Wednesday 4 November 2015

The Discovery and Opening of the Coffin of King Charles I, 1813

"Meditations Amongst the Tombs" 1813 - A satirical cartoon by
Cruickshank showing George, the Prince Regent, examining the
body of Henry VIII, while the Physician Henry Halford cuts off his
beard. At rear the body of Charles I raises up his decapitated head
as a warning to George. A sinister figure, accompanied by the devil,
whispers in George's ear about the prospect of losing his own head.
[Source : Pinterest]

At St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle on the 1st April 1813, there occurred the opening of the coffin of King Charles I who had met his fate by execution in 1649. But why was this deemed necessary and what took place at the opening? And why was the vault re-opened yet again in 1888? Let us look at the facts.

A search had been made for the burial place by his son King Charles II, "Yet such had been the injury done to the Chapel, such were the mutilations it had undergone, during the period of the Usurpation [Cromwell's rule], that no marks were left, by which the exact place of burial of the King, could be ascertained."

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

The published accounts of those who had first hand knowledge of the burial also proved unsatisfactory thus the matter rested. But Sir Henry Halford, Physician to the King and the Prince Regent, writes in 1813 that "an accident has served to elucidate a point in history, which.... had [been] involved in some obscurity."

After construction of a vault under the 'Tomb-House' [now the Albert Memorial Chapel], it was in 1813 found necessary to widen the passage to it from under the Choir of St. George's Chapel. In constructing this enlarged passage an aperture was accidentally made into a vault through which the workmen could see three coffins. It was then assumed, from published accounts, that these were the coffins of King Henry VIII, his Queen Jane Seymour, along with that of King Charles I.

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 Commons]

"On representing the circumstances to [George] the Prince Regent, His Royal Highness perceived at once, that a doubtful point in history might be cleared up by opening this vault... ... This was done on the 1st April last [1813]...., in the presence of His Royal Highness Himself, who guaranteed thereby the most respectful care and attention to the remains of the dead, during the enquiry.

His Royal Highness was accompanied by HRH Ernest the Duke of Cumberland, Count Münster, the Dean of Windsor, Benjamin Charles Stevenson Esq., and the King's Physician, Sir Henry Halford who wrote the published account. 

Sir Henry Halford, 1st Baronet, GCH
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

The arched vault itself lies directly 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.

"On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin... and bearing an inscription 'King Charles, 1648', in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into it's contents."

A close-up of the lead coffin of King Charles I, as 
sketched by Alfred Nutt in 1888. Upon Charles' 
coffin is the small coffin of a still-born child of the 
Princess George of Denmark, later Queen Anne, and 
the leaden box of 1888 referred to below. The 
"scroll of lead" with the King's name is clearly visible.
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

"These were, an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cere-cloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching it [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped..."

"...At length, the whole face was disengaged from its covering. The forehead and temples had lost little or nothing of their muscular substance; the cartilage of the nose was gone; but the left eye, in the first moment of exposure, was open and full, though it vanished immediately; and the pointed beard, so characteristic of.... King Charles, was perfect. The shape of the face was a long oval; many of the teeth remained; and the left ear... was found entire."

Henry Halford's pencil sketch of the head of
King Charles I, as viewed in 1813.
[Source : National Portrait Gallery, London]

At this point all agreed that the countenance bore a strong resemblance to that of the late King, there being no doubt left in their minds as to his identity. Respect for the Royal dead should perhaps have ended proceedings here (if not upon the lead coffin being identified) but the investigation continued.

"[The head]... was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view... The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct...; and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness. the hair at the back part of the head, and, in appearance nearly black. A portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown..."

"...On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body...; and the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First."

Without any examination of the torso necessary, the head was replaced, the coffin re-soldered, and the vault enclosed.

A close-up of the  coffin of King Henry VIII, as 
sketched by Alfred Nutt in 1888.The damage to
the lead coffin is clearly visible.
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

Neither of the two other coffins carried any inscription upon them. The larger one, believed to contain the remains of King Henry VIII, measured six feet in length and had been enclosed in an elm coffin two inches thick although the latter was much decayed. A portion of the lid being damaged and open [most likely due, as per my previous Blog, to explosive gasses], "exposed a mere skeleton of the King. Some beard remained upon the chin but there was nothing to discriminate the personage contained in it."

The smaller coffin, believed to contain the remains of Queen Jane Seymour,  remained untouched, "...mere curiosity not being considered, by the Prince Regent, as sufficient motive for disturbing these remains."

Halford noted  "a very small mahogany coffin, covered with crimson velvet, containing the body of an infant, had been laid upon the pall which covered King Charles. This is known to be a still-born child [a son born 15th Sept 1698] of the Princess George of Denmark, afterwards Queen Anne." This does at least confirm that the location of the vault was known at the time of this latter burial.

