Shaking Hands with Dead Kings

Shaking Hands with Dead Kings A portrait of King Charles I, post-mortem, showing the stitches where his head was sewn back on. The three ladies are England, Scotland, and Ireland, mourning.

Shaking Hands with Dead Kings A portrait of King Charles I, post-mortem, showing the stitches where his head was sewn back on. The three ladies are England, Scotland, and Ireland, mourning.

January seems to be the month to commemorate defunct royalty. Mrs Daffodil has posted on Prince Albert Edward, Duke of Clarence, while I took on Queen Victoria, and today, sandwiched between the death days of King Henry VIII and King Charles I, comes this report of a man who


David L. Blumenfeld, United Press Staff Correspondent:

London, July 6. There is a man alive today who has shaken hands in the flash with King Henry VIII and with King Charles I.

This is not fiction, but absolute fact.

How this near-miracle came about has never before been told in any newspaper or magazine. Indeed, there are in England today but a handful of people who know the weird story.

To appreciate it properly, it is necessary to go back to that fateful day when Charles I, King of England was executed with the headsman’s axe outside his palace in Whitehall, London.

Relatives claimed the body, and one of their party, a devoted retainer of the King, cut the little finger off his right hand as a keepsake of the dead monarch.

In due course the retainer died, and the finger passed to his heirs. They, in turn, handed it down, until twenty odd years ago, it was in the possession of the late Archbishop of Canterbury.

For several years the Archbishop had been troubled with dreams. He would wake up with a feeling that the long dead King wanted something which was in his possession.

Then one day he realized that it was the finger of the monarch that was at the root of the trouble.

As a devout churchman, the archbishop believed that the spirit of the dead king was unhappy at the loss of the finger. He applied for an audience with the late Queen Victoria, and one fine morning the archbishop, seated at her side, requesting permission to open the coffin and replace the finger.


Now Victoria realized that to open a royal coffin meant a special Act of Parliament, and that such an act would cause no little stir among the members of the house, who have always been against the opening of tombs. So, officially, she refused permission, but unofficially she gave her consent to the grave being opened.

A few weeks later, one winter night, a closed carriage drew up outside the burial chapel at Windsor of the kings and queens of England. In the carriage were the archbishop, his confidential valet (alive to this day,), one of the queen’s chamberlains, and the heir of the archbishop (now also dead.)

The carriage rolled away, and the little party climbed the snow-covered steps of the chapel shut the great linenfold paneled door behind them, and descended into the royal vaults.

They soon found that which they had come to seek—a short wooden coffin, beautifully carved, screwed into the top of golden plate bearing he royal arms and the inscription of the names and titles of King Charles I of England. The little party were confused. Charles they knew to have been a tall man, and here was a squat, stout coffin, utterly unadaptable to a man of Charles stature. They decided, however, after a  short consultation, to open the coffin. They lifted off the lid.

There, lying on his back, little velvet cap on his head, ermine cloaked, bearded, robed with the garter, and, just as Holbein had painted him, lay Henry VIII, that famous monarch of many wives.


The party leaned forward, scarcely able to believe their eyes. The body, mummified, was in apparent perfect state of preservation. One of the men, the archbishop, lifted one of the hands, and, while he did so, the confidential valet shook the other, to see if the finger was in place. The hands crumbled to dust.

They closed the coffin, after the archbishop had read a prayer over the body of the dead king.

Meanwhile the queen’s chamberlain attracted their attention to a corner of the vault. He had found a long coffin resting on a beautiful alabaster slab, inscribed with the titles of King Henry VIII—a long coffin such as should have been that of King Charles.

They opened the coffin.

Before them lay the figure of a handsome cavalier, long haired, his wrists and shoulders covered with Mechlin lace. But this man, they thought, could never have been Charles I, for he had a head. Then they noticed that around the neck of the sleeping man was a black velvet band. The dead head had been placed close to the neck after being severed by the executioner’s axe, and covered with the velvet band.

The valet, meanwhile, called the archbishop’s attention to one of the fingers of the right hand, which was missing.


The old archbishop produced the missing finger from its silver case and while the valet held the hand of the dead monarch, endeavored to lay the finger close to the hand. It was too late. While the valet held the hand, it crumbled away.

They laid the finger reverently in the coffin, another prayer was spoken, and Charles I was hidden from human eyes probably forever.

The explanation, of course, lies in the mistake of some long dead sexton, who, in cleaning the golden name plates of the coffin, screwed that of King Henry onto the coffin of King Charles, and that of the decapitated monarch onto that of “Bluff King Hal.”

Today there lives an old man, one time confidential valet of the late archbishop. His name may not be mentioned, but, if you gain his confidence over a glass of mellow wine, he will tell you, with pride, how he once shook hands with two kings of England both dead nearly three hundred years ago.

Jonesboro [AR] Daily Tribune 6 July 1922: p. 2

The Archbishop of Canterbury of the story was Frederick Temple. He was succeeded as Archbishop in 1903 by Randall Thomas Davidson. Davidson and his wife, Edith both claimed to have seen the ghost of Charles I.

Mrs. Davidson, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was with him in this country a couple of years ago, vouches for the fact of having seen King Charles I passing through the cloister of the deanery of Saint George’s Chapel. The apparition of this unhappy sovereign, who lies entombed in the vaults beneath the chapel, was attested by her as having occurred on the evening of January 30, which is the anniversary of his execution. The testimony of this clever and accomplished woman, renowned not only for her piety, but also for her common-sense, is corroborated by a number of other residents of the castle, to whom the ill-fated King has likewise appeared. Evening Star [Washington DC] 15 July 1906: p. 35

I am unable to find any story about the King’s finger being removed after the execution by a retainer or anyone else. Nor can I find any story of a finger relic kept by the Archbishop.  There are many tales of a vertebra kept as a memento by a doctor who had examined the King’s body at the behest of the Prince Regent, later George IV. On that occasion (April 1, 1813) the coffin of King Henry VIII was also said to have been opened. Could the finger bone story possibly have arisen from the souvenir vertebra? One problem is that the vertebra was kept by the doctor, Sir Henry Halford, rather than an archbishop.

Does anyone know the origin of the purloined finger relic story? Send piously inclosed in a silver case to Chriswoodyard8 AT

See Mrs Daffodil for my guest post on the King’s vertebra and other relics of King Charles the Martyr.

I’ve previously reported on the many omens of the King’s death.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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