held up, it was also seen that the muscles of the neck had significantly retracted. The fourth cervical vertebra had a transverse cut completely through it, and the cut sides of the two halves had very smooth, even surfaces which was most probably made by a single heavy blow with a very sharp instrument. Based on all of the combined evidence, there was no further doubt that this was indeed the mortal remains of King Charles I.

Sir Henry made a sketch of the head, then the Regent, wishing to observe some respect for the Stuart King he most admired, ordered that the head be replaced in the coffin as it had been found. All the wrappings were replaced and the opening in the lead coffin was replaced and sealed. It was only then that it was discovered that half of the fourth cervical vertebra, a loose tooth and a small portion of the beard had not been placed back in the coffin before it was sealed. They were given to the Regent, who decided that it was not worth re-opening the coffin. He handed them to Sir Henry Halford, saying " … these are more in your line than mine, you had better keep them." Halford wrapped them in a sheet of paper given him by the Dean of Windsor and put them in his pocket.

Once Charles I’s coffin had been re-sealed and was again covered with the black velvet pall, the group in the vault examined the other coffins there. The very large lead coffin, which measured six feet, ten inches in length, had been damaged in the center, apparently by violent force. Part of a skeleton and the skull were visible, including part of a beard, but the facial features were mostly gone. However, it was assumed that this was the coffin of Henry VIII, as it was known the heavy coffin of the grossly overweight king had been dropped during the funeral procession. The smaller coffin nearby was completely intact and was believed to be that of Jane Seymour. The tiny infant’s coffin was determined to be that of one of the stillborn sons of Queen Anne, thus the baby was a great-grandson of King Charles I. The Regent ordered that all of the coffins be placed in the same positions in which they had been found. He and his party left the Quire vault and the Regent ordered the workmen to seal both that vault and the Royal Vault in which the coffin of the Duchess of Brunswick had been placed the night before.

That same evening, the Prince Regent and Sir Henry Halford dined with Queen Charlotte and the Royal Princesses. The gentlemen regaled the ladies with a somewhat sanitized version of what they had found that afternoon in the Quire vault. After dinner, Sir Henry showed the ladies the relics of Charles I which Prinny had given him. The Queen and the Princesses were so taken with the tragic story of the martyred King Charles that for the next few months they avidly read every book on Charles I and his times that they could find.

Halford had a special box made of lignum vitae in which to keep the relics which the Regent had given him. For the rest of his life, he often showed them to guests at his home, telling them how he came by them. When Sir Henry died, he left everything to his eldest grandson, who had become the third baronet. Sir Henry St. John, the third baronet, and his younger brother, had no heirs, and they were concerned about what would happen to the relics of Charles I which had belonged to their grandfather. They decided that they must go back to the Royal Family, so they approached Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1888. Though initially somewhat reluctant, Prince Edward accepted them, and had them sealed inside a small lead casket. With the permission of his mother, Queen Victoria, on 13 December 1888, the Prince of Wales himself placed that small leaden box on top of the coffin of Charles I. After seventy-five years, all of the parts of martyred king were once again together in the same vault, if not in the same coffin.

In April 1813, Sir Henry Halford published an account of the visit of the Regent and his party to the Quire vault of St. George’s Chapel. Within a few days, the caricaturist, George Cruickshank, published a print entitled Meditations Among the Tombs. In the print, Sir Henry is about to cut some of the beard of Henry VIII, as Prinny says "Aye! There’s great Harry! great indeed!!!!! for he got rid of many wives, whilst I, poor soul, can’t get rid of one. Cut off his beard, Doctor, ’twill make me a prime pair of Royal Whiskers."

Lord Byron also turned his pen to the events in the vault in a brief poem:

Lines Composed on the Occasion of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent
Being seen Standing Between the Coffins of Henry VIII. and Charles I.,
in the Royal Vault at Windsor.

Famed for contemptuous breach of sacred ties,
By headless Charles see heartless Henry lies:
Between them stands another sceptred thing —
It moves, it reigns — in all but name, a king:

Charles to his people, Henry to his wife,
— In him the double tyrant starts to life:
Justice and Death have mixed their dust in vain,
Each royal Vampire wakes to life again.
Ah, what can tombs avail! — since these disgorge
The blood and dust of both — to mould a George.

