Thursday, 4 June 2020

'So full of beauty, so empty of brains!'; the mummified head of Holy Trinity Minories

In October 1879 Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were upsetting the balance of power in Europe by entering into the Dual Alliance, Bolivia, Chile and Peru were battling over guano and sodium nitrate rights in the Atacama Desert in the Saltpetre War, Russia and China put an end to mutual hostilities by signing the Treaty of Livadia but on terms so unfavourable to the Qing Dynasty that the Chinese negotiator was immediately sentenced to death by the Emperor, and Oxford University’s  resistance to sexual equality finally started to crumble with the admission of the first female undergraduates at Lady Margaret and Somerville Halls. The attention of the readers of the London Times skirted over these momentous events at home and abroad however and found itself fixed instead on a grisly artefact discovered almost thirty years earlier in the crypt of the church of Holy Trinity Minories.  A visit to the church to see a mummified head kept in a battered box by the curate inspired Claude Webster of the Temple to write a letter to the Editor. Webster's missive initiated a flurry of correspondence and controversy on the head which some believed to be the cranium of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and father of Lady Jane Grey, the nine day queen, who was beheaded at the Tower of London on 23 February 1554, 11 days after the execution of his daughter. On October 10 this first letter appeared under the headline ‘A Neglected Relic’;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, A visit recently paid to the old and well-nigh forsaken little church of the Holy Trinity in the Minories gave me an opportunity of inspecting the mummified head of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, who was beheaded for high treason in 1554, and which may there be seen in company with the parish registers. This suggestive relic of the Maryan age is in the highest state of preservation, having, by the accident of its having been for a couple of centuries or more wrapped up in oak saw dust, become converted into leather, to which in touch and appearance it will exactly compare… My purpose, however, in this letter is not to go into the question of the value of the evidence of identity of this remarkable object; Dr. Bell has pretty well determined that; but rather to invoke, through your columns, the aid of the Government in taking the needful steps for the suitable care of this unique and mournful relic. At present the head, as already stated, is in a really good state of preservation, showing the eyes, teeth, and, on the back of the neck, even the double blow of the axe; is deposited in a commonplace metal box, and may be taken up in the bands of any inquirer, and is dealt with, no doubt, often roughly without a thought. The curate of the church made no difficulty in allowing myself and accompanying friends to do what we would with the relic, which was replaced in its box, as it was taken from it, with as little ceremony as you would use with a parchment deed or register. Surely so interesting a remain as this pleads itself in its own mute and life-like features for more considerate treatment. If still left in the dingy, forlorn old church, in which it has reposed forgotten and neglected for so many years, the head might, at least, be securely placed in a glass case, and so fixed to the walls of the building as that its surreptitious removal would be difficult. Let the relic be treated with suitable dignity and consideration, even if it be regarded as the only example extant of a head severed from its body by the headman's axe but as the father possibly of Lady Jane Grey, whose pitiful story will never be forgotten while English history remains to have a reader, this interesting object has a claim of no ordinary kind, which doubtless only requires to be made known to be suitably recognised. The Legge family, represented by the existing Earldom of Dartmouth, long used this church as their place of sepulture, the vaults being filled with its members. They have ceased to be buried there, and hence probably, have ceased to take an interest in the church, or I feel assured this matter would not have escaped their notice. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. Claude Webster, Temple October 8th.

Holy Trinity Minories photographed in the 1880's. 
Far from London, William Quekett the rector of Warrington and erstwhile vicar of Christ Church Watney Street was considerably excited by Mr Webster’s letter and immediately dashed off a response, sharing his memories of the discovery of the mummified head almost thirty years earlier; 

