Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Execution and Burial of King Charles I (Part Two)

The funeral corge of King Charles I about to enter St. George's
Chapel at Windsor Castle. From a painting by Ernest Crofts, R.A
Source : Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

This Blog continues the record of events that transpired after the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Click HERE to read Part One. We again refer to two narratives of events, one from 1721 and one from 1807. Both accounts detail the relative secrecy which shrouded these final days.

Arriving at Windsor Castle on the 7th February 1649, the 1721 narrative informs us that the King's body was at first carried into the Dean's House, being hung with black, and afterwards to his usual bedchamber within the Castle.

The 1807 gives a converse account of events, that upon arrival at the Castle the King's body "was, that night, placed in that chamber which had usually been his bedchamber; the next morning, it was carried into the great [Dean's] hall; where it [lay in state and] remained till the Lords came; who arrived in the afternoon...".

The exact location of the "Dean's Hall" is a mystery but appears not to be St. George's Hall. The hall "was hung with black, and made dark, and lights were set burning round the hearse."

A banquet in St George's Hall at Windsor Castle c.1663-72,
as drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar.
[Source : The British Museum, London] 

The said Lords, being the afore-mentioned [refer Part One of this Blog] Duke of Richmond, the Marquis of Hertford, and the Earls of Southampton and Lindsey, immediately went to the Governor of the Castle, Colonel Whitchcott and showed him the Parliamentary Order giving them authority to be present at the burial. But a final indignity ensued when the latter refused permission for His Majesty to be buried according to the form of Burial of the Dead set forth in the Book of Common Prayer "nor could all the reasons, persuasions, and entreaties, prevail with him to suffer it." The Bishop of London, Dean Juxon, had in fact especially accompanied the Lords to Windsor in order to officiate at the burial.

A bird's-eye view of Windsor Castle engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar
in 1658. St George's Chapel is at upper left.
[Source : Wikipedia]

Again, according to Clarendon's 1807 account, and with their protestations to no avail, the group then entered St George's Chapel in search of a suitable place for the King's burial but;

"...they found it so altered and transformed, all inscriptions, and those land-marks pulled down, by which all men knew [a] particular place in that church, and such a dismal mutation over the whole, that they knew not where they were : not was there one old officer that had belonged to it, or knew where our princes had used to be interred...".

Clarendon claims that at last an old resident of Windsor "undertook to tell them the place, where, he said, 'there was a vault, in which King Harry the Eighth [Henry VIII] and Queen Jane Seymour were interred.'"

"Cardinal Wolsey's Tomb-house", transformed by
Queen Victoria into the Albert Memorial Chapel.
[Source : Wikipedia]

The fuller and perhaps more accurate 1721 narrative, primarily based on Sir Thomas Herbert's eye witness account, tells us that "Cardinal Wolsey's Tomb-house" was at first considered then discounted, mainly because King Henry VIII, whose policies Charles had often expressed some dislike of, might have been interred in it! Therefore the vault of King Edward IV was chosen, the late King having often made honourable mention of Edward. Mr Herbert duly gave the order to have the vault, being covered with a large stone, opened. But as they were about this work, and at about 3pm in the afternoon, the four afore-mentioned Noble Lords unexpectedly appeared, having of course authority to attend the King to his grave.

King Edward IV (died 1483) and his Queen, Elizabeth
Woodville, are interred in St. George's Chapel in the
north east corner of the Chapel below his chantry
chapel. A restoration took place c.1789. 
[Source : St. George's Windsor]

Acquiescing to the wishes of the Lords, the decision on the place of interment was left in their hands. One of the Lords, while beating gently upon the stone floor with his staff, perceived a hollow sound and thereupon ordered the stones and earth to be removed. A vault was discovered which held two coffins. These they supposed to be King Henry VIII and his Queen, Jane Seymour, as indeed they were. That this assumption was readily made perhaps lends some weight to Clarendon's 1807 account. The velvet palls that draped the two coffins appeared fresh despite being over 100 years old.