This satirical poem was not published until 1819, but it was circulated privately within a few weeks of the report of the opening of the vault under St. George’s Chapel. In a letter to his friend, Thomas Moore, Byron wrote, "… I cannot conceive how the Vault has got about; but so it is. It is too farouche; but truth to say, my satires are not very playful." In reply, Moore wrote, "Your lines about the bodies of Charles and Henry are, I find, circulated with wonderful avidity; even some clods in this neighbourhood have had a copy sent to them by some ‘young ladies in the town.’"

This coming Monday, 1 April 2013, marks the bicentennial of the discovery and opening of the coffin of Charles I, under the direction of the Prince Regent, in the Quire vault of St. George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle. The Prince himself was pleased to have been the one who finally resolved the mystery of the location of the final resting place of Charles I, his personal favorite among the Stuart kings. Sir Henry Halford was most gratified to have received the precious relics of Charles I from the hand of the Prince Regent himself and exhibited those relics to many guests at his home over the years that he held them. The Prince’s mother and sisters became so fascinated with Charles I that they spent many months searching out and reading every book they could find which had been written about the object of their somewhat morbid interest. And George Cruickshank and Lord Byron had a field day lampooning the Prince Regent with their pictorial and poetic versions of the events in the vault of St. George’s Chapel.

Though the events in the Quire vault at Windsor Castle are somewhat macabre, and might not be suitable for a scene in a Regency romance novel, some of the events of the aftermath just might. Perhaps a villain has stolen the relics given to Sir Henry Halford, and the hero has to recover them, with the assistance of the heroine, of course. Or might a young lady be caught circulating Lord Byron’s satirical poem about the events in the Quire vault or Cruickshank’s print, mayhap by someone from whom they are hoping to receive a generous bequest, but who is a staunch supporter of the Prince Regent. Is it the heroine the who is caught, or is it her friend, but the heroine takes the blame in order to help her friend, only to find she is blamed and in turn ends up in trouble with her own relations. Then again, mayhap a young lady doing research on the life of Charles I comes to the attention of the Queen and/or one of the Royal Princesses. She is invited down to Windsor Castle to share her work with them, or perhaps to authenticate some artifacts which they think might have belonged to the martyr king. How might the villain take advantage this young lady’s visit to Windsor for his own nefarious purposes, and how might the hero save the day?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   Prinny and the Head of Charles I

  1. Kathryn Kane says:

    The observation of the anniversary of the execution of Charles I had pretty much fallen out of practice by the Regency. Apparently there were a few folks in rural areas who did observe the date, but they were in an extreme minority.

    Regards,

    Kat

  2. Great post. Thanks for such an interesting (and, okay, a little macabre) read!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are welcome! I am glad you liked it.

      I have to admit, the first time I came upon a reference to it, I thought it might have been a rather bizarre April Fool’s Day hoax. It was not until I located Sir Henry Halford’s account of the opening of the tomb that I realized it was just coincidence that the Quire vault was opened on that day.

      BTW – If you are a fan of Georgette Heyer, you might recall that Sir Henry Halford is mentioned several times in her novel, Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. He is Lady Ingham’s doctor, the one who always provides whatever excuse she needs to avoid doing anything she does not want to.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Very interesting! I have to say, I’ve never quite understood the fascination a lot of people find in the Stuarts, who seem to me to have strained to aspire to mediocrity as both people and rulers; but the fact that they DO exert this fascination on so many is quite as interesting in its own right. It also intrigues me that for all their mediocrity the Stuarts and their ancestors have been troubling the peace of the realm right back to the time of the first Civil War between Maud and Stephen, since the Stuart line has lineage of the notorious Bigods within it…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Perhaps you have hit on the root cause of the whole problem, the Bigod blood! 😉

      Several of the historians I read for this, and last week’s article, also mused on the enduring popularity of the Stuarts, who really were a pack mediocre, oblivious and arrogant egomaniacs. The general consensus was that the distance of time had masked their personal idiosyncrasies and that many people find lost causes romantic, especially those which involve kingship denied. But from what I know of them, it is just as well they lost the throne of England.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • haha, I’ll drink to that!

