The corpses of 10 Kings and Queens of England exhumed centuries after death

The corpses of 10 Kings and Queens of England exhumed centuries after death

The recent discovery and reburial of the remains of Richard III captivated the public’s imagination; the medieval king stepped from the pages of history into the full glare of the modern world.  He was not the first monarch to have curious onlookers gaze upon his mortal remains centuries after he met his end.  Here are 10 other kings and queens of England whose remains were uncovered, either accidentally, or out of morbid curiosity.


1.   Edward the Confessor (1003 – 1066)

Edward the ConfessorEdward the Confessor was among the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, ruling from 1042 to 1066.  The major building project of his reign was Westminster Abbey, which was built as a royal burial church, but was only completed around 1090, after his death.  Edward’s original Westminster Abbey demolished in 1245 to make way for Henry III’s new building, which still stands.

A series of strokes led to Edward’s death on 5 January 1066.  He was buried in the incomplete Westminster Abbey on 6 January 1066, and was succeeded by Harold Godwinson, who was crowned the same day.  Later that year Harold was defeated and killed by the Normans under William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.

Edward the Confessor was canonised almost a century later in 1161 by Pope Alexander III.  In the medieval period Saint Edward was revered as one of England’s national saints, but his remains were not allowed to rest in peace.

Henry I and his half-Saxon Queen, Matilda of Scotland, had Edward’s (her great uncle) tomb opened in 1102.  The corpse was reported to be uncorrupted, considered to be sure evidence of saintliness.  Bishop Gundulf, who was present at the time, was said to have plucked a hair from Edward’s long white beard, for which he received a severe reprimand from the Abbot of Westminster.

Edward’s coffin was once again opened by Henry II in 1163.  Edward’s body was found wrapped in cloth of gold with a gold-embroidered mitre on his head and purple shoes at his feet, his long white beard still curling on his chest.  His corpse was lifted out and the cloth of gold removed.  The remains were rewrapped in a silk cloth and put it in a wooden coffin, then transferred to a new tomb in a ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.  The pilgrim’s ring Edward was found to be wearing was appropriated by Henry II as a relic, and the cloth of gold turned into ‘three splendid copes’.

Edward was disturbed once more in 1685, when workmen were removing scaffolding used in the coronation ceremony for James II.  A rafter fell, crashing into Edward’s coffin.  A richly ornamented and enamelled crucifix and gold chain chain were discovered under Edward’s shoulder bones and were given to James II.  When James hastily fled England in 1688, they were apparently stolen by fishermen.


2.   John (1166 – 1216)

King JohnKing John, also known as John Lackland, was King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216.  He lost the duchy of Normandy in his wars with France, and a baronial revolt at the end of his reign led to the sealing of the Magna Carta.

He was on campaign to quell rebellion within his kingdom in September 1216 when he contracted dysentery in East Anglia.  It was at this time that he is said to have lost a significant part of his baggage train, including the Crown Jewels, as he crossed one of the tidal estuaries which empties into the Wash, being sucked in by quicksand and whirlpools.  By the time he reached Newark Castle he was unable to travel any farther and died on the night of 18 October 1216.  His body was escorted south by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral.

John’s tomb was reopened in 1797 for an antiquarian study.  A robe of crimson damask had originally covered his body but most of the embroidery had deteriorated. The remains of a sword and parts of a scabbard lay by his side.  He was found to be 5 ft 6½inches tall.


3.   Edward I (1239-1307)

Edward IEdward I, also known as Edward Longshanks (being a tall man for his era) and the Hammer of the Scots, was King of England from 1272 to 1307.  He was on his way to wage war in Scotland when he developed dysentery and died on 7 July 1307.  His embalmed body was brought south and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Edward’s tomb was opened in 1774 by the Society of Antiquaries with permission from the Dean of Westminster.