The Lords now agreed that Charles should also reside in this same vault, being about the middle of the choir, over against the eleventh stall upon the Sovereign's side. But first, an order was given to cut the Kings name and year of death in "a scroll of lead" (the 1807 narrative incorrectly claims it to be silver).

The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle,
as engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1663.
[Source : The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The Lords, according to the 1721 narrative, then gave orders to "Puddifant the Sexton" to lock the chapel door "and not suffer any to stay therein until further notice." But a foot-soldier managed to hide in the Chapel and when no one was around crept into the now open vault in search of anything of value. Upon the door being unexpectedly opened by the Sexton, the said soldier was found to have cut a piece of the 100 year old velvet pall "as he judged would hardly be missed" and to be carrying a bone which was believed to have been taken from an opening in King Henry VIII's damaged lead coffin. The Governor being informed, the "sacrilegious person" received his "reward". I am not assuming that "reward' is inferred in a positive way. The actions of the soldier did however confirm that "a real body was in the said great coffin, which some before had scrupled [doubted]." There was an enduring myth that King Henry VIII's body had been willfully burnt as a 'heretic' by his spiteful Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I ["Bloody Mary"].

The funeral cortège of King Charles I arriving at
the doorway to St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
From a painting by Ernest Crofts, R.A
Source : Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

The body of King Charles I, his coffin being covered with the pall, was then brought from his bedchamber down into the Dean's Hall, where after "a little stay", and on the evening of the 9th February 1649, it was then slowly and solemnly carried through the Middle and Lower Wards to St. George's Chapel "by gentlemen of quality [who were] in mourning". The Noblemen, the Castle Governor, several gentlemen, officers and attendants formed the cortège. The sky was serene and clear when exiting St George's Hall, "...but presently it began to snow, and the snow fell so fast that by the time the corpse came to the West end of the Royal chapel, the black velvet pall was all white (the colour of innocence), being thick covered with snow."

As to the actual interment, the 1807 account would appear to fairly accurately reflect what then took place; "There [in the vault] the King's body was laid, without any words, or other ceremonies than the tears and sighs of the few beholders. Upon the coffin was a plate of silver [the 1721 account correctly states lead] fixed, with these words only, 'King Charles, 1648'. When the coffin was put in, the black velvet pall that had covered it was thrown over it [confirmed by the 1813 exhumation], and [the vault roughly bricked up again] then the earth thrown in; which the Governor stayed to see perfectly done, and then took the keys of the church."

A sketch drawn in 1888 by Alfred Young Nutt, Surveyor to the
Dean and Canons, of the vault containing the coffins of
King Charles I (left), King Henry VIII (centre)
and his Queen, Jane Seymour (at right).
Upon Charles' coffin is the small coffin of a still-born child
of the Princess George of Denmark, later Queen Anne.
[Source : Wikipedia]

Thus here became the unlikely resting place of King Charles I (died 1649) alongside King Henry VIII (died 1547) and his wife Jane Seymour (died 1537). A later 17th century burial of a still-born child of the Princess George of Denmark (later Queen Anne) also took place in this vault. The arched vault itself lies under the flagstones of the choir floor, being half a brick in thickness and measuring seven feet in width, nine feet six inches in length, and four feet ten inches at its maximum height.

King Henry VIII
by Holbein, 1542
Jane Seymour
by Holbein, 1536

It would appear that Parliament approved Windsor as the place of interment because it was then being used by Cromwell as a prison for captured Royalists. Charles had himself been held prisoner here at one point prior to his trial in London. The large Parliamentarian garrison at Windsor would ensure the grave was secured from those who might wish to steal the King's remains. In addition, Charles was able to be buried in relative secrecy so few knew the exact location of his interment. This veil of secrecy would precipitate the 1813 'investigation' to confirm that this vault did indeed contain the body of King Charles I.

