St George’s Chapel Windsor – The Tomb of Charles I – 1625-1649

As well as a full and graphic description of the King’s execution there is a detailed account of his burial, including such reports as ‘after the execution the King’s body was taken to the back of the Banqueting Hall and there embalmed and placed in a coffin covered with a black velvet pall’. Then on the 7th February the body was taken to Windsor for burial and, after much dispute as to a choice of burial location within St George’s Chapel, it was placed in the Henry viii vault in the empty space once intended for Katherine Parr.

Royal tombs had for centuries been opened for inspection either for medical, historic, opportunist, research or even curiosity motives and so the opening of King Charles’ tomb in 1813 might not altogether be so strange. However!

Not for the first time, there was uncertainty as to where the King was actually buried (there were few monuments to departed Monarchs since Elizabethan times and burial records seemed regularly controversial or ambiguous), so when, in the course of construction of the vault for George iii, the vault of Henry viii was accidentally breached, the Prince Regent understandably had it inspected. Among those present was Sir Henry Halford, personal physician to the Prince, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and who had lineal connection with the baronetcy of Wistow Hall whose first Baronet was a friend of Charles i.

The rest of the events surrounding this occasion may have been normal at the time but, I venture to suggest, are strange to modern concepts of propriety.

It is well documented that, in his medical capacity, Sir Henry Halford was allowed to remove the neck-bone, the pointed beard and a tooth. It is also implied that he took some of the hair from the back of the head, which his own report says, ‘has been cleaned and dried’. These relics remained in the possession of the family at Wistow Hall in Leicestershire for seventy-five years until 1888. As time advanced, Sir Henry St John Halford, grandson of the surgeon, felt some concern over their possession and, as he had no heirs except his brother John, then Rector of Brixworth, he decided to return them to the Prince of Wales who, not surprisingly, was said to have given Sir Henry’s grandson ‘a cool reception’.

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