The funeral of Charles I

The English Civil War has sparked controversy and debate for over 350 years. One little known area is not so much the death of King Charles I, for that has been well recorded, but the circumstances of his burial. Whilst there is no doubt that he was buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the interesting question seldom discussed is: did Charles I have a funeral?  Although the Edwardians appear to have believed that he had a funeral, as is shown in the early 20th century reconstructive painting of Charles I’s funeral procession by Ernest Crofts now in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the answer is not as simple as that.

Lord Clarendon, although absent from Charles’ burial, describes the occasion in his book, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (first published 1702-1704).  Clarendon mentions the Parliamentary letter accepting that Charles would be allowed to be buried at St George’s Chapel provided he be “privately carried to Windsor without pomp or noise”. Had Charles had the funeral that a King deserves, his procession to Windsor would have been anything but quiet.  Because his journey from St James’ Palace to Windsor Castle and indeed from his bedchamber at Windsor Castle to his final resting place was to take place “without pomp or noise”, I believe that Charles’s burial was not spectacular and fitting enough to be described as a funeral, at least in the ceremonial respect.

However, the 17th century author of Athenae Oxonieses (1691–92), Anthony Wood, disagrees with Clarendon in at least one respect: that the burial was a quiet affair. Wood describes Charles’s journey from St James’ Palace to Windsor as being accompanied by “a dozen gentlemen”, rather than by only “four of those servants” appointed by Parliament to attend on him during his imprisonment as Clarendon believed.  Wood’s interpretation of the burial itself is more in line with Croft’s painting which depicts a far more elaborate ceremony, saying that the burial procession took place at a “slow and solemn pace”, with the coffin carried from St George’s Hall by “gentlemen of quality in mourning”, followed by the Governor, several gentlemen, officers and attendants. In attendance at the burial were several noblemen – the Duke of Richmond, the Marquis of Hertford and The Earl of Lindsay – and Dr. Juxon, Bishop of London. Wood also describes how a snow storm, which had arisen suddenly as the King’s body was carried to the west end of St George’s Chapel, covered the black velvet pall with thick white snow, “the colour of innocency”.   The snow storm features in Crofts’ portrayal of the scene.

Had Charles been able to choose the form of his funeral before he died, the most important thing for him would no doubt have been the religious aspects and the prayers said for him. Unfortunately all three commentators, Clarendon, Wood, and Charles’ Groom of the Bedchamber, Mr Herbert,  agree on one aspect of the burial: that there was no reciting of the funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer. Both Clarendon and Wood record that, at some point (they disagree when), the Governor of the Castle, Colonel Whitchcot, forbade use of the Book of Common Prayer, meaning that Charles, an extremely religious man, was buried without the traditional Christian rites, something that he would not have approved of.  Clarendon writes that “the King’s body was laid, without any words, or other ceremonies than the tears and sights of a few beholders”.

Sir Henry Halford, who was present at the opening of King Charles I’s coffin in 1813, and even took some relics from the King’s body, concluded that the burial had been a “very hasty one” implying that there was indeed little ceremony when it came to King Charles’ final farewell. Indeed, he believed that the neighbouring coffin, that of Henry VIII, may well have been “injured by a precipitate introduction of the coffin of King Charles; and that the Governor was not under the influence of feelings, in those times, which gave him any concern about Royal remains, or the vault which contained  them”.

Whilst there are several different interpretations of Charles’s final moments above ground,  I think that had Charles watched his own burial, he would been mortified when Whitchcot denied him the honour of a funeral service. Thus overall, whilst indeed Charles was buried, I believe that, thanks to Colonel Whitchcot, along with other factors such as the lack of a formal procession to Windsor, one cannot say that Charles did in fact receive a ‘funeral’.

Denis Magee, Archives work experience student.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.