08 September 2022

'The head of the Duke of Suffolk'

From Walter George Bell's Unknown London, 1919

The Duke of Somerset was the father of of Lady Jane Grey, Jane of England, uncrowned queen for nine days in July 1553. Is this his head?

In the early years of the eighteenth century the ancient church of Holy Trinity, Minories, near the Tower of London, underwent a substantial rebuilding. This is said to have included the vaults beneath the church.

In 1851 further building works were being carried out at the church. In one of the vaults the workman found a small square wooden box. It was so fragile that when they moved it it nearly fell apart. Inside was oak sawdust and a well-preserved mummified head.

The incumbent, the Rev. Mr Blunt, also a teacher at Merchant Taylors' School, summoned a fellow clergyman, the Rev. William Quekett to see it.

"It looked just like a New Zealand chief's head of which I had seen a great 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 that separated the head from the body."

Mr Quekett contrived to meet Lord Dartmouth, whose family was responsible for the church. Lord Dartmouth looked at the head. Later he communicated the news that it belonged to a member of his family and at one time the failure of the executioner's first stroke was well-known in connection with the individual.

Lord Dartmouth did not suggest it was the head of the Duke of Somerset. That came later.

Sir George Scharf, Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery was asked to give his opinion on the head. Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower said of Scharf that no better judge of a historical head existed, and Scharf thought the head corresponded with a portrait in the Gallery of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk.

Dr F. J. Mowat, a Local Government Board Inspector, examined the head but didn't attempt to prove that it was the Duke of Suffolk's.

The link with the Duke of Suffolk was made because the precinct of the Minories was granted to him by King Edward VI. It was therefore assumed that, if the ground and house belonged to him, so did the head. This was being refuted as early as 1890 by Rev. E. M. Tomlinson, a former vicar of Holy Trinity, and the man responsible for the head being placed in the glass box pictured here.

There is one further grisly complexity in this story. In the late eighteenth century the beadle and sexton of Holy Trinity hit on an ingenious way of increasing his income. A neighbour looked into his house one day and saw him sawing up coffins - for firewood.

A parish meeting was convened almost immediately and parishioners entered the vaults of the church. Coffins lay around - and so did a large assortment of bodies and body parts which had been emptied from them.

So was the head simply a misplaced body part which had been boxed in some of the sexton's sawdust?

Holy Trinity was closed in 1899 and the head was transferred to St Botolph's, Aldgate, and was there until at least 1952. When I found this illustration in 2008 and tried to trace its whereabouts I was told it is no longer available to be viewed at St Botolph's. More recently I have discovered that during an archaeological investigation of the crypt in 1990, a preserved head was rediscovered and buried in the churchyard. (St Botolph, Aldgate T Q 3358 8120 (Julian Ayre, Sean O’Connor) SAB87.)

In her 1996 book Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII, 1547-1557, Alison Weir takes the story at face value and does not question that it might not have been the head of the Duke of Suffolk:

"His head fell into sawdust that had become impregnated with tannin, which preserved the head perfectly for 400 years. It was shown as an object of curiosity until the Second World War, but after that it was buried in St Botolph's Church, Aldgate, London."

Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk was born on 17 January 1517, at Bradgate, Leicestershire, the eldest son of Thomas Grey, second Marquess of Dorset, and his second wife, Margaret, daughter of Sir Robert Wotton.

In May 1533 his guardian arranged Grey's marriage to Frances (1517–1559), the daughter of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII.

King Edward VI arranged the marriage on 21 May 1553 of Grey's daughter Jane to Lord Guildford Dudley and later altered his will to enable her to succeed him. King Edward died on 6 July, and three days later Suffolk, Northumberland, and other councillors proclaimed Jane queen.

A life in the complex politics of the times saw Grey finally found guilty of treason, condemned, and executed at the Tower of London on 23 February 1554.