by Leanda de Lisle
On 30 January 1649, they cut off Charles I’s head. Then they abolished the monarchy. The ‘king’s crown’ once the symbol of ‘a people’s love’ was valued at £1100. It had adorned the heads of every monarch since Henry VIII. The jewels were sold. The gold sent to the mint to be melted down, even the figures of the saints and kings said to adorn it. Nothing survived – or so it was thought.
The British Museum now has in its possession a treasure handed over by a 49-year-old metal detectorist, Kevin Duckett. He found it on a beautiful day in a Leicestershire field in 2017. For twenty years he had been discovering coins and other historical artifacts and he had been given permission to treasure hunt at a new farm. He spotted a pond where the earth had been disturbed by cattle. Exploring with his XP Golmaxx he soon had a good signal.
Kevin flipped a clod of earth with his spade and what he saw made him drop to his knees. There, he told me, poking out, ‘like a partially unwrapped present’, was the solid gold figure of a king. The craftsmanship of this figure is exquisite. He wears a closed ‘imperial’ crown of fleurs de lys, carries an orb and sceptre, and stands on an antelope. The gold also bears remnants of ronde-bosse enamelling – an expensive technique used in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and of which there are few survivals. One example is the Dunstable swan made around 1400, which is in the British Museum.
So who was this king, and what was this object for? The antelope is the heraldic beast of the Lancastrian kings and used by Henry IV, V, and VI. The crown on the figure is very similar to one depicted on Henry V in a carved image at Westminster Abbey. But the long hair is distinctively that of his son, Henry VI, who became king when he was less than a year old in 1422. Pious and studious, he founded Eton College. But he also suffered severe bouts of mental illness.
Henry VI’s failed rule triggered what we remember as the Wars of the Roses with the rival royal house of York. In 1471 Henry VI’s only son was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire aged 17. When the victorious Yorkist king, Edward IV, returned to London, Henry VI died suddenly in the Tower. It was said he have suffered a fatal fit of ‘grief and rage’ on hearing of the death of his son. But when his tomb was opened in 1910 a very large dent was found in the back of his head.
Edward IV hoped that the murder of Henry VI would be the end of the Lancastrian claim, but the late king’s fourteen-year-old half nephew, Henry Tudor escaped to Brittany. And something else, very unexpected, also happened. The English people decided that Henry VI was a saint. His mental illness meant he was an ‘innocent’, without sin, and so in heaven. He may have been a failed king but he was a decent man. People began to pray to him and soon they were claiming ‘Saint Henry’ had performed miracles.
A cult sprang up. Images of Saint Henry appeared in churches and prayer books, pilgrims visited his tomb at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey. The gold figure Kevin found is marked the base SH – Saint Henry. After Edward IV died, his brother Richard III attempted to take control of the cult by moving Henry VI’s body to the Garter chapel at Windsor where Edward IV was buried. This act of reconciliation did not, however, extend to Henry Tudor.
In 1485, Henry Tudor sailed from France to Wales, and that August he killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He was declared king on the field with Richard’s helmet crown. But he had no real blood claim to the throne. His Lancastrian blood was illegitimate. So the new Henry VII encouraged the cult to ‘Saint Henry’. He claimed that his holy uncle had prophesised his rule and so it was divinely ordained.
Henry VI’s tomb at Windsor became the most popular pilgrimage site in England – greater even than Thomas Becket’s tombs at Canterbury which was the third most popular pilgrimage site in Europe. Might the gold figure of Henry VI be a unique survival of the cult of Saint Henry? The pin at the back of the figure suggests it was attached to something heavy. It is unlikely therefore to be a pilgrimage badge, which were usually led alloy tat, and which pilgrims wore pinned to their clothes.
Perhaps the gold king was part of a casket that held relics associated with Henry VI. The old St Paul’s cathedral was hung with hundreds of jewelled caskets containing the bones of saints. Very few have survived as those who saw the exhibition at the BM in 2011 will remember. The Garter chapel Windsor held a number of relics of Henry VI, including his hat and spurs and a piece of his bedstead.