By the account of Sir Henry Halford, who viewed the vault in 1813, it was noted that the west wall had at some time been "pulled down and repaired again, not with masonry, but with fragments of stones and bricks, put rudely and hastily together without cement.". Damage was noted to the adjoining coffin of King Henry VIII which "had [most likely] been injured by a precipitate introduction of the coffin of King Charles; and that the Governor was not under the influence of feelings, in those times, which gave him any concern about Royal remains, or the vault which contained them." This all pointed to, as desired by the Governor, a hasty interment.

The Choir of St George's Chapel, as
published by William Pyne in 1819.
[Source : University of Glasgow]

It should however be noted that the 1721 narrative notes existing damage to King Henry VIII's lead coffin prior to the placing of King Charles' coffin in the vault. The most obvious explanation is that 'explosive gasses' caused the top of the sealed lead coffin to burst open as we already know that Henry's coffin had to be re-soldered once before burial. I shall spare you the macabre details but these are well recorded. The Chapel Surveyor, Mr A.Y. Nutt, who observed the damage in 1888, believed it to have been caused by “the action of internal forces outward”.

After the Restoration in 1660 it was the intention of his son, King Charles II, who often spoke of it, to remove "from that obscure burial [place and have his Father] solemly deposited with his Royal Ancestors in King Harry [Henry] the sevenths chapel, in the collegiate church of Westminster".

The memorial stone set into the floor of the
Choir of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.
This stone was only laid by order of
King William IV in 1837.
[Source : Wikipedia]

With there being no visible inscription, the actual burial place of King Charles I within St George's Chapel quickly slipped from memory. That so few had attended the burial or were by now deceased only added to the mystery, it being further noted that of those who had some memory of it, "the small alterations which were begun to be made towards decency[after the Restoration in 1660], so totally perplexed their memories, that they could not satisfy themselves in what place or part of the church the Royal Body was interred...". Yet, "where any concurred upon this or that place, they caused the ground to be opened at a good distance, and, upon such enquiries, found no cause to believe that they were near the place....".

"Upon their giving this account to the King, the thought of that remove [removal] was laid aside; and the reason communicated to very few, for the better discountenancing [refusing to approve of] further enquiry."

Another account merely states, "But, by degrees, the discourse of it was diminished as if it were totally laid aside upon some reasons of state...."

The Death Warrant of King Charles I. Those who signed
this document ["The Regicides"] who were still alive at
the restoration in 1660 would face a terrible retribution.
[Source : Wikipedia]

Thus for the ensuing 164 years the resting place of King Charles I lay unmarked and undisturbed within the hallowed confines of the subsequently restored Royal Chapel of St George at Windsor Castle. The present black and white marble floor tiles in the Choir were laid during the short reign of King James II (1685-1688) with King William IV adding the memorial inscription in 1837.

The dates of death of King Charles are variously quoted as 1648 and 1649. Although the execution took place in 1649 by our present calendar, a contemporary calendar system was then in use whereby the year changed numerically on the 25th March rather than on the 1st January each year.

A further Blog in this series records the discovery and opening of the coffin of King Charles I in 1813.

Bibliography :

- "Athenae Oxonienses", Vol II, Woods, 1721
- "History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England", Vol III, Clarendon, 1807
- "Memoirs of the Last Two Years of then Reign of King Charles I", Sir Thomas Herbert, 1813
- "An Account of what Appeared on Opening the Coffin of King Charles The First", Sir Henry Halford, 1813


  1. My father told me in all seriousness that he took part in a secret burial service for Charles 1 around the 1940s when he was a Scots Guard. Are there others who have heard this story?

    1. Truth can certainly be stranger than fiction so I am intrigued as to whether there is a back story here. A shame you don't have more specific information or a date.

  2. I understood it was before 1945. I checked with my sister and she confirmed. He was exhumed and reburied in St George's chapel

  3. Curiouser and curiouser... Only the 'Dean of Windsor' could confirm this story

  4. Possibly. Although since they all had to sign the official secrets act even the current incumbent may not know

    1. I perceive that it may take the skills of an investigative journalist to get to the bottom of this one now. But I do thank you for sharing such a tantalizing piece of information which leads onto so many questions, when, what, and more importantly why????


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