Tuesday 12 March 2013

“Obscure the place, and uninscrib'd the stone,” by H.M. Castor

Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

First, a confession: I owe the idea for today's post entirely to my aunt Ruth Hayward, who is currently involved in some fascinating historical research and writing of her own. Thank you, Ruth!

Last month I wrote here about the recent archaeological dig which uncovered the skeleton of Richard III, and a few days later A.L. Berridge posted a fantastic piece about a number of other finds that hold (for me) a grisly yet compelling fascination, including the head of Henri IV, the blood of Louis XVI, and the heart of Louis XVII (you can read it here).

In response, Ruth very kindly emailed me about another significant royal disinterring that occurred in 1813, and I thought it might interest readers of this blog too.

On 23rd March 1813, the Duchess of Brunswick died. She was Princess Augusta, elder sister of King George III, and not only aunt to his son the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) but also the Prince’s mother-in-law.

Princess Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick, by George Knapton 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The decision was taken to bury the Duchess beneath the ‘Quire’ in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (the Quire is the place at the chapel’s east end where the Garter and choir stalls stand). It was while the necessary excavations were being undertaken to make a place for the Duchess that another vault, containing the coffin of Henry VIII, was accidentally disturbed.

It’s unlikely, you might think, that anyone could bump by mistake into Henry VIII, living or dead, but Henry’s tomb didn’t at this point have a permanent marker. As the St George’s Chapel website explains,

On Queen Jane Seymour’s death in 1537 shortly after the birth of their son, Edward, Henry VIII ordered her burial in a vault under the Quire of St George’s Chapel... In his own will of 1546, he requested to be buried with Queen Jane in the Quire, half way between the high altar and Sovereign’s Garter stall… The resting place of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour… was intended to be temporary while a grand monument was completed. However, the tomb was never finished and the location of the vault which Henry had intended to be temporary was not permanently marked.”
…hence the accidental disturbing of Henry’s vault – which took the form of a hole in one of the vault’s walls. Through that hole, it was noticed that Henry and Jane’s coffins did not lie there alone: someone else was with them.

Here, we can turn to an account of what ensued that was written in 1813 by the royal physician of the time, Henry Halford. It is available to read for free on Google Books here, and I would recommend it highly to anyone who has the stomach for a few grisly details.

Halford tells us there was reason to believe that this extra occupant of Henry VIII’s vault might be the executed Charles I – whose coffin had commonly been thought to be lost. Exactly 100 years previously, indeed, in 1713, the poem ‘Windsor Forest’ by Alexander Pope had been published, in which Pope complained about Charles's burial place being unmarked:

Make sacred Charles's tomb forever known,
(Obscure the place & uninscrib’d the stone)
Oh Fact accurst! what tears has Albion shed,
Heav'ns, what new wounds! and how her old have bled!

Although it seems it had been recorded at some point that Charles lay in Henry's vault, few people were aware of this and there was in any case uncertainty as to whether it was true. Halford tells us that the Prince Regent, therefore, upon being told of the extra coffin, saw “that a doubtful point in History might be cleared up by opening this vault,” and gave the order that after the Duchess of Brunswick’s funeral, investigations should be made.

So, on April 1st, the day after the Duchess’s funeral, a small party of men (which included the Prince Regent, his brother the Duke of Cumberland and Halford himself) gathered to witness the opening of Henry VIII’s vault.

The extra coffin was examined and opened and did turn out to contain the body of Charles I. Halford’s description of Charles’s face, in particular, is very vivid and well worth reading, but I will not repeat it here to save anyone of delicate sensibilities. I think I can say, though, that a similarity to Van Dyck’s portraits (see the top of this blog) is mentioned. It was also found that Henry VIII’s coffin “appeared to have been beaten in by violence about the middle” and, moreover, had a great big hole in it – probably made by the hurried addition of Charles’s coffin to the vault – but all that was visible through the hole was part of Henry’s skeleton and a little bit of beard. There was another, younger, occupant of the same vault, too – a coffin containing a stillborn child of Queen Anne’s.

A lock of hair was taken from Charles I’s head; the Prince Regent gave it to the Duke of Cumberland, who had a locket made to house it. The locket, complete with its contents, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and can be seen here

Charles I was then re-interred with Henry VIII, and the Prince Regent requested that a slab should be laid in the floor of the Quire to mark the place. This wasn’t in fact done until the reign of King William IV, and according to the St George’s Chapel website, modern research suggests it’s not even in exactly the right spot.

So, do you think our present Queen would mind if I fetch my spade…?

H.M. Castor's novel about Henry VIII - VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US later this year.


Marie-Louise said...

Astonishing stuff!

Penny Dolan said...

So interesting to hear of these people who were often surrounded by such pomp and grandeur facing the untidiness and disorder of the real world. Carefully laid plans and plots gone astray.

I do like the Princess Augusta and her lively, amused face. Thanks.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think the Queen would mind - she won't let them examine the skeletons of the two little princes, will she? I liked the portrait of Pricess Augusta, too. Very elegant!

Leslie Wilson said...

I hope blogger will let me post this time! Fascinating and grisly. Filing errors among the dead royals...as Penny says - and perhaps a salutary reminder of the levelling nature of death.