      • Susan Page Davis says:

        Me too! How deliciously gruesome! Perhaps the Regent was not so squeamish about duelling and suchlike as he made out in public, either! And to think that Byron was already talking about “Vampires” years before they supposedly came into fashion! I’m not a bit surprised by that part of the story. All the same, I do confess to a weakness for Charles II. Sometimes I think there was one brilliant Stuart, with nothing left over for any of the others before or after – and one idiot Tudor, Bloody Mary, who got all the bad and none of the good in that branch of the family. Scary as he must have been as a husband, Henry VIII was still a great king. (And it’s not like Byron was a Prince of a husband, either!)

        Happy April Fool!

        Page Davis

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          From what I understand, Prinny was more squeamish about violence and fresh blood. I suspect he did not find an already severed head quite so daunting. 😉

          I agree with you about Charles II. I think he is probably my favorite of the Stuart kings. He was practical as a monarch and he certainly knew how to have a good time! Though when it comes to the Tudors, I think Queen Elizabeth was a much better “king” than her father ever was.

          Based on what I have read, I think you are quite right, Byron was a perfectly dreadful husband. He does not appear to have been a particularly kind or thoughtful lover, either.

          Regards,

          Kat

  4. I’d never seen the Byron poem before! I may have use for that in my novel’s sequel, or one of the companion short stories — my viscount’s sympathies seem decidedly Whiggish, and he’s a member of Brooks’s, but the real house I borrowed for him (Ham House, I just re-named it) has strong associations with the Sealed Knot, so… anyway, the characters may have Opinions on it. And “Where did you get THAT?” is always amusing, irrespective of the politics.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Perhaps you might have one of the descendants of one of the original Sealed Knot members join the group who accompanied Prinny into the vault. Or maybe steal in the night before, while the vault was still open, to have a look round in private.

      From what I can tell, the Byron poem about the events in the Quire vault was most widely circulated for the balance of 1813, though there were still some, mostly in the country, who did not get a copy from town friends until the first few months of 1814.

      Good luck with your story! You are more than welcome to post the details of it here, once it has been published.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. Pingback: Was the Prince Regent a Jacobite? | The Regency Redingote

  6. Susan Page Davis says:

    Dear Kat,

    With regards to Elizabeth Tudor, as far as I’m concerned, she was the greatest ruler England ever had, male or female; and I would rank both Elizabeths in the top ten. They beat most male rulers of other countries, as well, in my opinion. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to realize the British Royal Family more than earns its keep: Throughout the last three centuries, they have focused the attention of the British people so firmly upon their personal behavior, or misbehavior, that no wannabe demagogue can distract them through some cult of personality. The last dictator who ruled in England was Oliver Cromwell. If the Tudor-Stuart-Windsor mystique has done anything positive, it has kept his ilk from ever getting hold of that much power again. This is the proper function of a Royal Family in a Constitutuional Monarchy.

    I believe that, unlike his father (a sore subject in America), George IV grew to appreciate this function. It suited his taste and his character perfectly. Most of the Regent’s unpopularity was a result of the mess George III and his ministers had left for him to clean up, after far too many years in power. The country was going broke from fighting multiple wars on land and at sea; peace merely brought massive unemployment, because of unchecked industrialization. (On the bright side, I can remember reading somewhere that since the reign of George IV, the Royal Family has not needed to make any major silverware purchases, as he had bought so wisely and left such a whopping collection. And I also believe he is responsible for the remodelling of Buckingham House into the Palace it is today, as well as a major overhaul of Windsor Castle; then there’s always Brighton. If he had been a tightwad like his father, tacky taste might have spoiled the whole image – perhaps the whole course – of the Empire!)

    One fair assessment of George IV, which includes the curious case of his infatuation with the Stuarts and his Jacobite sympathies, is a book called “The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency”, by J.B. Priestley. It’s a coffee-table volume, lavishly illustrated, and published back in 1969; the author’s viewpoint paraphrased is: Imagine George IV on the throne of Swinging London; history would have been far kinder, as it has been to the current batch of Windsors.

    Rule Cool Britannia!

    Page Davis

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think it is certainly true that England would look very different today, had not George IV gone to such lengths to support the arts. He did make Buckingham House into a true palace, and his renovations of Windsor Castle have definitely made it much more “castle-like” in appearance than it was before he set his architects to work on it.

      However, as king, he does not seem to have been particularly concerned with the welfare of his subjects as his spending on his art collections and architectural improvements spiraled out of control.

      Regards,

      Kat

  7. Pingback: 1813:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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