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, Perhaps I may be able to throw some little light upon the discovery of this relic. In the year 1851 my son was a scholar at Merchant Taylors' School, and the Rev. Mr. Blunt, the incumbent of Holy Trinity, Minories, was one of the masters of the school, and well known to me. One day a message was brought to me by my son that Mr. Blunt wished to see me at Holy Trinity, Minories, for he had a great curiosity to show me. At the appointed time I met Mr. Blunt there, and he produced a small decayed oaken box -the cover destroyed- and in it there was a human head perfectly preserved. It looked just like a New Zealand chief's head, of which I had seen many. The countenance expressed great agony; the eyes, the teeth, the beard were perfect; and at the back of the head a very deep cut was visible above the one which separated the head from the body. The executioner, no doubt, made a false blow. Mr. Blunt informed me that they were restoring the church, and in a corner of one of the vaults under it, belonging to the Dartmouth family, and much decayed, this small square box was found, which went nearly to pieces on removal. In it the head, as it was then seen, was discovered. Mr. Blunt had, if I recollect, a zinc box made of the same size, and returned the head again to the vault. A few days after I went on a visit to Mr. Sidney Herbert at Wilton. I mentioned after dinner one day to the party staying there this singular discovery. Mr. Herbert stated he knew Lord Dartmouth, and would mention the circumstance to him. On my return to my parish in London shortly afterwards I was favoured with a visit from Lord Dartmouth, with a letter of introduction from Mr. Herbert. I sent him to Mr. Blunt, and he inspected the head, and from inquiry afterwards I heard be had stated that it was a branch of his family, that the portrait of the individual was in their possession, and that it was well known at the time that the executioner failed in his duty. Directions were given for the due preservation of the head, and up to the time of Mr. Blunt's death these duties, I believe, were faithfully carried out. My visit to the church was about 28 years ago, and I have never been there since. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. WILLIAM QUEKETT. Rectory, Warrington, October 10.

Magic lantern slide of the mummified head - former ebay listing
Also inspired to put pen to paper was the current vicar of Holy Trinity Minories, Edward Tomlinson, who felt honour bound to respond to the suggestion by Mr Webster that the mummified head was somehow neglected or badly treated by the parish;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, As Mr. Claude Webster's letter, inscribed "A Neglected Relic," which appeared in The Times of yesterday, seems likely to lead to the impression that the mummified head, supposed to be that of the Duke of Suffolk, is in danger of falling into decay from neglect or of being surreptitiously removed from its present resting place, I trust you will allow me space to assure your readers that such fears are entirely groundless. The box which contains this curious and unique relic is certainly “common-place," but it is perfectly secure, and is kept under lock and key. I believe it is the same in which it was deposited when first discovered under the chancel floor some 40 years ago. I confess I have never felt satisfied with the custom that has allowed the clerk to take the head out of the box to show it to visitors, and I have for some time felt the advisability of endeavouring to arrange that it might be placed in a properly-closed glass case, where it might readily be seen without its being touched…. I am, Sir, your obedient servant, E. M. Tomlinson, Vicar of Ho]y Trinity, 4, Tavistock-square, Oct 11. Minories.

Mr J. Standish Haly of the Temple also wrote in that day commenting that Mr Webster “in his interesting account of the mummified head of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk… appears to have some doubt as to whether the head is really that of the beheaded duke.” Mr Haly had no such doubts “tradition is generally to be respected in such matters,” he noted before outlining what can only described as extremely circumstantial evidence linking Henry Grey to Holy Trinity. Mr Frederic Surtees of Boxley Abbey near Maidstone, was not convinced that anyone should be making a fuss about Henry Grey “Sir, Except that he was the father of that ‘admirable young heroine’ as H. Walpole termed Lady Jane Grey (or rather Jane Dudley, as she should be called, for she had been married to Lord Guildford two years before her execution), there is nothing in the history of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, entitling his memory to any special regard on the part of the English nation. One charge of treason against him having been dropped, be rushed recklessly into the Wyatt rebellion, fled, and, having hidden in a hollow tree, was betrayed by an underkeeper, taken to London, and beheaded.” Mr Surtees also turned out to be something of an expert on decapitation, “your correspondent, I may observe, is in error in thinking that this is ‘the only example extant’ of a head severed from its body being now in existence” he told the editor before citing the examples “in St. Dunstan's, in Canterbury, the severed bead of Sir Thomas More is still shown in its leaden casing, having been preserved by the filial affection of his favourite daughter Margaret Roper” and of Oliver Cromwell whose head was then in the possession of Horace Wilkinson of Sevenoaks. On the whole Mr Surtees felt that “if Sir Stafford Northcote [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] has any national money just now to spare for such purposes, assuming that it is obtainable, it would probably be generally considered that Cromwell's head would have a prior claim, as an object of national interest, to Henry Grey's, Duke of Suffolk, though one might exclaim on beholding it, like the fox looking at the mask, in the Greek fable  οα κεφαλ, κα γκέφαλον ούκ χει [So full of beauty, so empty of brains!]”.

