The Royal Pavilion may be King George IV’s most famous architectural legacy, but it was far from the only building project he commissioned. After he was made Prince Regent in 1811, he began to develop projects that would enhance his status as royal ruler, such as the construction of a new burial vault in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. In 1813, during the excavation work for a passageway leading to this vault, workmen accidentally uncovered the tombs of Kings Henry VIII and Charles I. The Prince Regent instructed the royal physician, Sir Henry Halford, to examine the tombs and conduct an autopsy on the body of Charles I.
The event was widely reported, and Halford published his own account of the opening of the coffin. It provided ideal subject matter for artist George Cruikshank, who produced a satirical print for the occasion, Meditations amongst the Tombs.
Like all great caricaturists, Cruikshank takes a news story, distorts it for comic effect, and threads it with allusions that allow it to make a political point. Although it depicts a contemporary event, the picture’s comic and political effect is driven by the contrasting fates of the deceased kings. The bloated George looks admiringly at the body of Henry VIII, the English king who opposed Rome and founded the Church of England (and paved the way, unknowingly, for the Protestant Hanoverian kings); George, however, can only admire how ‘great Harry… got rid of many wives, whilst I, poor soul, can’t get rid of one’. This was a reference to his forced and disastrous marriage to Princess Caroline, with whom he had separated following the birth of their daughter. In a desperate bid to claim some of Henry’s power, he orders Henry Halford to cut off his beard and make him a ‘prime pair of Royal Whiskers’.
George’s petty concerns are overshadowed, however, by the body of Charles I, which has lifted up its severed head as a warning. King Charles’ contempt of parliament had led to the English Civil War, and his beheading in 1649. The French Revolution had provided a similar fate for King Louis XVI just twenty years before this print was made, and his fate still loomed over the unpopular George. Behind the Prince Regent, a ruddy faced Jacobin figure carrying a firebrand taunts the Prince, wondering ‘how we should look without our Heads?!!’. George’s tormentor stands upon a red coffin, accompanied by the fiery form of the devil.
This use of dramatic irony allows Cruikshank to contrast the petty concerns of the unpopular prince with the dangers of violent republicanism. It is both comic and chilling, and it has inspired later tellings of the tale: the BBC’s Horrible Histories featured a sketch called George IV’s Windsor Tomb Tour, which is reminiscent of this print. But although Cruikshank’s work was inspired by a real event, it is clearly an allegory. What really happened in the tomb?
As one might expect of the royal physician, Sir Henry Halford’s account is much more respectful of the Prince Regent. Halford is keen to point out that his macabre work was of scholarly intent, and motivated by the Prince’s interest in history. The discovery of the vault in 1813 was an opportunity to verify the location of King Charles I’s body. Although contemporary accounts of his execution claimed that he was buried in the vault next to Henry VIII, the precise location had never been established. According to Halford:
‘On representing the circumstance to the Prince Regent, His Royal Highness perceived at once, that a doubtful point in History might be cleared up by opening this vault; and accordingly His Royal Highness ordered an examination to be made on the first convenient opportunity. This was done on the 1st of April last, the day after the funeral of the Duchess of Brunswick, 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.’
Upon opening Charles’ coffin, Halford was quick to compare the decomposing body to familiar portraits. Although the skin was discoloured, the nose was missing, and only a single eye and ear apparently remained, Halford found it:
‘…difficult, at this moment, to withhold a declaration that, notwithstanding its disfigurement, the countenance did bear a strong resemblance to the coins, the busts, and especially to the pictures of King Charles I by Vandyke, by which it had been made familiar to us’.
Halford’s description of the body often anticipates the prose of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly when he discovers that the king’s head had been severed in a way that was consistent with accounts of his beheading:
‘When the head had been entirely disengaged from the attachments which confined it, it was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view. It was quite wet and gave a greenish red tinge to paper and to linen, which touched it. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct, as they usually are when soaked in moisture; and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness. The hair was thick 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 the back part of the head, it was more than an inch in length, and had probably been cut so short for the convenience of the executioner, or perhaps by the piety of friends soon after death in order to furnish memorials of the unhappy King.
On holding up the head to examine the place of separation from the body the muscles of the neck had evidently retracted themselves considerably; 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, an 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.’
Having established the identity of the corpse, Halford turned his attention to the tomb of Henry VIII. He noted that the coffin had been damaged, and supposed that this may have been a result of the hasty burial of Charles I, speculating that the hurried lowering of his coffin caused it to crash into that of his ancestor. Henry’s body seems to have been little more than a skeleton, although some beard remained upon the chin. Contrary to Cruikshank’s depiction, however, Halford does not claim to have removed any of the whiskers. Henry’s coffin was accompanied by that of his third wife, Jane Seymour, who had died in childbirth. Halford left this coffin alone as ‘mere curiosity not being considered, by the Prince Regent, as a sufficient motive for disturbing these remains’.
Was Halford’s investigation as sensitive and clinical as he maintains? Halford took possession of several pieces of King Charles’ mortal remains, including the section of vertebra which had been cut by the executioner’s axe. Although Halford claimed that he took these with the permission of the Prince Regent, one biography cites claims that he stole them. These claims may have been motivated by spite; as a successful physician, Halford would have inspired great jealousy, and his Wikipedia entry cites an unflattering nickname as ‘the eel-backed baronet in consequence of his deep and oft-repeated bows’. But however he came to acquire them, the remains were returned to the Royal Household during Queen Victoria’s reign, and placed back in Charles’ coffin in 1888.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer