Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Regency Tomb Raider

by | March 14, 2014 | 3 comments

When he wrote his famous history of the English Civil War, Lord Clarendon related the great ignominy that surrounded the execution of Charles I. He also noted that it was the great wish of the restored Charles II to have his father’s body exhumed from its burial in Windsor and reinterred in Westminster. This was thwarted when no one could be found who knew where the dead king lay. Those who had been present at the body’s internment in Henry VIII’s vault were confused by the desecration done to the chapel and the resulting repairs: 

Charles I -- they say some of his attendants helped him cut his hair to aid in his execution

Charles I — they say some of his attendants helped him cut his hair to aid in his execution

“…so totally perplexed their memories, that they could not satisfy themselves in what place or what part of the church the royal body was interred.” The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England Volume 6 (1707)

The mystery of the king’s missing body went on until 1813. By then, the Prince Regent had set about his various building campaigns, enhancing his status as ruler, and one of his projects was the construction of a new burial vault at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. The workmen were tunneling under the choir, creating a passageway for the new vault, and uncovered a narrow aperture that allowed them to peer into what was known to be Henry VIII’s burial vault beneath the chapel, containing the bodies of the much-married king and Jane Seymour.

They saw not two, but three coffins.

The possibility Charles I’s body had been found was TOO MUCH for the Regent to bear. A convoluted point in history had to be cleared up and he authorized the opening of the vault. It wasn’t to be a public viewing however, for it was paramount the process be a discreet one. Clearly, the prince was concerned about the future of his royal person, that he should not be seen as eager to have done to others what he should not like to be done to himself.

So, when the old Duchess of Brunswick died and the Chapel floor opened to receive her body, His Highness, along with his brother and a few trusted attendants, descended into the vault. Also attending was Sir Henry Halford, physician to the Regency. He wrote an account of the exhumation, as well as of the autopsy the Prince commanded him to perform.

Upon opening the wooden coffin within the lead casing, they found such a quantity of cere cloth that it completely filled the decaying wood container. Cere cloth was fabric soaked in wax or gummy matter and used as a preserving shroud for dead bodies. It left behind a greasy substance that covered the head which, when removed, revealed it had been severed from the body. They recoiled upon seeing the left eye:

“in the first moment of exposure, was open and full, though it vanished almost immediately; and the pointed beard, so characteristic of the period of the reign of King Charles, was perfect.” — An account of what appeared on opening the coffin of king Charles the first, Sir Henry Halford (1813)

After a vertebrae from the severed king’s head had been taken from the body, they opened Henry VIII’s coffin to observe his remains. This was somewhat difficult as the top had been been bashed in, presumably when Charles I’s coffin had been lowered (dropped) on that of his predecessor. A skeleton was all that remained, along with some red hair. The coffins were resealed and the vertebrae was carried away as a relic.

Sir Halford duly reporting his findings in a scholarly report, with all the ambition of being discreet besides.

Who would have thought a Caricaturist would read such material, let alone publish it in his own inimical way? I’m glad he did. The result was one of the best comic illustrations of the Regency:

‘Aye, (the Regent says to Sir Halford) there’s great Harry–great indeed!!! for he got rid of many wives, whilst I, poor soul, can’t get rid of one.’

‘How queer King Charley looks without his head, doesn’t he?!!! (asks the hated Lord Castlereaugh) Faith and sure, and I wonder how WE shall look without our heads!’

reprinted from Social England under the Regency by John Ashton (1890)

reprinted from Social England under the Regency by John Ashton (1890)








  1. Ella Quinn

    Loved the post Angelyn! Great job researching.

  2. Joy Smid

    Interesting post! A while back I read an account of the remains of Berengaria (Rich I’s wife) being found with long blond hair. Recently I read it is important to keep a hair sample of the dead for future DNA reference. Sorry for the gruesome comments.



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