Photograph taken for EM Tomlinson's 'A History of the Minories'

Thynne and Thynne, Solicitors of 11 Great George Street, Westminster wrote to the Editor at the request of their client the Earl of Dartmouth to clarify that “although Holy Trinity Church has ceased to be the place of sepulture of the Legge family, he has not on that account ceased to take interest in the church. The mummified head, supposed to be that of the Duke of Suffolk, beheaded in 1554, does not belong to his Lordship, neither has he any control over its present care or future destiny. His Lordship would be very glad to find that the Government adopt Mr. Webster's suggestion, but should this not be the case he would willingly assist in any well-considered plan for the preservation of the relic.” Albert Hartshorne of Little Ealing felt that “it is surely obvious that the time has arrived for this fragment of humanity to be treated with the dignity and consideration for which Mr. Webster pleads. But I venture to protest strongly against its being put into a glass case and exhibited for the gratification of the curious. Either let the poor head be taken at once to a convenient burying-ground, for reverent and decent interment, so that it may be spared the last indignity of becoming an attraction for Cockney sightseers.” Another correspondent had rather different ideas;

Sir, would you allow me to suggest that the head be deposited with the authorities of the National Portrait Gallery? It would then be carefully preserved in the fittest place for it; and could never be treated with indignity. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. Charles Aldridge, Newington Butts, London, S.E.

Interestingly Sir George Scharf, Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery had already been asked to give his opinion on the head just a couple of years earlier. On very little evidence the sculptor Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower had said of Scharf that no better judge of a historical head existed, and so the museum keeper had been asked to determine if a 400 year old mummified head bore more than passing resemblance to certain 400 year old portraits, all imperfectly authenticated and of undetermined accuracy, of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. Scharf thought the head corresponded with a portrait then in the possession of the Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield. Scharf’s notebook sketches of the head still exist.  

George Scharf's notebook sketches of the Holy Trinity head
The correspondence in the Times ended as it began with Claude Webster being allowed the last word;

TO THS EDITOR OF THE TIMES Sir, I have no reason to regret the controversy which has arisen in consequence of my letter which you were so good as to insert on the 9th inst., calling attention to "A Neglected Relic" as I feel confident that steps will now be taken to insure proper treatment for this remarkable object.  As I notice you give insertion to a proposal that the head should be deposited with the authorities of the National Portrait Gallery, I hope you will permit me also to offer an idea on that point. It would be that the head be now removed from the church in which it has so long reposed, but, inasmuch as I am given to understand that this decayed building will have to make way for the contemplated extension of the metropolitan railway, I would urge that the Church of St. Peter in the Tower would be the most fitting depository for the relic. In regard to Mr Tomlinson’s  letter of the 11th inst., it appears to me that he shares my objection to the custom which has allowed the clerk to take the head out of the box to show it to visitors, one result of which has been the entire removal of the hair of the beard to which Mr. Quekett alludes, but no steps, notwithstanding, have been taken to prevent this being done; for this, however, I would fain press. Mr. Tomlinson also virtually concedes the identity of the head, though I admit, with him, that there is still some room for question but he so accurately states the circumstances which have influenced myself and others in arriving at the conclusion that the head was that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, that it is unnecessary I should say more…. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. - CLAUDE WEBSTER

Or Perhaps not quite because over ten years later, in January 1890 Edward Tomlinson the former vicar of Holy Trinity was writing to the Editor again;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, in a letter which appeared in The Times last week, Mr. Seymour Haden states, as if it were an acknowledged historical fact, that the mummified head preserved in the Church of Holy Trinity, Minories, is that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. As I spent much time in investigating this question, and as it is of some antiquarian interest, perhaps you will allow me to place before your readers, as briefly as possible, the known facts bearing upon the identity of this head. The head was discovered about 40 years ago in a corner of one of the vaults, but there was nothing about it by which its identity could be established. That it is the head of the Duke of Suffolk is a mere assumption grounded on the fact that the precinct of the Minories was granted by Edward VI. to him, but further investigation shows that shortly after he obtained the grant he sold the property to his brothers, Lord Thomas and Lord John Grey, and his half-brother Mr. George Medley, who held it in common. The Duke and his retinue were living at Sheen, and although it appears that some of the belongings of the younger brothers were residing in the Minories at the time, both the body and the head of Lord Thomas Grey were buried at All Hallows, Barking. There is no known record of the burial of the Duke of Suffolk, but there is little to lead to the supposition that either his body or his head were laid to rest in what was then the Chapel of the Minories. But there is much to be said on the other side. A contemporary historian asserts that the Duke's head was severed from the body with one blow, whereas on the back of the neck of the head now in the church there is distinctly a cut besides that which had parted the head from the body. Then, again, the vault in which the head was found dates only from 1706, the bodies which had been previously buried within the area, then taken for the vault, being removed elsewhere. There is only one man who was beheaded at the Tower who is known to have been buried in the Minories - viz., Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. He, his wife, and daughter (a nun of the Abbey) were all buried there. It is not unlikely, however, that the head belongs to some unknown person of later times. I have in my possession a curious account of the doings of a parish sexton about 100 years ago, who appropriated coffins for other purposes than that for which they were intended, and in order that he might more easily dispose of the bodies he cut them up. Some of these may have been mummified, like those found in other City churches, and from one of these the head in question may have been severed. I am &c, EM. TOMLINSON, former vicar of Holy Trinity, Minories. East Meon Vicarage, Hants, Jan 7

