Missing monarchs: The kings who did not rest in peace

By Greig Watson
BBC News

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A king may expect an elaborate tomb as a perk of the job but the fates often have something else in mind

DNA tests may be about to prove a skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park are the mortal remains of King Richard III.

And while it may seem extraordinary that a king's grave could be lost, history shows the last of the Plantagenets was not the only one to suffer such indignity.

Here are seven English kings who have no confirmed grave.

Alfred the Great

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Alfred beat the Vikings but may have met his match in a group of construction workers

Alfred, who turned back the tide of Viking conquest, died in 899 and was buried with due ceremony and pomp in the Old Minster in Winchester, Hampshire. His corpse was then moved twice, ending up across town in Hyde Abbey.

When Henry VIII moved to disband the monasteries in 1538, Hyde was dismantled. Tradition has it the graves of Alfred and his family were left undisturbed but subsequently ransacked during the construction of the town jail in 1788.

But Robin Iles, education officer for Winchester Museums, said the truth was uncertain: "The decorated tombs would have been an obvious target for those stripping the abbey of valuables in 1538 but there was also a lot of disturbance during the building of the prison. The truth is we don't know what happened.

"An excavation in the 1990s confirmed where the tombs used to be and slabs now mark the spot."

Harold II

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Harold suffered one of the most famous deaths on one of the most famous dates in English history

As if being the last English king to have his country successfully invaded was not bad enough, Harold Godwinson's undoubted bravery and political manoeuvring did not guarantee a respectful burial.

His death in 1066 fighting William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings - either by an arrow in the eye, the swords of cavalry, or possibly both - apparently left the body so mangled only his common-law wife, the ornithologically named Edith Swannesha (Swan-Neck), could identify the remains.

Rosemary Nicolaou, from Battle Abbey museum, said what happened next is confused: "We are told Harold's mother offered William a sum of gold equal to the weight of the body but William refused. He ordered it to be buried in secret to stop it becoming a shrine.

"After that we just don't know. There are various stories including his mother finally getting the body or it being taken by monks to Waltham Abbey, but nothing has been proved".

Henry I

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Henry I's body was returned to England sewn into a bull's skin but the grave has vanished

A son of William the Conqueror, Henry seized the crown in August 1100 with a series of well organised political manoeuvres in the days after brother William II was killed in an apparent hunting accident. After Henry died in Normandy in December 1135, his corpse was brought back to England in singular style.

Jill Greenaway, collection care curator at Reading Museum, explained: "His body was embalmed, sewn into a bull's hide and brought to Reading where in January 1136 he was buried in front of the High Altar of the abbey that he had founded in 1121.

"His tomb did not survive the dissolution of the monasteries by his namesake Henry VIII and we do not know what happened to his body."

A small plaque marks the rough area of his grave but rumours place the exact spot under nearby St. James' School.


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King Stephen's bones may have been fished out of a ditch and placed in a nearby parish church

After a reign so turbulent it was known as The Anarchy, it is perhaps no surprise Stephen also struggled for peace after his death in 1154. He was buried in a magnificent tomb in the newly constructed Faversham Abbey in Kent but - in what became a pattern - it was demolished on the orders of Henry VIII.

Local historian Jack Long said: "In John Stow's 'Annales' of 1580, he repeats the local legend that the royal tombs were desecrated for the lead coffins and any jewellery that the bodies might have worn, and the bones thrown into the creek.

"(It adds) they were retrieved and reburied in the church of St Mary of Charity in Faversham. There is an annexe (in the church) dating from the period but which has no original markings.

"To the best of my knowledge, no work has ever been undertaken to establish exactly what exists behind or below this mysterious annexe."

Edward V

Image caption,
The mystery and tragedy of the Princes in the Tower has inspired painters and playwrights

Richard III plays a central role in one of the most emotionally charged stories in English history. In April 1483 Edward IV died leaving his 12-year-old son, also called Edward, as heir.

The dying king had appointed his brother, Richard of Gloucester, as the boy's protector. In short order Edward was placed in the Tower of London, had his coronation postponed and was then barred from the throne after his parents' marriage was declared illegitimate. In June Richard was declared king.

Along with his younger brother Richard, Edward was never seen outside the tower again.

In 1674, the skeletons of two children were discovered during building work in the tower and were reburied in Westminster Abbey under the names of the missing children but controversy rages as to who they really were - as well as the true fate of the princes and the identity of any killer.

Oliver Cromwell

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The Royalists' revenge on Oliver Cromwell was a spectacular piece of macabre theatre

Admittedly not a king, but Cromwell was certainly a head of state. And most of him has no grave.

After leading the Parliamentarian forces to victory in the civil war against Charles I, Cromwell took the reins of power until his death in 1658 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

When Charles II came to the throne in 1660, his supporters decided to enact a peculiarly spiteful form of vengeance, exhuming Cromwell's body and hanging it on the scaffold at Tyburn near modern day Marble Arch.

John Goldsmith, curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, said: "It was then cut down and beheaded. Despite various stories about it being spirited away, his body was almost certainly dumped in a nearby pit.

"His embalmed head was later removed from a spike and went from owner to owner - including being an attraction in a travelling show - until eventually being reburied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in 1960."

James II

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James II refused to be buried in the hope his body might return to England

Chased from the throne in 1688 for attempting to restore the absolute monarchy of his father Charles I, James lived in exile in Paris until his death and anatomical dissection in 1701.

He refused burial in the belief he would get his place in Westminster Abbey and the coffin was put in the Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in the Rue St Jacques.

His brain was sent to the Scots College in Paris and put in a silver case on top of a column, his heart went to the Convent of the Visitandine Nuns at Chaillot and his intestines were divided between the English Church of St Omer and the parish church of St Germain-en-Laye.

Aidan Dodson, author of The Royal Tombs of Great Britain, said: "It all disappeared in the French Revolution of 1789. The mob attacked the churches and his lead coffin was sold for scrap, as was the silver case for his brain.

"The church (of St Germain-en-Laye) was demolished but then rebuilt in 1824 and during this his intestines were found and reinterred - so a bit of him survives."

And one who was just mislaid... Charles I

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The temporary loss of Charles I's grave ensured he never received an elaborate monument

After losing the Civil War, Charles's fortunes took a downward turn when he was executed in 1649. He was buried quietly in St George's Chapel, in Windsor Castle, after being denied a place in Westminster Abbey.

Mr Dodson said: "He was put in with Henry VIII and Jane Seymour but the problem was that they forgot where that entire vault was.

"This was also an excuse for Charles II to pocket the money parliament had given him for his dad's new tomb."

Workmen rediscovered the vault by accident in 1813 and found a velvet draped coffin with the missing monarch's name on it. To satisfy their curiosity, a group of notables opened the casket and, sure enough, found a body with a detached head and a pointy beard.

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