They found the body found wrapped in a strong linen cloth, waxed on the inside, while the head and face were covered with a cloth of crimson sarsinet.  The king was richly dressed in a red silk damask tunic with a stole of thick white tissue across his chest, set with filigree gilt metal and semi-precious stones.  Above these he wore a royal mantle of rich crimson satin.  From the waist downwards he was covered with a rich cloth of figured gold.  In his right hand was a sceptre with a cross of copper gilt.  In his left hand was a rod around 5 feet long and a white enamel dove.  On his head was a gilt metal crown.  When they lifted the crown his skull appeared bare, but his face and hands seemed intact.

They measured the body at 6 feet 2 inches long.

Sketch from the 1774 exploration of Edward I of England's tomb
Sketch from the 1774 exploration of Edward I of England’s tomb


4.   Richard II (1367 – 1400)

Richard IIRichard II succeeded to the English throne at the age of ten in 1377 and reigned until 1399.  The first major challenge of his reign was the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which saw the 14 year-old king play a major part in its successful suppression.  Richard was eventually deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who had himself crowned as King Henry IV.

Richard died in captivity in Pontefract Castle in February 1400; he is thought to have been starved to death, though questions remain regarding his final fate.  His body was taken south from Pontefract and displayed in the old St Paul’s Cathedral before burial in Kings Langley Church in Hertfordshire.  In 1413, Henry V – in an effort to atone for his father’s act of murder – moved Richard’s body from King’s Langley to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, where the remains of his wife Anne were already entombed.

The tomb was opened in 1871 during restoration work.  The skulls of the King and Queen were visible, with no marks of violence seen on either.  The skeletons were nearly perfect; even some of the teeth were preserved.  Two copper-gilt crowns which were known (from an earlier 19th century tomb-opening) to have been buried with the bodies had disappeared, but a staff, sceptre, part of the ball, two pairs of royal gloves, and fragments of their peaked shoes still remained.

A number of relics were obviously taken from the tomb in 1871, as they were recently found in a cigarette box in the basement of London’s National Portrait Gallery.  The contents of the box, dated 31 August 1871, included fragments of wood (possibly from the coffin itself), some fabric, and a piece of leather from one of the royal gloves.

Richard II -b


5.   Catherine of Valois (1401 –1437)

Catherine of ValoisCatherine of Valois, wife of Henry V, was the Queen consort of England from 1420 until Henry’s death in 1422.  Their 9 month-old son inherited the crown as Henry VI.  The young queen dowager embarked on a relationship (which may have been marked by a secret marriage) with Welsh courtier Owen Tudor.  Their children went on to found the Tudor dynasty which ruled the Kingdom of England from 1485 until 1603.

Catherine died on 3 January 1437, shortly after childbirth, in London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

In 1667 Catherine’s corpse was exhibited to visitors who were willing to pay the Abbey staff.  The famous diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day he took his wife and daughters to Westminster Abbey and was permitted to embrace the corpse:

“I now took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone, there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday; and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.”


6.   Edward IV (1442 – 1483)

Edward IVEdward IV was King of England from 1461 until October 1470, and again from April 1471 until his death in 1483.  The first half of his reign was marred by the violence associated with the Wars of the Roses.

When his health began to seriously fail in 1483, with his 12 year-old son Edward in line to succeed him, he named his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, (shortly to become Richard III) as Protector after his death.

What actually caused Edward IV’s death it is not known – some have suggested pneumonia and typhoid, or even poison.  It may just have been due to an unhealthy lifestyle, as he had become stout and inactive in the years before his death.  He died on 9 April 1483 and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

His tomb was rediscovered in 1789 during restoration work on St George’s Chapel.  When the lead coffin was opened some long brown hair was found near the skull, with shorter hair of the same colour on the neck of the skeleton.  In the bottom of the coffin was a dark liquid, which immersed his feet to a depth of 3 inches.  A physician at Windsor analysed the liquid and concluded that it came from the dissolution of the body.  After the discovery of the tomb, many relics were removed, including locks of the king’s hair and a phial containing some of the liquid.


