Sunday, July 27, 2008

Question from Elizabeth M. - Heads sewn back on after executions

This is a morbid question, I know. Why were the heads of some beheaded traitors sewn back on their bodies after death? I am reading Alison Weir's biography of Queen Isabella, and it mentions that after King Edward's favorite, Piers Gaveston, was beheaded, his head was crudely sewn back on. I have read the same thing was done with the head of King Charles I. Was this a standard practice? I know it was not done with Anne Boleyn, because she was buried in an old elm arrow chest and her head was tucked in beside her. But was it done with anybody else. I have never read it was done with the likes of Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, or Mary Queen of Scots. Or is it something that was done with only some males?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Tudor period, most heads of executed traitors were placed on pikes and mounted in public places (castle walls, city gates, bridges) as a lesson to others on the fate that befell traitors. The heads of female traitors were often an exception in that they were not displayed. When male heads were displayed, however, they usually rotted, leaving no flesh to sew back onto the body. Occasionally a head was retreived quickly and buried. The head of Jane Grey's father Henry was retreived and buried in a nearby church, separate from his body. The reattachment of Charles I's head was unusual and probably done in deference to his status as a former monarch. Given this evidence, I have the impression that it was rare in the Tudor period for the head of an executed traitor to be re-attached to the body prior to burial.

July 27, 2008 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Monica said...

James Scott, duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, had his head sewn back on. This was apparently because they realised that this important person had not had a portrait done, and so an artist was called to paint the dead aristocrat.

July 28, 2008 3:37 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth M. said...

It would not seem logical for the forces of Oliver Cromwell to have any respect anything to do with the monarchy. Maybe his head was sewn back on because they were afraid someone would steal it and use it as some sort of symbol of royal martyrdom? If it WAS a gesture to the status of a former monarch, would the same thing not have been done with the head of Mary Stuart, a God-anointed monarch in her own right?
It just seems such a mysterious thing to do.

July 28, 2008 11:45 AM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

I think it is important to recall that Mary Stuart and Charles Stuart were executed seventy years apart. They were also executed in different places under very different circumstances.

Mary Stuart had abdicated 20 years prior to her execution and been replaced on the throne of Scotland during those same 20 years. She was a Catholic executed by nominal Protestants. And she was executed in England by Englishmen on English orders ... that is, she was essentially executed in a foreign country, not by her own subjects. She was also executed well out of the public eye and without the public's prior knowledge.

Charles I did not abdicate prior to his execution. He was tried, convicted, and executed as a sitting monarch (though a powerless one). He was executed as a Protestant by Protestants. And he was executed in his own country by his own subjects. His execution was a very public one.

Prior to Charles' execution, many in the government tried repeatedly to find a way to accommodate Charles and to retain him as the monarch, albeit with limited powers. There was considerable debate among the future Commonwealth officials as to whether or not the king could be tried, and especially whether or not he could/should be executed. In short, the mystique of the monarchy remained very strong, and there was no universal headlong rush to rid the world of Charles. Much of the reputation for contempt toward Charles by the Cromwellians is a case of the victors writing the history. If one reads the primary sources for the period leading up to the execution, one sees clearly the degree to which the Cromwellians, including Cromwell himself, struggled with the symbolism and implications of what they were doing. The Cromwellians did indeed have "respect" for the monarchy ... but they had measurably less respect for the person of Charles Stuart.

July 28, 2008 4:23 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth M. said...

Thank you PhD historian--that whole period is one I know very little about. I follow what you are saying. So then it probably was as anonymous surmised--that his head was re-attached probably as a token of respect for a fallen monarch. Charles I was the only one I had ever heard of this ever being done to until reading Ms. Weir's book on Isabella of France and reading that it was done with her husband's executed favorite, Piers Gaveston. And why his executioners chose to do such a thing, I cannot understand.

July 28, 2008 5:24 PM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

This is pure speculation on my part, based on very little solid evidence, but I have to wonder whether in the cases of Gaveston it had something to do with body wholeness and the belief in bodily resurrection. I know that in the modern era, there are certain Christian religious denominations that insist on burying all of a person's body parts together in one location. They practice this to the extent of reuniting body parts (legs, etc) amputated even years prior to the person's death, in the belief that if the amputated limb is not present, the individual will be resurrected without it. (Yes, they actually save the amputated body part until the individual's death, even if it takes decades.) It is rarer these days, but I have encountered it back in the 1970s in the Deep South of the US. And there is the corollary of those religious faiths, Christian and non-Christian, that refuse cremation in the belief that such complete physical destruction of the earthly body will impede resurrection. If the tale of Gaveston's head being reunited with the body prior to burial is true, perhaps someone (Edward II?) ordered it done in hope of facilitating a whole body at any eventual resurrection? Certainly the medieval period had its fair share of practices associated with death and burial that we would today find very odd. This may have been one of them?

July 28, 2008 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the fact that Charles I was reunited with his severed head, and the opinion as to why that happened...

Why didn't Marie Antoinette or Loouis XVI get their heads back? They never abdicated, and both were executed by their countryman...altho in the strictest sense, Marie wasn't a Frenchwoman.

I have often wondered what Madam Toussaud (sp?) did with Marie's head once she was through making a wax model.

I know...this has nothing to do with The Tudors. Sorry! :)


July 29, 2008 4:48 AM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

It's just a thought Tracey, but the general attitude of both the public and those directly involved in the execution of the Bourbons was considerably angrier and more vengeful than was that of the English toward the Stuarts. In France and Paris, huge mobs of people stormed palaces and prisons calling for revolution. The majority of the Parisian common public was anti-monarchy. And the anger extended to the entire nobility, not just to the king as an individual. Mass executions took place, with entire families of aristocrats wiped out. In contrast, the general public in London was still pro-monarchy. The trial and execution of Charles was conducted by a relatively small number of people, not by a public mob. Their actions did not extend to the king's family, nor to the nobility as a generic group (though some individual supporters of Charles were pursued and many fled into exile). The situation in France was therefore very different from that in England.

And I don't know whether it really matters or not, but Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 (and was thus no longer actually a sitting monarch) and not executed until late January of the following year. Charles, on the other hand, was never formally deposed, and he was tried an executed in a short ten day period. Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed before a clamoring mob that was itself calling for his death, while Charles was executed before a fairly quiet and respectful crowd of onlookers.

July 29, 2008 2:50 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth M. said...

I forgot it when I read Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, but then I went back and looked. Fraser does indeed mention that in all probability Mary's head was re-attached. In this case, it was to prevent any relics being obtained., hence the reason for getting rid of all traces of the Catholic Mary's blood after her death.

August 01, 2008 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Olivia said...

well, dependant on the executed, some people of nobility's heads were sewn back on, and also dependant on the offense to cause the beheading in the first place. i do know anne boleyn's head was NOT sewn back on, because her head was placed OVER her body when she was buried, because the coffin (which was actually an old chest) wasn't tall enough for her headless body

August 04, 2008 7:20 PM  

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