Thursday 7 July 2016

A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to... Grave Robbing?

George IV
Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Whilst researching my book, Life in the Georgian Court, I spent a lot of time in the rather wild company of George IV, aka the Prince Regent or, earlier still, the Prince of Wales.

In this midst of the usual parties, heartbreak and largesse, the court of the rip-roaring regent took a pause for a rather Gothic turn of events in 1813. Combining shady doctors, opened tombs and severed heads, it was not George’s finest hour, but it is one that perfectly captures his rather un-kingly behaviour at times.

As his accounts and the surviving buildings he commissioned attest, George was intent on leaving a legacy that could not be ignored. It was because of this that construction work was ongoing in St George’s Chapel at Windsor in 1813, where he had commissioned a brand new burial vault. Whilst working on this project the tombs of Henry VIII, Charles I and Jane Seymour were mistakenly uncovered. Upon hearing of this, the regent was beside himself with fascination and summoned Sir Henry Halford to the scene.

The discovery of Charles I’s tomb was a major find, as it was the first time this long-discussed resting place had been uncovered. Accounts written at the time of his burial had suggested that Charles was interred beside Henry VIII but this was an opportunity to prove it once and for all. Mindful of the historic significance of the site, George asked Halford to examine the remains. As Halford recalls, the prince’s presence would ensure “the most respectful care and attention to the remains of the dead during the enquiry”. [1]

It didn’t, of course.

When the coffin was opened, the prince and Halford were shocked to find that Charles had not fared too badly at all over the years. Though his nose, one eye and one ear were missing and his skin had become discoloured, the king certainly “bore a strong resemblance to the coins, the busts, and especially to the pictures of King Charles I by Vandyke”.[2]

King Charles I
after original by van Dyke

If this was not evidence enough of the identity of the corpse, the fact that his head was severed in a way that perfectly matched accounts of Charles’s execution surely provided the final corroborating factor.

There, in the presence of the Prince Regent, it was agreed that this was indeed the corpse of the executed King Charles I. 

Halford kept some of the remains for his collection of curiosities, including a damaged vertebrae that showed the mark of the axe that had killed the king. After dinner parties, he would produce the bone and hand it around for the amusement of his guests, recounting the tale of the Windsor vault.

Sir Henry Halford, 1st Bt, by Sir William Beechey
Winner of the Come Dine With Me coveted 'Most
Morbid Guest Entertainment' Award.

The kingly bits and bobs remained in Halford’s family until Queen Victoria’s reign and, as has been reported on innumerable occasions, she was not amused. Upon learning of the fate of the vertebrae, the queen requested that it be returned to the royal household. This was swiftly done and Charles was reunited with his stolen remains in 1888, the late king resting in peace once again.


[1] Halford, Sir Henry (1813). An Account of What Appeared on Opening the Coffin of King Charles the First. London: Nichols, Son and Bentley, p.7.

[2] Ibid., p.7.


Baker, Kenneth. George IV: A Life in Caricature. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

Black, Jeremy. The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon and London, 2007.

David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Halford, Sir Henry. An Account of What Appeared on Opening the Coffin of King Charles the First. London: Nichols, Son and Bentley, 1813.

Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.

Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth: Vol I. London: Thomas Kelly, 1830.

Lloyd, Hannibal Evans. George IV: Memoirs of His Life and Reign, Interspersed with Numerous Personal Anecdotes. London: Treuttel and W├╝rtz, 1830.

Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.

Catherine’s book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UKAmazon USBook Depository and all good bookshops!

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

About the Author

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.  Her work has featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here). Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.


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