On 30th January 1649 parliament cut off Charles I’s head. A year later the ‘king’s crown’, dating from the early Tudors, was ‘totally broken and defaced’. Charles’s father King James had called it ‘the symbol of a people’s love’. Parliament valued it at £1,100. The jewels were sold. The gold sent to the mint to be melted down for coin. Nothing survived – or so it was thought.
In the vaults of the British museum lies a treasure handed over by a 49-year-old metal detectorist, Kevin Duckett. He had flipped a clod of earth in a Northamptonshire field on a sunny day just like many others spent pursing his hobby of twenty years. What he saw had made him drop to his knees. Poking out, ‘like a partially unwrapped present’ was, he recalls, the gold figure of a king.
And quite a present it has proved to be, for this could be a remnant of Christmas past: the crown Henry VIII wore for processions on the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the Magi visiting the Christ child.
The gold king stands on an antelope, the heraldic beast of the Lancastrian kings. He bears the remnants of ronde-bosse enamelling – an expensive technique used in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and of which there are few surviving examples. They include the Dunstable swan, a badge, which is in the British Museum, and a virgin and child from a miniature devotional altarpiece in the V&A. Both are dated c 1400.
The king’s features indicate it is Henry VI, who inherited the throne as a baby in 1422. Pious and studious, he founded Eton College. But his bouts of mental illness and failed rule led to the period of civil strife we know as the Wars of the Roses. In 1471 Henry VI was murdered in the Tower on the orders on his victorious rival, the Yorkist king Edward IV. But the English in their wisdom, decided that while Henry VI had been a bad king, he was a good man, and declared him a saint. The base of the gold figure is marked SH – for Saint Henry.
Prayers to the king led to miracles. When, during the early 1480s, Thomas Fuller of Hammersmith was hanged on a false charge of stealing cattle, he prayed to the king, whom he said kept him alive for a whole hour by thrusting a hand between the rope and his windpipe until he was cut down. Images of Saint Henry appeared in churches and prayer books. Edward IV tried to suppress the cult, then his brother Richard III tried to control it, moving Henry VI’s body from Chertsey Abbey in Surrey to St George’s chapel at Windsor. But the cult was to prove extremely useful to his half nephew, Henry Tudor.
The first Tudor King had no blood claim to the throne, since he was only of illegitimate Lancastrian descent. But after he defeated Richard III, at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, he declared that his holy uncle had prophesised his rule as divinely ordained. Henry VI, encouraged the cult to his uncle and the tomb of Henry VI at Windsor became the most popular pilgrimage site in England: greater even that that of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury, which was the third most popular pilgrimage site in Europe.
The fixing at the back of the gold figure suggested it was attached to something. The British museum have listed it a pilgrimage badge – other survivals are all made of lead or pewter so this would have been a very special one. It was found near a pond. Many such badges have been found near water as if thrown in water as an offering. Yet this is gold! Could it have fallen off a girdle belt known as a surceinte? Or might it have been part of something more significant like a reliquary? Visitors to Windsor revered relics like Henry VI’s hat, spurs, and a piece of his bedstead. Or was it pinned on a miniature altarpiece, like the V&A’s virgin? Over 90% of all religious art was destroyed after the Reformation so this would be a rare survival.
But earlier this year Kevin came across a still more startling possibility. Historic Royal Palaces had made a video about a replica they had made of Charles I’s crown. There were crosses and fleurs de lys encrusted with jewels. There were also indistinct figures of three kings. They were attached to the crown with a similar fixing to the gold figure he had found. He went to see the crown exhibited at Hampton Court and saw, to his shock, staring back him, a cruder version of his gold king.
So what evidence is there to support Historic Royal Palaces’ reconstruction?
The 1649 crown was first described during the reign of Henry VIII in an inventory of 152I. On the fleur de lys. were fixed three figures of Christ, one of St George and one of the Virgin and child. A later inventory made on Henry VIII’s death in 1547, gives a slightly different description. The figures of Christ have been replaced with three kings. It is possible one or both of the scribes made an error in the description but there were also good reasons to exchange the images of Christ. Three identical images of Christ in close proximity would be highly unusual, even controversial. Was it a poor representation of the Trinity? This would be a reason for their removal. But there is also a positive reason to replace them with three kings.