The roughly bricked up west wall of the vault, as noted by
Halford in 1813. From a sketch by Alfred Nutt in 1888.
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

Halford also notes the roughly bricked up west wall of the vault, "[which] had been partly pulled down and repaired again, not by regular masonry, but by fragments of stones and bricks, put rudely and hastily together without cement." This would no doubt date to the hurried 1649 burial.

Here our story would finish were it not for another partial opening of the vault on the 13th December 1888 and the curious reason this took place.

It appears that in 1813 the Royal Physician, Sir Henry Halford, took with or without permission certain "relics" from the body of King Charles I. This included the fourth vertebra, which bore the marks of the axe, as well as a tooth and a portion of his beard.

Halford (died 1844) gave a detailed account to his grandson of how he came by the vertebra, claiming "that after the examination of the body and the coffin had been closed three items were not replaced—the half vertebra, a tooth, and a portion of King Charles' beard. The Prince Regent said that it was not worth re‐opening the coffin, and handing them to Halford said, '…these are more in your line than mine, you had better keep them'".

One medical writer, Mr JF Clarke, relates in his autobiography published in 1874 that "a Physician of high repute... now lately deceased" had informed him that Halford "purloined" the items as a curiosity, passing the section of vertebra round the table for examination as an after dinner curiosity. We shall probably never know the true facts but at the end of the day the right and proper thing was done by Halford's heirs.

In 1995 a lock of the King's hair was sold to an American collector in 1995 for £3,910 with the original source being Sir Henry Halford who had gifted it to Hans Busk, the eldest son of a Radnorshire [Wales] landowner and whose descendants consigned it to sale. But as the Prince Regent also kept at least one lock of hair it appears that all were equally complicit in removing 'artefacts'.

Alfred Young Nutt, Surveyor to
the Dean and Chapter, who sketched
the 1888 (and only known) view of
the Royal vault at St George's Chapel.
[Source : University of Leicester]

In 1888, the 'relics' in question were finally given to an apparently "reluctant" Prince of Wales by a grandson of Sir Henry Halford, being contained in an ebony box with an engraving in silver, ‘En Caroli Imi REGIS Ipsissimum os cervicis Ferro eheu intercisum 1648 Et regiam insuper barbam’. The Prince duly advised the Dean of St. George's Chapel that, having obtained permission from his mother Queen Victoria, he desired to return these artefacts to the vault.

Two days later the Prince handed Dean Davidson the ebony casket in which he had himself had placed the following 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."

The Dean arranged for a leaden casket to be made, engraved on the lid being the following inscription, "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."

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

At 6 pm, after Evensong on the 13th December 1888, Dean Davidson, along with Canons Philip Eliot and J.N. Dalton superintended the removal of the inscribed pavement stone above the vault and six of the black and white marble squares on the south side of the pavement stone.

Only about twenty bricks were removed, care being taken that no debris should fall on the coffins. This work was carried out by three workmen under the supervision of Mr. Alfred Nutt, Surveyor to the Dean and Chapter, the latter recording the event and making the drawing of the vault reproduced on this page. No one else was present in the Chapel. The Prince of Wales arrived just after 7pm and performed the task of lowering the box of relics through the aperture, placing it about the centre of the coffin of King Charles I. The Prince then departed and the closing up of the vault immediately commenced, being under the supervision of the Dean, Mr Nutt and two Canons, with the work being completed about 9.30 p.m. All was conducted with the utmost decorum and reverence.

A gold and enamel locket containing hair
taken from King Charles I's head in 1813
[Source : The Royal Collection]

Another artefact still exists in the Royal Collection which relates to the 1813 exhumation, being a beautiful gold and enamel locket apparently given by George to his daughter Princess Charlotte (1796 - 1817). An inscription confirms that it contains the hair of King Charles I, having been removed from his head in 1813. Princess Charlotte was, until her untimely and much lamented death four years later, the heir apparent.

Since 1813 the remains of King Charles I, King Henry VIII, and of his Queen Jane Seymour, have remained undisturbed. May they all now rest in peace for the ages.

To read my Blog relating to the events which took place immediately after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 please click HERE.

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
- Various Internet resources


  1. You note that it wasn't until 1813 that it was found necessary to widen the passage to it from under the Choir of St. George's Chapel. Thus they accidentally went into a vault through which the workmen could see three coffins. "It was then assumed, from published accounts", that these were the coffins of King Henry VIII, his Queen Jane Seymour, along with that of King Charles I.

    But surely the church would know for certain where Henry VIII and Charles I were buried. Why would the Victorians have to assume, from published accounts, who the coffins belonged to? Perhaps there was some hanky panky between the time of King Henry's death and 1813!!!

    1. Thank you Hels, if there was ever a Chapel "map" of internments it was obviously lost prior to the Restoration. Odd thing is that someone still knew where the vault was located during Queen Anne's reign which was in fact after the Restoration. You would think there would be records after that date. I suspect the Prince Regent and his entourage were just rather too curious when they found the coffin. The "investigation" should have ceased when the lead scroll bearing Charles' name was discovered as what took place afterwards does them no credit.

  2. Remarcably well preserved, except for the nose.