7.   Edward V (1470 – c.1483)

Edward VEdward V was King of England from his father Edward IV’s death on 9 April 1483 until 26 June of the same year.   He was never crowned, and his 86-day reign was dominated by the influence of his uncle and Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who succeeded him as Richard III.

Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, were the ‘Princes in the Tower’ who disappeared after being sent to the Tower of London.  Responsibility for their deaths was widely attributed to Richard III, although it has never been proven.

In 1674 workmen remodelling the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons.  The bones were found buried 10 ft under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower.  One anonymous report was that they were found with “pieces of rag and velvet about them”; which could indicate that the bodies were those of aristocrats.  Four years after their discovery, the bones were placed in an urn and, on the orders of King Charles II, interred in Westminster Abbey in a sarcophagus designed by Sir Christopher Wren, with the Latin inscription: “These brothers being confined to the Tower of London and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle, Richard the Usurper.”.

The bones were removed and examined in 1933, by the archivist of Westminster Abbey, Lawrence Tanner; a leading anatomist, Professor William Wright; and the president of the Dental Association, George Northcroft.  By measuring certain bones and teeth, they concluded the bones belonged to two children around the correct ages for the princes.  The bones were found to have been interred carelessly along with chicken and other animal bones, as well as three very rusty nails.  One skeleton was larger than the other, but many of the bones were missing, including part of the smaller jawbone and all of the teeth from the larger one, and many of the bones had also been broken by the original workmen.  No further scientific examination has since been conducted on the bones, which remain in Westminster Abbey.

The discovery of the remains of Richard III under a car park in Leicester in 2012, and their extensive DNA testing, could settle the matter of whether the 3 sets of remains are related.  However, the Church of England, backed by Queen Elizabeth II, has repeatedly refused to allow forensic tests on the children’s bones on the grounds that it could set a precedent for testing historical theories that would lead to multiple royal disinterments.


8.   Anne Boleyn (1501 – 1536)

Ann Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII.  Henry VIII pursued her while he was still married to Catherine of Aragon and he became on having his marriage annulled by the Pope so he would be free to marry Anne.  When Henry married Anne regardless in 1533, the Pope excommunicated him, which led to the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.  Later that year, Anne gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.  Henry was disappointed to have a daughter rather than a son.  Anne went on to have three miscarriages, and by 1536, Henry was courting Jane Seymour.

Henry had Anne and her brother George Boleyn investigated for adultery, incest and high treason.  They were arrested and sent to the Tower of London, where they was tried before a jury and found guilty.  Although the evidence against them was unconvincing, they were condemned to death.

Henry commuted Anne’s sentence from burning to beheading, and rather than have a queen beheaded with the common axe, he brought an expert swordsman from  France, to perform the execution.

On the morning of Friday 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed within the Tower precincts, two day after her brother’ beheading.

She climbed the scaffold and made a short speech to the crowd:

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.  I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.  And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”

It is thought that Anne avoided criticising Henry in order to save Elizabeth and her family from further consequences, but even under extreme pressure she did not confess guilt.

Anne’s ermine mantle was removed and she lifted off her headdress, tucking her hair under a coif.  After a brief farewell to her weeping ladies-in-waiting, she kneeled down and one of her ladies tied a blindfold over her eyes.  She knelt upright, and the execution consisted of a single stroke.

She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, the parish church of the Tower of London.

In 1876, it was discovered that the chapel’s pavement had sunk in two places and had to be replaced.

When the pavement was lifted, the bones of a female were found at a depth of about two feet, not lying in their original order, but heaped together into a smaller space.

The bones were then examined by a surgeon, Dr Frederic Mouat, who confirmed in a memorandum that they belonged to “a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed. The vertebrae were particularly small, especially one joint (the atlas), which was that next to the skull, and they bore witness to the Queen’s ‘lyttel neck’.”

He noted that the skeleton, was about 5 feet to 5 feet 3 inches in height. A careful examination of the finger bones did not show any evidence of a sixth finger or any type of malformation.