Henry VI used to wear his crown for processions on at least six Holy days. In the Tudor Ryalle Book of household regulations it was decreed that the king should be processed in his crown on only one: the feast of the Epiphany. This commemorated when the Maji – that is the three kings – visited the Christ child. Historic Royal Palaces believe these would have been depicted as the three saint kings of England: St Edmund, Edward the Confessor – and Henry VI. They suggest this is a choice Henry VIII might have made to highlight his authority over the church. If that was the case, however, he was surely have been more likely to choose King Arthur? Henry VIII believed that Arthur had been emperor and wielded an ‘imperium’ over church and state. This gave him his right to a ‘royal supremacy’ over the church in England.
Henry VIII showed little respect for Edward the Confessor or King Edmund after the Reformation. Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey was desecrated and Edmund’s shrine in Bury St Edmund’s was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. It is possible, however, that three English saint kings had been added to the crown between 1521 and 1533 – the year of the break with Rome. And although the Reformation brought an end to cult of saints, Henry VIII remained attached to the memory of his great uncle, Henry VI.
At Henry VIII’s funeral in 1547 the king’s coffin was surrounded by the same banners carried at the processions of earlier kings: those of the Trinity, of St George and of the Virgin ( a reason that such images may have appeared on the crown). The one innovation was a newly made banner of the standard of Henry VI. But by the end of the Tudor period, however, only the standard remained in the chapel: the relics and ‘riches’ that once adorned the altar dedicated to Henry VI were all gone, and the tomb was so decayed that it was cleared away by 1611.
The Stuart King James VI & I – who was then on the throne – called Henry a ‘silly, weak king’. When Charles I inherited the throne in 1625 Henry VI’s name was no longer associated with piety, but with failed rule and civil war. This being so, a contemporary report that a prayer was said at Charles’s coronation in 1626 for the first time since the reign of Henry VI, signalled something amiss.
The prayer in question drew attention to Charles’s spiritual role as King. The Royal Supremacy over the church had always been a double-edged sword for English Protestants. A monarch could use it to advance the Reformation – or to send it into reverse. Charles preferred a more ceremonial form of Protestantism than many of his subjects, who thought his reforms of the Church of England to be ‘Popish’. These concerns were being expressed even in his first parliament in 1625.
Charles had worn the Tudor crown at the opening of that parliament, when he was described as doffing it to MPs, as if he was tipping his hat. It was to be the highpoint of his relationship with his parliaments which broke down entirely in 1629 to be followed by 11 years of personal rule. The replica at Hampton Court is based on a portrait of Charles painted by the artist Daniel Mytens two years later, in 1631. He stands in a velvet suit alongside the crown. You can see the figure of the Virgin and child on the front fleurs de lys.
Charles’s court was enjoying what the poet Thomas Carew called its ‘halycon days’, a time of idyllic peace while Europe was convulsed by the horrors of the Thirty years War. Charles’s enemies looked back on it as the ‘eleven years tyranny’. There is a very different image of Charles and his crown painted by Van Dyck, in the latter part of this period, as he faced a Scottish rebellion against his religious reforms.
Charles had attempted to impose an English style Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Scots who considered it ‘Popish’. It had triggered a riot and now, in 1639, war. As Charles prepared to go to battle Van Dyck painted the king in armour, with his crown – but this time it was painted from the back. It is evident it has been cut down: Henry VIII’s successors were all much smaller people than he had been. It is an ugly view. So why use it?
You cannot see the Virgin fixed at the front. Was Charles anxious to avoid any suggestion of Popery? It is also notable there are no visible figures of kings. Had they been removed, even before the civil war broke out in England in 1642? And if so, where were they?
