St Botolph and a Head in a Glass Casket

The church of St Botolph without Aldgate used to have a curious show piece, a head in a glass casket. The provenience of the head is a great mystery. Different theories as to its history have been proposed, but there are no clues as to whom the head was once attached to. And it is conceivable that the mystery will remain unsolved.

St Botolph without Aldgate is a staid church, better known for a faithful congregation than as a tourist hot spot in London. For years, though, it was home to one of the more curious exhibits of the capital. It was proud owner of a head in a glass casket. Walter George Bell gave a detailed description of the story surrounding the head. But Alison Weir stated in 1996 that the head had disintegrated by the time she wanted to have a look at it.

The history of the parish and the church of St Botolph doesn't hold many clues to the mystery. The first mention of a rector for the Saxon built church was recorded in 1108. The old church was extended in 1418; it was completely rebuilt a hundred years later. By 1739, it had fallen into disrepair and was torn down. A new church was built in 1744 and then widely destroyed by the Victorians (I think they called it embellishment). In 1899, the parish of Holy Trinity, Minories, was merged into St Botolph. And with the congregation from Holy Trinity came the head.

Minories, by the way, is what remained of the word Minoresses, an order of nuns that had owned the area outside the gate of Aldgate. The Minoress monastery had been invested by Edmund, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster in 1293 for his second wife. Blanche of Artois was Queen Regent of Navarre at the time of their marriage and she brought nuns of that order with her to England as part of her Royal court. The monastery became known as St Clare after the church they built there in honor of the founder of the order of Minoress nuns. Like all monasteries and cloisters, it was sacked and plundered by Henry VIII and the lands were handed to Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. St Clare became the church for the parish of Holy Trinity, Minories, and is sometimes also called by that name.

The church of St Clare fell into disrepair and was completely rebuilt in 1706. In 1851, a preserved head was found in St Clare under a large pile of sawdust. It is assumed that the tannin in the wood preserved it from decay. It was put into a glass casket and displayed in the church. With the merger of the two parishes, it was moved to St Botolph. The vicar there disapproved of the practice and it was no longer publicly displayed.

The vicar of St Clare, the Rev Samuel Kinns, published a book about famous people associated to his church in 1898. In it, he suggested that the head was that of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk (that's the same guy who appropriated the lands of the nunnery). Henry Grey was also the father of Lady Jane Grey, Queen for nine days. He was beheaded for treason on Tower Hill in 1554 for the stunt of putting his daughter on the throne. Kinns reasoned that the Grey family was anxious to spirit away the head before it could be displayed on London Bridge. St Clare lay on their lands and it would be logical for them to bring the head there. But Kinns' reasoning has as many holes as Swiss cheese.

Why didn't they bury the head, but only stuck it into a pile of sawdust? And what about the equally unproven but persistent story of the Duke’s head being interred in St Peter ad Vincula in all secrecy? And then there is the minor matter of the rebuild of the church of St Clare in 1706. While the old church was dismantled and the new church was put up, the sawdust remained undisturbed.

The Legge family laid claim to the head, too. The Barons and later Earls of Dartmouth received the land after the Restoration. We may surmise that they had enough scoundrels in the family to account for more than one beheading. As the head is no longer available, it can't even be established if the head was severed from a living person or post mortem.

This brings the third story into play. In the late 18th century, a beadle was caught supplementing his income by saving on wood for his heating. He dug up the recently interred, chucked them out of their coffins and used the coffin wood to stoke his cooking fire. The head might have been a left-over from that activity, if the story is not a later invention to account for body parts and wood chips being found together.

If you are just a bit curious about St Botolph, I do recommend the parish blog to you. I have linked it at the end of this article under Tales from the Parish Clerk’s Memoranda. The blog deals mainly in technicalities but has 13 entries under that same title with interesting and amusing stories from the parish history worth reading.

St Clare's, by the by, is reputed to be the burial ground for the ancestors of George Washington. And St Botolph is worth a visit even without the head in the casket; at least two more traitors from Tower Hill are buried there, and quite a few celebrities used to be part of the parish flock, like Chaucer.