Bits and Pieces
by Ben Johnson
Whatever became of them?
It is quite amazing how many parts of the body belonging to famous people in history, somehow become separated from the body itself and turn up again, many years or even centuries later.
Let me give you some examples…
Queen Anne Boleyn (1507 – 1536)
After Queen Anne Boleyn was beheaded in 1536 on the orders of her husband, King Henry VIII, her heart was stolen and secretly hidden in a church near Thetford, Norfolk. Her heart was re-discovered in 1836 and re-buried under the church organ where it remains still.
Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)
Sir Thomas was beheaded in 1535. He had enraged Henry VIII by refusing to acknowledge that the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legal. More’s head was taken from the scaffold and parboiled, stuck on a pole and exhibited on London Bridge. His devoted daughter, Margaret Roper, bribed the bridge-keeper to knock it down and she smuggled it home. She preserved the head in spices but was betrayed by spies and imprisoned, but was soon released. Margaret died in 1544 and Sir Thomas’ head was buried with her. In 1824 her vault was opened and More’s head was put on public view in St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury for many years.
The Duke of Suffolk
Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk was the father of Lady Jane Grey ( 1537 – 1554) who became known as the Nine Day Queen. He was beheaded in 1554, and for the next 300 years the severed head sat in the vault of the Church of Holy Trinity in London, preserved by sawdust. Rediscovered in 1851, the head was later moved to St. Botolph’s Church in Aldate where – for a time – it was kept in a glass box by the church’s vicar, and shown to interested historians ‘on request’. Henry’s head was finally buried in 1990.
Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658)
Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, died in 1658, was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey after a lavish funeral. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, his body was disinterred and taken to Tyburn where it was gibbeted* until sundown. The Public Executioner cut down the body and cut off the head which was then impaled on a 25 foot pole on the roof of Westminster Hall. It remained there for over 24 years until 1685 when it was dislodged during a gale. A soldier found the head and hid it in his chimney. On his deathbed, he bequeathed the relic to his daughter. In 1710 the head appeared in a ‘Freak Show’, described as ‘The Monster’s Head’! For many years the head passed through numerous hands, the value increasing with each transaction until a Dr. Wilkinson bought it.
The head was offered by the Wilkinson family to Sydney Sussex College in 1960, as this was where Oliver Cromwell had studied. It was given a dignified burial in a secret place in the college grounds.
King Charles I (1600 – 1649)
King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and buried at Windsor Castle in the same vault as Henry VIII. The coffin was opened in 1813 and Sir Henry Halford, the royal surgeon, performed an autopsy on the body. He secretly stole Charles’ fourth cervical vertebra and for the next 30 years he loved to shock his friends at dinner parties by using the vertebra as a salt-holder.
Queen Victoria, hearing of this, demanded that the bone was returned to Charles’ coffin immediately. It was!
Louis XIV of France ( 1638- 1715)
During the French Revolution the tomb of the French king was wrecked and plundered. His heart was stolen and sold to Lord Harcourt who later sold it to the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend William Buckland. One night at dinner, the Dean, who liked to experiment with food, ate the embalmed heart!
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)
Sir Walter’s body was buried after his execution but his embalmed head was kept by his wife Elizabeth Throgmorton. She kept it in a red leather bag, by her side, for the last 29 years of her life. Their son Carew took care of it until his death in 1666. Carew was buried in his father’s grave with the head, but in 1680 Carew was exhumed and re-buried, with his father’s head, in West Horsley, Surrey.
Ben Johnson ( 1573 – 1637)
Ben Johnson, the English dramatist, was buried standing up in Westminster Abbey, but in 1849 his grave was disturbed during a later internment. The Dean of Westminster, William Buckland ( see Louis XIV above), stole Johnson’s heel-bone but it later disappeared and was not found again until 1938 when the bone reappeared in an old furniture shop!
*gibbeting: the practice of showing off the bodies of executed criminals in chains at public places, in order to deter others. Gibbets ceased to be used towards the end of the 18th century and gibbeting was formally abolished in 1834.