In 1644, parliament began to melt down royal plate to pay for their armies. This was despite objections that its antiquity, ‘the fashion of it, the badges on it’ made it ‘more worth than the plate itself’. But for ‘hot Protestants’ any religious imagery remained idolatrous. In the Garter Chapel at Windsor items made for Henry VIII tomb were broken up. A pair of angels ended up on the gates of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. Perhaps items from Henry VI’s tomb had also remained in a back room and were now broken and dispersed. The Tudor crown, kept in the Tower, remained intact. Or as intact as Charles had left it before the war.
Had Charles kept the three saint kings with him? Did he feel some connection to Henry VI? It was now being claimed that Charles was the first king to be crowned in white since the reign Henry VI and that like that doomed king, he would fulfil the prophecy of ‘the white king’ destined for a violent death. Charles never seems to have mentioned Henry VI in any of his writings and the figure of Henry VI would be a strange talisman to have kept, except for one thing.
Charles’s chaplain Henry Hammond was born at Chertsey – Henry VI’s original burial place – and educated at Eton, the school he founded. Charles was haunted by the belief that all his misfortunes were God’s punishment on him for signing the death warrant of his unpopular servant Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, a man Charles believed to be innocent of the treason he was accused of. Henry VI had once saved a man from a hanging. Did Hammond – to whom Charles had grown very close – encourage Charles to see a connection?
There may be a thousand reasons why the gold figure of Henry VI ended up in a Northamptonshire field. But it is striking that the find site is exactly on the route Charles fled from the battle of Naseby in 1645, and in a place that saw extreme violence. At one point Charles had to break through a group of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry to escape. Cromwell had ordered them not to stop to plunder under the king was caught. It was said the pistols ‘that he did charge himself’ were lost as he charged through the roundheads, jumping a stream as he did so. Perhaps it wasn’t all he dropped.
Many royalists followed in the Charles’s wake. Several were killed at a spot known as Bloodyman’s ford. The king’s baggage was captured and there was a massacre of up to 400 women in the baggage train. Many of those not killed were mutilated, their faces slashed in the ‘whores mask’, noses cut off, mouths sliced into a terrible grin.
The dead included members of Charles’s household, like the old woman who had arranged flowers in the palaces since the days of king James. This ‘middling sort’ had fled in wagons ‘full of money and rich apparel’. Seven had reached Market Harbourgh before they were caught. The find site is near the main road to Market Harbough, east of East Farndon – a name associated indelibly with the massacre – and south of Bloodyman’s Ford.
Naseby marked a turning point in the civil war that Charles was destined to lose. Like Henry VI he would die violently and go on to be declared a saint. This image was in part crafted by the king. Before Charles’s execution he had defended his actions in a work of propaganda that declared him a martyr for his people and the Church of England. It was being sold in London on the very afternoon of his death. The cover of the Eikon Basilike – or ‘Royal Portrait’ – depicted Charles carrying a crown of thorns. His earthly crown lies at his feet, and he looks up to the heavenly crown he will wear in heaven. It was an international best seller by the time the orders were made for the coronation regalia to be destroyed.
The Tudor crown was weighed at 7lb, six ounces. The stones were bagged up and sold over emeralds for £5, 28 diamonds for £191, 10 shillings and 6 pence. There was no mention of a figure of Henry VI. It may have been stolen. The Keeper of the King’s Jewel house, Sir Henry Mildmay who had always hated Charles, and sat in judgement on the king at his trial, was later caught concealing £1800 worth of royal plate. This was nearly half the value of all the recorded discoveries. But perhaps it was already lying in the mud and blood in Northamptonshire.
The true story of the gold king remains for the British Museum to unravel pending valuation and reward consideration according to the treasure process. Meanwhile, the only intact item of the ancient coronation regalia to survive the destruction of 1649 is in the Tower. A twelfth century anointing spoon it was used at the coronations of both the Lancastrian and the Stuart ‘martyr’ kings.
If you are interested in learning more about Henry VI and the Tudors you may enjoy the best-selling Tudor, The Family Story. If you wish to know more about Charles I, enjoy my prize winning White King: The Tragedy of Charles I.