The ’curious’ account which Edward Tomlinson mentions was later published in full in his ‘A History of the Minories’ (1907); 

In a short Time will be wanted, a Piece of Ground in a private Situation for the Purpose of a Burial-Ground for the Use of the Parish of Trinity Minories, the Vaults of the Church being considered Useless from the following Circumstance; A few Days ago Curiosity invited an Inhabitant of the aforesaid Parish to take a Peep into his Neighbours Premises, where, to his utter Astonishment, he discovered Mr Smallcole, the Beadle, dividing into Lengths with a Saw, some of the late Inhabitants undecayed last Surtouts; this induced him to call one of the Churchwardens to View the industrious Dealer; Mr Churchwarden being rather alarm'd ordered Mr Smallcole to give up the Keys of the Parish Wood Warehouse (for I can give it no other Name) and toll the Bell to invite the Inhabitants to a Sight of a depository for old Timber and mangled Bodies: — when the Door of the Warehouse was opened the most shocking Sight my Eyes ever beheld presented itself to view, it had a nearer Resemblance to a Slaughter-House than a Vault for the Interment of our dearest Friends: on the Lid of a Coffin there appeared the hind Quarters of an old Inhabitant who had not been intered more than eight Months; Mr Churchwarden being desirous of proving to the World that he was not a Colleague in the Wood Trade, draws the Remains of another human Body from the Top of some of the other Coffins, with the Flesh hanging to the Bones: after the Inhabitants had taken a survey of their Friends and Relations in the Situation above described, they retired to the Aile of the Church, and there, to the Disgrace of all Society, contented themselves with ordering Mr Smallcole to ask Pardon and not to be guilty of the like again: this being a Fact, I should not wonder to hear of the Undertakers being obliged to seek some other Employ, as Coffins are of so little Use and attended with so much Expence.
September 19, 1786.
N.B. The principle Supporters of Mr Smallcole are Jews, and a Sect of People known in the Parish by the Term of Speckled Bellies.

True to his word Tomlinson did indeed preserve the head in a glass case but it wasn’t to remain long at Holy Trinity. In 1899, the church was closed under the provisions of the Union of Benefices Act 1860 and united with the parish of St Botolph's Aldgate. The mummified head was moved to St Botolph’s where it continued to be an object of curiosity to any Times reader who demanded to see it. Interest in gruesome relics declined as the 20th century unwound and the head gradually disappeared from view. In the Diary of a gay priest; the tightrope walker by Malcolm D Johnson the entry for 12 December 1986 mentions that workmen labouring in the crypt “have found a biscuit tin with a human head inside in the vault beneath the font steps. In 1852 it was discovered in the vaults beneath Holy Trinity Minories but the hair and beard fell off. The word went round that it was the unfortunate Duke of Suffolk…but a surgeon from the nearby London Hospital pointed out that it had not been cleanly cut by an axe but hacked from the body probably with a small knife. For a time it was ‘one of the amenities of Aldgate’ and was put in a glass case for public perusal in St Botolph’s sacristy. My predecessor found its gaze disturbing and so interred it here.” In Crypts of London Johnson says that he had it reburied under the floor of the West Crypt. Just four years later it was being dug up yet again, this time by a team of archaeologists sponsored by the London Diocesan Fund. According to a report in London Archaeologist (06.10.90) “excavations took place between April and July 1990 inside a crypt at the S end of the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, before conversion of the crypt into offices…. This crypt was filled with burials and sealed in the 19th c, except for the later interment of a head, reputedly that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, executed in 1554. The excavators recovered this head and the parish reinterred it in the churchyard.”  And so the story of the mummified head of Holy Trinity finally ends, or does it? In her blog about Lady Jane Grey Lee Porritt says “the head was supposedly buried in the churchyard of St Botolph, Aldgate in 1990. I have heard from an impeccable informant that this is not the case, and that the head is held in a safe and appropriate place, the location known to only a handful of people who need to know its whereabouts.” Hmmm. Someone should write to the Times.

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