If you want even more proof that the past is a different country where things were done differently, then the story of what happened when the Prince Regent discovered the corpses of Charles I and Henry VIII may help.
On 23 March 1813, the Princes’ mother in law died. Princess Augusta Frederica, the Duchess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was sister of the then incapacitated King George III and mother of Queen Caroline. Augusta had spent most of her life abroad, but was destined to spend eternity in the Royal Vault of St Georges Chapel at Windsor. The vault had been built in 1810, and had up to this time only one occupant, George III’s daughter Amelia, whose death had catapulted the poor king back into madness and given the Prince Regent control of the building budget.
By March 27, Augusta was nearly ready. She was placed in her lead coffin and her elm outer coffin was being prepared. She was ready to resist the putrefactions of eternity. In order to intern her, some building work was done and this discovered a vaulted arch under the chapel, separated from the chapel itself by the width of a single brick. Inside the vault three adult and one child size coffin.
The Prince was obsessed with the Stuarts, and he believed one of the coffins to be the last resting place of Charles I. He was itching to find out. He managed to wait a whole day after the funeral before venturing down there accompanied by his brother the Duke of Cumberland, Count Munster, the Dean of Windsor, and his physician Sir Henry Halford. The Prince was afraid of the dark; he could only sleep in a lighted room, but he plucked up both his courage and a flaming torch in order to satisfy his curiosity.
The event was pitched in terms of some important historical enquiry, and to a limited degree, this was true. It was generally believed that Charles I was buried somewhere in the castle vaults; there had been an unsuccessful search in the time of Charles II. So, the Prince Regent was able to cast himself as a historical researcher, at least at first…..
When the coffin was discovered, it bore the inscription ‘King Charles 1648’ was a reminder that the counting of the new year did not start on January 1, and perhaps that the mystery had been solved and they could all leave. This was not to be; the Prince wanted to know more. The Prince Regent instructed the royal physician, Sir Henry Halford, to examine the tomb and conduct an autopsy on the body.
This could not be achieved without effort. The lead casing had to be opening by, appropriately, a plumber. It was opened to reveal the head, which was loose from the body, although after the execution it was supposed to be put back on; it was clear from Sir Henry’s remarks that some form of cement had previously been applied to hold the head on the body. The head was lifted up, just as it had been on the execution scaffold 164 years earlier. From a modern perspective, it sounds like something your enemies would do to you, but that was not the case here. It was done with respect, and in a society less squeamish on this issue than ours.
The head was wet, and the moisture allowed observers to see the pores of the king’s skin. When placed first on paper and then on linen, it produced a ‘greenish red tinge’. The hair was black, but turned out to be a dark brown after cleaning, and the hair at the nape of his neck had been shortened, either to help the axe man or cut off by admirers after death. He had teeth, had been efficiently embalmed and placed in cerecloth that had been sealed well enough to avoid putrefaction.
The nose, cheeks and one ear were gone; this one remaining left eyeball disappeared when the air hit it. Halfords examination of the neck concluded-pointlessly- that he had been killed by a blow from a sharp weapon. The rest of the body was not examined, officially because the severed head was good identification, but perhaps because the rest of the body was not that interesting.
Henry VIII had no body apart from bones and a bare skull with a few traces of red beard. The others were identified as Jane Seymour and a still born child of Queen Anne, but were given little attention. Strictly speaking, this discovery was on a par with the others, but this was not was the Prince was interested in.
Sir Henry took a few souvenirs, including one of the vertebrae that he had examined to come to his less-than-remarkable conclusion. He also took a portion of beard and a tooth. He kept them until his death in 1844, constructing a special display case and passing it around at dinner parties. Halford has been accused of stealing them, mostly by people who resented the mismatch of his rapid preferment and his limited medical knowledge, but it seems that the Prince knew about it. 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’*
The newspapers were not impressed. This was typical: (Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser – Tuesday 27 April 1813)
It is much to be regretted, we think, that any curiosity should lead to disturb the remains of the dead; and if’ any English Sovereign more than another might have demanded the privilege of reposing in his grave, should have thought the remains of Charles I.
The news of these regal desecrations took over a week to reach the newspapers; it had leaked out, and although clearly not ashamed of what they did, they were not seeking publicity either.
Nobody was impressed, but nobody was outraged either. Tampering with the long dead and the direct contact was their remains was not a taboo in the Regency. The main point that was made about it was political. It was a gift for the cartoonists.
This was George Cruikshank;
The commentary is political. The man behind him delivers a warning;
How queer Prince Charly looks without his head, doesn’t he?…and I wonder what we would look like without our head?
Cruikshank was unable to resist a comparison between Henry’s control of his wives, and his masculinity, with the problems George had with Princess Caroline.
Aye there’s great harry, great indeed, for he got rid of many wives while I poor soul, cannot get rid of one..cut of his beard, Doctor, t’ will make me a prime piece of Royal Whiskers
By 1888, attitudes to this sort of thing had changed to something that we recognised more easily. The bits of Charles I were returned to him in a brief but final interment at the insistence of Queen Victoria.
*Quoted in Henry Halford, president of the Royal College of Physicians, with a note on his involvement in the exhumation of King Charles I John S Morris
I have written two books relevant to this blog.
The Dark Days of Georgian Britain – a social history of the regency.