Kevin took his figure to the Antiques Road Show in May 2018. Geoffrey Munn wondered if it had been a mount for a scared text. He did not feel he qualified to value it, however, as it was outside his field of expertise. The British Museum were pressing Kevin to hand over the figure before he had completed any further research and also contacted the Road Show. They may already have known what Kevin was to discover in January 2020: an association with the crown of 1649.
Kevin was googling Henry VI and the Tudors when a link came up to a YouTube film by Historic Royal Palaces. They had made a replica of the king’s crown destroyed after Charles I execution for an exhibition at Hampton Court. The crown was said to date back to the early Tudors and the film mentioned a figure of Henry VI, so Kevin went to Hampton Court.
Kevin found himself staring at a jewel encrusted ‘imperial’ crown, of crosses and fleur de lys – the royal symbol of France. The Tudors had never accepted the French victory in the Hundred Years War and claimed to be Kings of France as well as England. What astonished Kevin, however, was that staring back at him, fixed in a fleur de lys, was a cruder version of his figure of Henry VI, and without its corbal.
So is Kevin’s find part of the lost Tudor crown? What evidence is there to support Historic Royal Palaces’ reconstruction?
The Tudor crown was first described during the reign of Henry VIII. It appears in an inventory of 152I, when Henry VIII was still a young, handsome king. It was decorated with jewels, had five crosses and as many fleur de lys. in which were fixed three figures of Christ, one of St George and one of the Virgin and child. A new inventory made on Henry VIII’s death in 1547, gives a slightly different description. The figures of Christ have been replaced with three kings.
There were good reasons to exchange the images of Christ for three kings. Henry VI used to wear his crown for processions on at least six Holy days. In the Tudor Royal Book, 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 the three saint kings of England, St Edmund, Edward the Confessor – and Henry VI.
Although the Reformation brought an end to the cult of saints, Henry VI remained important to Henry VIII. At his funeral, Henry VIII’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. The one innovation was a newly made banner of the standard of Henry VI. But then Henry VIII’s Reformation was more a nationalised form of Catholicism than the Protestantism introduced during the reign of his son Edward VI.
The relics at St George’s chapel were removed from public view or destroyed, as the iconoclasm of the period reached new heights. By the end of the Tudor era over 90% of religious art had was destroyed. The standard made for Henry VIII’ s funeral was still hanging in St George’s Chapel at Windsor when the Stuart dynasty under James VI&I succeeded in 1603. But Henry VI’s tomb was so decayed it had been removed by 1611.
By the time Charles I became king in 1625, the name of Henry VI was no longer associated with piety, but with failed rule and civil war. It is significant, therefore, that at his coronation in 1626 it was reported a prayer drawing attention to Charles’s spiritual role as king, had used for the first time since Henry VI. In reality the prayer reflected Henry VIII’s Royal Supremacy over the church, claimed at the time of the break with Rome.
The Royal Supremacy 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. This was what many feared Charles intended. 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’.
After his coronation, Charles continued to wear the Tudor crown for the opening of parliament. At his first parliament he doffed his crown to MPs, as if he was tipping his hat. But he increasingly quarrelled with his MPs over religious and secular matters. For eleven years, from 1629 to 1640, he ruled without one. It was during the early part of this period, in 1631, that Charles was painted by the artist Daniel Mytens standing alongside the Tudor crown. (Editor’s Note — See lead portrait.)
Historic royal palaces have used the Mytens image to re-create the replica: you can see the crosses and fluers de lys, as well as the image of the Virgin and child at the front. Charles’s court was enjoying what the poet Thomas Carew called its ‘halycon days’, a time of idyllic peace, while Europe was suffering the horrors of the Thirty Years War. But there is a very different image of Charles painted by Van Dyck eight years later, in 1639.
Charles had attempted to impose an English-style Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Scots. It had triggered a riot and then rebellion. As Charles prepared to go to war Van Dyck painted Charles in armour, with his crown. There again, are the fleurs de lys and the crosses – but no image of the Virgin and Child. Van Dyck had painted the crown from the back and from this view, it is evident it has been cut down.
