His Good Late Majesty: Memorial Jewelry for King Charles I

In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.

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A mid-17th Century gold mourning ring for King Charles I with a enameled portrait covered by cut crystal. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; gift of Mrs Stubbs, 1923.

Charles Stuart, later King Charles I,  was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to then King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.

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This circa-1700 mourning pendant, sold by the auction house Christie’s in 2016, contains a painted oval portrait of Charles I against a blue ground within black dot decoration, beneath faceted rock crystal. The reverse features a sepia crown and cypher ‘C. R.’ above the date ‘Jan 30 1648/9’ and an image of a skull and crossed bones upon a plinth, under crystal.

Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.

As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”

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The inscribed band and reverse image of the National Gallery of Victoria ring, showing the initials C. R. (“Charles Rex”) between a skull, with a crown and laurels floating above.
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A Heart-shaped gold and enamel pendant, circa 1650, containing a miniature of Charles I, an interwoven arrangement of his hair, and a part of the blood-stained linen shirt he wore at his execution. Courtesy National Museums of Scotland.

After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”

Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”

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A 16th Century mourning piece for Charles I of unknown provenance that includes a skull and the date of the king’s death.

During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.

“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….

A pencil sketch by Sir Henry Halford of the head of King Charles I when his coffin was opened in 1813. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….

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A circa-1650 high-carat gold Royalist’s memorial ring, set with a hand-painted enamel miniature portrait of King Charles I and housed in a box of the period. Courtesy C. J. Antiques.

“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”

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A locket in the Royal Collection containing the hair of Charles I cut in 1813.

Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.

JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω

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Charles and Henrietta Maria during the happiest years of their lives. Double portrait by Daniel Mytens. Courtesy Royal Collection.