He went on to say that the remains were consistent with descriptions of Anne and the sitter of the famous Holbein portrait of the queen.

Although the bones were mixed up, no other remains were found at that spot.  The bones of George Boleyn were not found but it was thought that the ground had been disturbed in the late 18th century and his remains removed then, or that he was buried in an area not touched by the restoration work.


9.   Edward VI (1537 – 1553)

Edward VIEdward VI, the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, was crowned king in 1547 at the age of nine.  His reign was marked by economic problems and social unrest that, in 1549, erupted into riot and rebellion.

A common belief is that Edward VI was sickly throughout his childhood.  However, despite a life threatening fever at the age of 4, recent historians believe that he enjoyed generally good health until the last six months of his life.  In February 1553, at the age of 15, Edward fell ill with a fever and cough (probably tuberculosis) that gradually worsened.  He died at Greenwich Palace  on 6 July 1553 and was buried in the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

In 1871 there were concerns that some of the royal burial vaults underneath the abbey were deteriorating.  With Queen Victoria’s permission, several of the vaults were opened and examined.  Edward’s vault was discovered quite by accident. As there was only one lead lined coffin in the chamber, it was deemed worthy of examination.  The coffin was in poor condition through age and moisture damage.  The lead lining appeared to be the only adhesive holding the container together.  Without disturbing the actual contents it was noted that the skeletal remains were visible, as were the remnants of a skull cap.  The coffin lid had an inscribed plate in Latin which stated that the mortal remains within were those of Edward VI.



10.   Charles I (1600 – 1649)

Charles I

Charles I was the monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1625 until his execution in 1649.  Charles believed in the divine right of kings and his reign was marked by his quarrels with the Parliament of England, which sought to curb his powers.  This ultimately led to the English Civil War between Charles’ Royalist forces and Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell.  Charles was defeated and imprisoned, then tried and convicted for high treason in January 1649.

Charles’s sentence of death by beheading was scheduled for 30 January 1649.  On the morning of his execution he wore two shirts to prevent the cold weather causing any noticeable shivers that the crowd could have mistaken for fear.  He walked under guard from St James’s Palace to the Palace of Whitehall, where an execution scaffold was erected in front of the Banqueting House.  Standing on the scaffold he delivered his last speech (largely inaudible to the clamouring crowd), which concluded, “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”  He said a prayer then put his head on the block, signalling to his executioner that he was ready by stretching out his hands; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke of the axe.

The severed head was held up by its long hair and exhibited to the crowd.  After the execution, the king’s and his embalmed body were placed in a lead coffin and taken for burial in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (his burial in Westminster Abbey having been refused by the new regime), where he was laid to rest alongside the coffin of Henry VIII.

The coffin was reopened in 1813, in the presence of the Prince Regent.  It bore the inscription ‘KING CHARLES 1648′ (In England up to 1752, Lady Day on 25 March was New Year’s Day, so according to the English calendar, the King’s execution occurred in 1648 not 1649).

When a square opening was made in the lid, they discovered a decayed internal wooden coffin and the body carefully wrapped in cloth which had been doused in a greasy resin.  When the cloth was removed from the face, the skin was dark and discoloured, but muscles of the forehead and temples were intact.  The cartilage of the nose was gone, but the left eye was open and full, however it rapidly deteriorated on exposure.

Charles’ pointed beard was perfectly preserved.  The shape of the face was a long oval, many of the teeth remained, as did the left ear.  The head was found to be loose, so was picked up and viewed.  The back part of the scalp had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin were distinct and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were firm.  The hair was thick at the back part of the head, and was found to be of a lustrous dark brown colour; the beard was a redder brown.  The hair was cut short, suggesting it was done either for the convenience of the executioner, or locks were taken as mementoes.  The fourth cervical vertebra had been sliced through perfectly smoothly by the executioner’s axe.



Westminster Abbey: Chapels and Royal Tombs,  Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey,  Account of the Opening of the Tomb of King Charles

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