Henry VIII’s children, and the Stuart kings, James and Charles, were all much smaller people than he was. It is an ugly view of the crown. The only advantage was you could not see the Virgin – or where it was. It is notable there are also no figures of kings to be seen. Had Charles removed them to avoid any suggestion of Popery?
Charles failed to defeat the Scots and in 1642 his arguments with parliament led to civil war in England. Just over two years later parliament began to melt down royal plate to pay for their armies. This despite objections from the House of Lords that its antiquity, ‘the fashion of it, the badges on it’ made it ‘more worth than the plate itself’. For the more extreme Protestants – the Puritans – any religious imagery remained idolatrous.
Even Henry VIII unfinished tomb in St George’s chapel was demolished with the additional order that ‘such images as may be used in any superstitious manner be defaced’. That superstitious images nevertheless survived is suggested by the fact a pair of angels intended for Henry VIII’s tomb at Windsor, ended up on the gates of Harrowden Hall and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But perhaps the golden figure of Henry VI was with Charles and not amongst the remains of the royal tombs in St George’s chapel, or the Tower, where the crown was kept. The find site is close to Bloodyman’s ford near Market Harborough, on the route Charles fled from the battle of Naseby in 1645. It was said that his pistols ‘that he did charge himself’ were taken, as he escaped on horse through a body of enemy. Many royalists followed in his wake.
The king’s baggage was captured and there was a horrendous massacre of up to 400 women in the baggage train. Parliament described the women were killed or mutilated as witches and whores. In fact, they were women like the old royal servant who arranged the flowers in the palaces and many were the ‘middling sort’ who fled in coaches ‘full of money and rich apparel’.
Oliver Cromwell ordered his cavalry to finish the chase before they began to plunder, and many small but valuable goods could have fallen and been lost on the road to Market Harborough. Seven of the women’s coaches reached the town before they were captured.
If the figure Henry VI was lost from the king’s baggage it was an appropriate end, for this marked a turning point in the civil war Charles was destined to lose.
In January 1649, after Charles was condemned and executed, the king’s head was stitched back on his corpse. His body was then put on public display, just like that of Henry VI. The killers wished to prove Charles dead so that the people would move on and reconcile with their new rulers. But as with Henry VI, there was an unexpected after-story.
Before Charles’s death, 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 so-called Eikon Basilike – Ancient Greek for ‘Royal Portrait’ – depicted Charles carrying a crown of thorns, like Christ before his crucifixion. His earthly crown lies at his feet, and he looks up to the heavenly crown he will wear in heaven. Like Henry VI, Charles was being declared a Saint.
The Eikon Basilike (pronounced Icon Bas-ill-e-kay) was an international bestseller by the time the coronation regalia was destroyed. The stones for the Tudor crown were bagged up and sold over the next two years. 232 pearls went for £320, 19 sapphires for £198, 56 rubies to £200, 2 emeralds for £5, 28 diamonds for £191, 10 shillings and 6 pence. The gold from the crown went to the mint. There was no mention of the figures.
The little gold Henry VI 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 nothing further was said of the three kings who had once featured on the Tudor crown.
The mystery of the gold Henry VI is yet to be unravelled by the British Museum. Stolen or merely lost, is this rare and precious object found in a field near where a massacre took place, the adornment of a reliquary, a prayer-book – or part of the lost Tudor crown?
About the Author
Leanda de Lisle is a renowned, award-winning journalist and historian. Leanda is the highly acclaimed author of four books on the Tudors and Stuarts, including After Elizabeth (Saltire First Book of the Year Award), The Sisters Who Would Be Queen (New York Times Top 10 Best Seller), Tudor- The Family Story (Sunday Times Top 10 Best Seller), and The White King: Charles I – Traitor,Murderer, Martyr (Historical Writers Association Non-Fiction Crown). She also regularly writes and speaks on historical matters for TV, radio and a number of publications including The Times, the Spectator and Daily Express. She lives in Leicestershire, fittingly near Bosworth Battlefield. For more information, visit Leanda’s website at LEANDA DE LISLE.