The finding of the incorrupt body of Charles the First

Mark A. Wuonola on the anniversary of the finding of the body of King Charles I

The first of April 2013 marked the Bicentennial of the Finding of the Incorrupt Body of Saint Charles. The Prince Regent, later King George IV, had an interest in King Charles I. The reader will remember that it was he who brought to fruition the two centuries of negotiations that resulted in the return to England of the van Dyck portrait, King Charles I in Three Positions, from the sculptor Bernini’s heirs. The portrait had been painted from three angles in order to enable the famous sculptor to sculpt a marble bust of King Charles.

Hasty interment

As difficult as it may be for us to understand from our vantage point, there was uncertainty that led to King Charles I’s remains being exhumed in 1813. The interment in the vault in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on 9 February 1649 was conducted in haste and with no ceremony. This was under the Commonwealth: King Charles had been under house arrest, virtually imprisoned, for several years; Oliver Cromwell had been in control well before the trial and beheading of King Charles.

While the rebels had decided that King Charles must be beheaded, Cromwell saying hyperbolically, ‘I will have his head off, with the crown on it,’ what should happen afterwards had not been as well thought out as the death itself.

Even that was imperfect: the death warrant had been prepared in advance of the court’s verdict (guilty of treason) and sentence (beheading). In the event, its date had to be altered and several of the signatures had to be obliterated and replaced by others, since some of the signatories had left in disgust before the end of the show-trial! The original death warrant, on exhibit at the House of Lords, shows clearly the evidence of these alterations.

The rebels had not thought about where to inter the King. The first place considered was the Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey with King James I, his Queen, Anne of Denmark, and mother, Mary Queen of Scots (King Charles’s parents and grandmother).

This sensible and sensitive option was ruled out by Parliament, worried that the central location would make it a pilgrimage site for royalists. Parliament decided that St George’s Chapel, Windsor would be preferable, the castle being enclosed. Herbert and Mildmay accompanied the King’s hearse from St James’s to Windsor. They considered Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb-house, but technically it was not in the Chapel proper. (The Wolsey tombhouse was later completed and decorated by Queen Victoria as the Albert Memorial Chapel.)

Uncertainty

Excavation was then begun near the centre of the choir at the tomb of King Edward IV, but when a group of nobles loyal to the King arrived the next day a vault under the choir, which had been used for King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, was chosen because of convenient access. All readers will know that the King’s obsequies were conducted in silence because the Book of Common Prayer had been outlawed. Bishop Juxon was not willing to pray extemporaneously, as would have been permitted by the Governor of Windsor Castle. In haste, no marker was placed.

Due to the absence of a marker, and the intervention of over one and a half centuries, including the Commonwealth and Protectorate, there was uncertainty about King Charles I’s actual place of interment. Even in 1660 when those present at the interment again gathered in St George’s Chapel, they disagreed about the locus, partly because the chapel was in a disordered state because of its disuse during the interregnum. In the course of work early in 1813 to prepare a place for King George III’s eventual interment, an accidental breach of the vault of King Henry VIII occurred. Perceiving this opportunity to settle the question of King Charles’s place of interment, the Prince Regent sought to resolve the matter.

Identification

This was done on 1 April 1813, the day after the funeral of the Duchess of Brunswick. In the presence of requisite workmen and craftsmen, Sir Henry Halford (President of the Royal College of Surgeons and physician to King George III and the Prince Regent), observed by the Dean of Windsor (Dean Legge), the Duke of Cumberland, Count Munster, and Benjamin Charles Stevenson, Esq., and supervised by the Prince Regent, examined the Martyr King’s remains once the lead coffin, containing a wooden coffin, had been opened.

The wooden coffin was very much decayed, and the body was carefully wrapped up in cerecloth. ‘[T]he left eye, in the first moment of exposure, was open and full, though it vanished almost immediately.’

The head was carefully disengaged from the cerecloth (the sutures with which it had been reattached to the body when it was embalmed had disintegrated) and it was held up to view; Halford inspected and sketched it. Some of the hair from the back of the head, the beard, a tooth, and half of the severed fourth cervical vertebra were removed. The transverse surface of the severed vertebra was perfectly smooth and even, ‘an appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument.’

Thus, the circumstantial evidence, a leaden ribbon inscribed "KING CHARLES I 1648" soldered to the outside of the lead coffin, and the witnesses’ unanimous agreement that the head was of the King whose portraits by van Dyck were so familiar, all confirmed that these remains were indeed those of the Martyr King. ‘After this examination of the head which had served every purpose in view and without examining the body below the neck, it was immediately restored to its situation, the coffin was soldered up again and the vault closed.’

Memorial stone and relics

During the short reign of King James II (1685-8), the choir of the Chapel was paved with the present black and white marble squares. In 1837, King William IV added the present memorial stone:

‘In a Vault Beneath this Marble Slab Are deposited the Remains

Of Jane Seymour, Queen of King Henry VIII 1537 King Henry VIII 1547 King Charles I 1648 And An Infant Child of Queen Anne This Memorial Was Placed Here By Command of King William IV, 1837’

In 1888, the relics removed by Sir Henry Halford in 1813 and kept at Wistow Hall were presented to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, in an ebony casket. On a silver plate inside the lid was engraved: ‘En Caroli Imi REGIS Ipsissimum os cervicis Ferro eheu intercisum 1648 Et regiam insuper barbam’.

The portion of the beard and tooth were folded in a piece of notepaper addressed ‘The Hon. and Most Reverend The Dean of Windsor’, tying them back to Dean Legge, who had wrapped them in it for Halford to take away and report in 1813. Quoting Fellowes:

‘On 11th December 1888, the Prince of Wales informed Dean Davidson that he had received the relics from Sir Henry [St John] Halford [grandson of 1813’s Sir Henry Halford] and that he desired to return them to the vault in which the body of King Charles lay buried, he having obtained the consent of Queen Victoria to do so.

Two days later the Prince appeared at the Deanery and handed to Dean Davidson the ebony casket in which he had himself placed the following autograph memorandum:

‘These relics of King Charles I are deposited by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, in the vault containing the coffin of the King, on December 13, 1888.’

Relics returned

In the meantime the Dean had had a leaden casket prepared on the lid of which the following inscription was engraved: ‘The relics enclosed in this case were taken from the coffin of King Charles I on April 1st, 1813, by Sir Henry Halford, Physician to King George III. They were by his grandson, Sir Henry St. John Halford, given to H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. On December 13th, 1888, they were replaced by H.R.H. in this vault, their original resting place.’

After Evensong on 13 December, at 6 o’clock, Dean Davidson, with Canon Philip Eliot, Canon in Residence, and Canon J.N. Dalton, superintended the removal of the pavement stone above the vault and bearing the William IV inscription, and six of the black and white marble squares on the south side of the pavement stone.

About twenty bricks were then taken out, great care being shown so that no debris should fall on the coffin. This work was carried out by three workmen under the supervision of Mr. A. Y. Nutt, Surveyor to the Dean and Chapter. No one else was present in the Chapel. The Prince of Wales came alone, with no attendant, to the Chapel soon after 7 o’clock, and lowered the casket containing the relics through the aperture, placing it about the centre of the coffin of King Charles I.

The Prince then retired. The closing up of the vault was completed by about 9.30 p.m. The Dean and the two Canons and Mr. Nutt remained at the grave-side until the three workmen had finished their task, which was carried out with the utmost decorum and reverence. ND

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue