Tag Archives: medieval history

The Story of King Charles I’s Body

Apr 10, 2017

Okay, so here’s the other story from Windsor Castle that I promised I’d tell, but got way distracted from.

Charles I was a devoted family man, which is one of the reasons I love him.
(c) Astley Hall Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So other than Victoria and Albert, my favorite English monarch is Charles I. Now, this is highly controversial, because the reign of Charles I and the Civil War that resulted (you know, Cromwell and all) is a pivotal moment in British history. A lot of people utterly vilify Charles and adore Cromwell. They say Charles was a tyrant and Cromwell was for the people. Personally, I think Charles was a good man but a terrible king, and Cromwell was an ass who attempted to destroy his country without a plan. But I’ll get to that later. Anyhow, as I said to the tour guide at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, you’re pretty much either Team Charles or Team Cromwell, and I happen to be Team Charles.

For those who don’t know, Charles I believed in the divine right of kings. Which, for Team Charles, means he was just trying to do his job the way he believed God wanted him to. This led him to do a lot of not-so-great things—like dissolving Parliament and taxing people—because those pesky populists and their new, right-wing extreme Protestantism were getting in his way. Oliver Cromwell believed all men were and should be equal in the eyes of God and the law, and so whipped up a revolution in order to oust the old rule and usher in his ideal society. Ergo, the English Civil War. This all happened in the 1640s. (Note: America was barely a glimmer in the milkman’s eyes at this point in history. A few, experimental colonies, yes, but that’s about all)

Long (LONG) story short, Charles lost the war, was captured and imprisoned, and ended up having his head chopped off. Here’s where the fascinating story of Charles I’s remains begins!

Oliver Cromwell. I don’t like him much.

Because Cromwell was firmly in charge as soon as Charles’s head was separated from the rest of him, he forbid the ex-king from being buried with any sort of ceremony whatsoever. ANY ceremony. At all. But Charles had many loyal supporters who wanted to do right by him. So they sewed his head back on his body, and with a high degree of secrecy, they took his remains to St. George’s Chapel inside of Windsor Castle to be interred. And the entire ceremony happened in utter silence, since they were forbidden to even so much as read from the Book of Common Prayer.

So much silence, in fact, that in short order, everyone forgot where they’d buried him. Or rather, it was such a secret that when the people immediately involved were gone, no one knew where the remains were. They knew Charles had been buried in St. George’s Chapel, but not where. They also knew that he was probably buried in the same crypt as Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, but again, the exact location was a little fuzzy. Particularly as St. George’s Chapel was ransacked a couple of times by those pesky Cromwell supporters.

Incidentally, Cromwell was an absolutely terrible leader. He didn’t have a plan. Not one clue. He made a big stink about equality and new ways of doing things and abolishing the monarchy, but he didn’t go into leadership with a clear vision for what should replace monarchy. He tried several forms of government through his tenure as leader, and none of them worked. He pissed people off so much, that after he died, they invited Charles I’s son, Charles II, to come back and restore the monarchy. You can like Cromwell and make excuses for him all you want, but after a country spend years engaged in a bloody civil war, murdered their monarch, and set up a new form of government, you have to admit that you’d have to fail hardcore to say “Nevermind! We want that whole monarchy things back.” Not just any monarchy either. They asked for Charles’s heir, the same royal family as before the war, instead of creating a whole new king. Take that, Team Cromwell!

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. The crypt with Charles I and Henry VIII is under that black slab of marble.

Incidentally again, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dug up again two years after he died, hung from the ramparts in the traditional place criminals who had been executed were displayed, and then destroyed.

Meanwhile, Charles slumbered on, lost and unknown. … Until 1813. At that point, after renovations to St. George’s Chapel, they discovered a crypt that, lo and behold, had three, old coffins in it. One was wrapped in a black velvet shroud with an iron band around it that read “King Charles, 1649.” Excited about finding the martyred king at last, but wanting to make sure they had really found him, they decided to open the coffin and take a look.

The coffin was opened by Sir Henry Halford, president of the Royal College of Physicians. He left a complete record of the proceedings. Inside the coffin, they found a well-preserved body, wrapped in linen and embalming fluids. They peeled back the linens, revealing Charles’s face. Not only was it in good shape (although the skin was dark, as happens, you know), everyone remarked that he looked exactly like all of the famous portraits that had been painted of him. But more than that, his left eye was open, and the eyeball was still intact. It stared right up at them for a few seconds before oxidation disintegrated it!

To complete the visual ID, they checked around the back of the head to make sure it had been severed and sewn back on. The leather stitches were long gone, but the head had clearly been chopped off at some point. Also, Charles had luxuriant, thick, brown hair, which was still in very good condition. To prove the head was Charles’s, Halford picked up the head and showed it around to people. Bleh! After that, he put it back. BUT before sealing up the coffin again, Halford nabbed one of Charles’s teeth, a clipping of his beard, and one of his cervical vertebrae.

An artist’s rendering of what’s inside the crypt. Charles is on the left. Notice Henry VIII’s squashed coffin in the center.

That wasn’t the end of things. Halford took his souvenirs home. He had the vertebrae covered in silver, and he used it as a salt cellar. It was a popular conversation piece at his dinner table. Ahem* That is, until his grandson inherited the relics. In 1888, Halford’s grandson approached the crown, explaining the relics, and returning them to the royal family. At that point, the future King Edward VII, secured permission from his mother, Queen Victoria, to reopen the crypt so that the pieces of Charles could be reunited with the rest of him. Victoria agreed. The crypt was opened by workers, but Edward went in by himself to replace the relics, now housed in a small, ebony casket. That done, the crypt was resealed, and it hasn’t been disturbed since.

One other interesting side note for you Henry VIII fans. When the crypt was opened in 1813, it was noted that Henry VIII’s coffin had been smashed. Bones were visible inside, but it was clear the body had disintegrated. It is speculated that the destruction happened when Charles was interred. The theory is that the burial happened in such haste that the men placing Charles in the crypt crunched into Henry VIII’s coffin, cracking the top. Jane Seymour’s coffin is completely intact and has never been disturbed, though. And there is also another coffin in that crypt, an infant child of Queen Anne. Although I don’t know the story of how and when that ended up there.

Where Did Robert’s Rules of Order Come From?

Mar 10, 2014

220px-Roberts_Rules_1stOkay, without going into too much detail that I’m not at liberty to discuss, I learned more about the minutiae of Robert’s Rules of Order last week than I ever wanted to know in a lifetime! Sure, I was familiar with Robert’s Rules. I’m pretty sure that anyone who has served on a committee in the English-speaking world knows something about Robert’s Rules. I have always detested them too. So much red tape! So many procedures to follow! They have always made me groan.

This past week, however, I learned firsthand just how brilliant they are. And by brilliant, I mean that they have the ability to stave off utter chaos and to make sense of a senseless situation.

But who was Robert anyhow, and what made him such an expert on rules?

I was surprised to find out that Robert’s Rules weren’t as old as I thought they were. For some reason, I was under the impression that they were created in the 1700s. In fact, the original book Robert’s Rules of Order was published in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert. Robert was an engineer with the U.S. Army. (He retired as a Brigadier General) Yes, leave it to an engineer to come up with a way to make order out of chaos.

As the story goes, in 1863, Robert was asked to lead a public meeting at his church. He knew nothing about how to run a meeting, and as he dreaded, the meeting was a complete disaster and he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing. Not one to be set back by one experience, he began researching parliamentary procedure in various different places and bodies, looking for what the standard rules of conduct were.

It is perhaps to the advantage of all of history and mankind that as an army officer, Robert was moved frequently from place to place. In the process, he was asked to serve on or head more committees. What he discovered was even more chaos. Different areas of the country had different rules and customs, many of which clashed. He knew that something needed to be done, some kind of clear guidelines needed to be established and disseminated to prevent meetings from falling apart.

House of Rep 1965Robert loosely modeled his Rules on the procedures of the United States House of Representatives of the time. He referred to much of what he wrote about as “common knowledge” or at least common sense, so we can imply that some version of these procedural rules had been in use for some time. The full original title of the first edition of the book was called Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, however the title Robert’s Rules of Order was printed on the cover.

Since that first printing in February of 1876, there have been eleven editions of Robert’s Rules. The final edition penned by Robert himself was published in 1915 under the name Robert’s Rules of Order Revised. In 1970, the seventh edition was drastically revised and published under the title Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. Nowadays, this is abbreviated as RONR.

Here’s the interesting catch with the current eleventh edition of RONR, published in 2011. A note at the beginning states that this version supersedes all other versions of the Rules, unless an organization explicitly states that they are working off of an earlier edition. Why is this significant? Because the current edition specifies protocol for 21st century type meetings, like videoconferences and email. So there very well could be entities out there not acting in accordance with RONR whose by-laws state that their meetings and business should be run according to the rules.

Pretty neat, eh? Or maybe I’m just a giant nerd like that. It makes me want to run out and buy the eleventh edition so I can make sure all of those things I think are being done right in the many organizations I belong to that use the rules are actually doing things right.

And after last week, I have a whole new appreciation for Robert and everything that he did to organize the whirlwind of differing opinions in an organization!

For more information, you can visit the official Robert’s Rules of Order website!

2013 Book #27 – The Highlander’s Sin, by Eliza Knight

Oct 23, 2013

Ooo! Ooo! Guys! I just finished reading The Highlander’s Sin, by Eliza Knight, and you’ve gotta read this! It’s not often that I say that, but this time I mean it. Here’s why….


So as you might imagine, The Highlander’s Sin is a romance tale of medieval Scotland. Now, Highlander books are an entire sub-genre in romance and one that’s very hot right now. But I have a confession to make. They’ve never really been my thing. Oh, sure, who doesn’t enjoy a hunky guy in a kilt now and then? Even I am not immune to those charms. It just isn’t a sub-genre that I rush to read, no matter what. Continue reading

That Time When I Was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth … The First

Jun 14, 2013
Yep, that's me - soaking wet and covered in vanilla cream and cherry topping, being knighted by the queen!

Yep, that’s me – soaking wet and covered in vanilla cream and cherry topping, being knighted by the queen!

It was a balmy day in September. I was getting ready to wrap up a wonderful, frightening, exciting time in my life. High school and one year of college were behind me, and all the world lay in front of me. I was getting ready to say goodbye to my summertime companions, people who expanded my way of thinking and made me feel like I could be funny if I wanted to. For most of them, it was the last time I would see them.

There was a pie fight. I was thrown in a pool fully dressed and in front of an audience. Then I was knighted by Queen Elizabeth … the first.

Yep. I was an actor at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and that’s what happened on my last day there. For three days a week, July through October, over two summers, 1992 and 1993, I dressed up in full costume and ran around pretending to be a medieval peasant. Ah ha! That’s where I got it from, you say. You know what, you’d be exactly right.

Renaissance Faires are crazy places. Absolutely out of their mind wacko. Take a bunch of aspiring or waning actors, give them intensive history, Renaissance English, and dialect lessons for ten weeks, hop them up on caffeine, alcohol, and a severe lack of sleep, then let them loose in an “accurately recreated” *cough*yeah right*cough* renaissance village and let them do their thing. Pure pandemonium. Continue reading

A Brief History of Modern Surgery

Apr 08, 2013

So a few weeks ago I begged the question “Are we healthier now than we were 100 years ago?”. The answer seems to be that while we have the potential to be healthier, we choose not to be, opting for convenience instead. One of the things I mentioned in that post was that there are a lot of supposedly modern things that have been around for far longer than people realize. And realizing just how long some of our “modern” conveniences have existed might change your perception of what life was like back in the day.

I have no idea, but it made me laugh.  A lot.

I have no idea, but it made me laugh. A lot.

Surgery is one of those things that people assume is an invention of the last fifty years or so. Actually, it’s not. Surgery – operating on the human body to remove, relieve, or alter something that is causing disease – dates back to prehistoric times. Yep, it does. Archeological evidence and ancient documentation from cultures in the Indus valley, Egypt, and China all include references to surgery and surgeons. Granted, these were primitive procedures, amputations, removal of external tumors, and trepanation (drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure – also sometimes a spiritual practice), but significant evidence exists that patients survived these procedures.

The Classical world had a thriving surgical practice, led by the efforts of the Greek physician Hippocrates (you may have heard of him) and dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius. The Ancient Greeks attempted and even succeeded at surgeries that were reasonably complicated. The surgeon Galen (who also contributed much to the theory of the humors) is even recorded as having performed brain and eye surgeries. Things that no one attempted again for nearly two thousand years.

Of course, as with everything else, a lot of knowledge was lost in the Middle Ages. But that didn’t mean medieval physicians didn’t achieve their own advances. As the university movement grew in the High Middle Ages, universities, particularly in Bologna, began experimenting with surgery again, including caesarian births and even cancer surgery.

But the era of modern surgery, surgery as we would recognize it, was a more recent invention. How recent, you ask? Surely mid to late twentieth century, right? Nope. Try mid nineteenth century, with some key advances coming as early as the seventeenth century.

The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins - 1875

The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins – 1875

The key to advancing modern surgery came with the recognition that for it to be a viable form of medical treatment, three things had to be controlled: blood loss, pain, and infection.

Blood loss was the first hurdle that was cleared. Before the Early Modern era, cauterization was used to close serious wounds and stop blood flow. But it was problematic in the long run. It was the 16th century battlefield surgeon Ambroise Paré who returned to a method of stopping blood flow long enough to operate used in the ancient world – ligatures. With the rediscovery that you could tie off blood vessels, treatment for gunshot wounds and other dire situations advanced.

But there were still the problems of pain and infection. It was difficult to operate on a patient who was screaming and writhing as you cut into them. In the ancient world patients had been drugged with opiates to keep them steady, but by the nineteenth century, more was needed. The discoveries of ether and chloroform and their practical use in the 1840s by James Young Simpson and John Snow meant that you could put a patient under, giving you time to operate. And no, that wasn’t a typo. 1840s. That’s probably about a hundred years before most people assume something like that was possible.

Of course, the biggest factor in bringing surgery into the modern world as an effective tool for treating disease was the control of infection. The work of Louis Pasteur and the advancement of the germ theory of disease helped people to understand infection, but even before they understood it they realized it was an issue.

In 1847 a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, noticed that there were fewer incidences of mother and infant death from infection when doctors washed their hands before delivering babies. He made the connection … but was laughed at. But others were beginning to notice the connection as well. John Lister, who studied Pasteur’s work, began using phenol during surgeries as a “disinfectant”. Lister published an article on surgical disinfectants in 1867. Others built on those advances and experimented with other means of disinfecting instruments, surgeries, and wounds. Note that, 1867.

Cancer surgery in 1949Wikimedia Commons

Cancer surgery in 1949
Wikimedia Commons

Last year when I was reading the book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, I was struck by his extensive description of cancer surgeries and tumor removals, including mastectomies, that were happening in the 1870s and 1880s. That book and Mukherjee’s research is what inspired me to look into the question of how long ago were major surgeries being performed. The answer surprised me, and I’m a history apologist. The fact is, but the second half of the nineteenth century, surgeries were being performed with an ever-increasing survival rate. Granted, they weren’t as common as they are now, but the knowledge and technical advances were all there.

So next time you think of medical treatment in the nineteenth century as being gross and archaic, stop and think again. This was an era when scientific advancement was all the rage and progress was a daily occurrence. From the 1840s on the technical know-how did exist. It would take a while for it to become mainstream, especially for the poor, and as the understanding of infection and later the invention of penicillin came to light it would become more effective with a smaller mortality rate, but surgery has been a part of our medical history for well over a hundred and fifty years.