The Curious Case of Henry Grey’s Head

Until recently, I have avoided using social networking websites as I am always concerned how much personal information is, at times, unconsciously posted.  To complete the creation of my website, I once again thought I would challenge my beliefs and create an account on two of the more popular networking sites as a way of promoting my articles and to connect with people who share the same interests.

If anything, social media definitely brings people together.  During the month of February, it was nice to see how social media was used by many individuals as a way of commemorating the 466th anniversary of the execution of Lady Jane Grey, Guildford Dudley and Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk.

One post from a well-known Tudor history website sparked my memory and interest about a rather ghoulish and macabre relic with a supposed connection to Lady Jane Grey. The relic discussed was the supposed mummified head of Henry Grey discovered in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories, next to the Tower of London, during the nineteenth century.[1]

Supposed Head of Henry Grey

In a book published in 1889, Reverend Samuel Kinns tells the story that apparently Henry’s body was buried in the Chapel of St Peter after his execution.  However, his head was somehow smuggled out of the Tower and was buried in a vault at the Church of Holy Trinity Minories.

Kinns writes that Henry’s head was apparently discovered in 1851 by William Legge, 5th Earl of Dartmouth.  Legge was inspecting the vaults of his ancestors under the church, and according to reports, he discovered a basket in a small vault near the altar of the chapel.  On inspecting it, he noted that the basket was filled with sawdust, and it also contained the decapitated head of a male in a perfect state of preservation. [2]

The Church of Holy Trinity Minories was established from a nunnery that was surrendered to the Crown in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The land and buildings were apparently given to Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk by King Edward VI in January 1552.  The nun’s chapel then became a parish church, and by 1706 the original church had fallen into disrepair and was rebuilt using brick material.  The upmost care and attention was given to keep as much of the church’s original features as possible. The church was eventually closed in 1899, and the building was eventually destroyed by bombing during World War II. [3]  

Church of Holy Trinity Minories

At thirty-six years old, Henry Grey was charged with high treason and executed on the morning of 23rd February 1554 for his involvement in Wyatt’s rebellion.  His final moments were documented in the book Chronical of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary.  This book was thought to have been written by a resident at the Tower of London at that time, and it provides a detailed description of Henry Greys actions when on the scaffold.  What is most relevant in this description is that the writer informs us that, fortunately for Henry, his head was taken off with one stroke by the executioner. The entry stops with the fatal blow of the axe, and no other written account has survived to inform us exactly what happened to his body and head after this event. [4] 

As Samuel Kinns noted in his 1898 book, it is traditionally thought that Henry’s body was buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula within the walls of the Tower of London. The Chapel of St Peter was not only used as a place of worship for residents of the Tower, but it was also a place where the bodies of those accused of treason and other crimes could be buried in great obscurity and simply forgotten about.   

Due to Henry’s high birth and status, it is thought that his body was probably buried somewhere on the left-hand side of the chancel, close to the altar, alongside his daughter and son-in-law. The altar was the focal point within a church, and people of high birth were buried close to this due to Christian belief and the hierarchy of the social order.  Documentation survives to inform us that other prominent figures of high social status also executed during the sixteenth century and buried in the Chapel of St Peter were buried close to the altar. 

1886 Plan Showing Probable Burial Spot For People of High Status

During restoration work on the Chapel between 1876 and 1877, the above plan, was made using contemporary descriptions to identify the most probable place of burial for some of the Tower’s most prominent victims. Henry, Jane and Guildford where all included on the above plan but, bones discovered during the work on the altar floor were not associated with any of them.

Bones showing signs of decapitation were discovered, and every effort was made to identify the specific individuals.[5]  These bones were eventually re-buried under elaborate marbles slabs detailing the possible identifications of the individuals, and a large white marble slab was placed at the front of the Chancel listing the names of victims buried in the chapel whose remains where unfortunately not identified.

Final Design For Memorial Slabs Commemorating Individuals Buried in The Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula

The only contemporary documented information regarding the discovery of the head I have been able to locate is a book written in 1851.   In the same year the head was apparently discovered by William Legge the books writer, Reverand Thomas Hill, notes that

in the church is placed the head, taken from the body which evidently had suffered decapitation, although it is impossible to discover now the name of its possessor.[6] 

The above quote suggests that no other information was discovered alongside the head that could be used to positively identify the male and no mention of the heads association with Henry Grey is mentioned in this book.

In 1877, the head was examined by Dr Fredrick John Mouat, the same individual who also examined the bones found in the Chapel of St Peter during the 1876 restoration. He concluded that

The head was removed by rapid decapitation during life admits of no doubt. A large gaping gash, which had not divided the subcutaneous structures, shows that the first stroke of the axe was misdirected, too near the occiput, and in a slanting direction. The second blow, a little lower down, separated the head from the trunk below the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The retraction of the skin, the violent convulsive action of the muscles, and the formation of a cup-like cavity with the body of the spinal bone at the base, prove that the severance was effected during life, and in cold weather.[7]

Dr Mount appears to have been very careful in his analysis not to put a name to the individual, though he is noted to report that the head was decapitated during life and that it took at least two blows to remove it from the body. 

On 17th March 1877, George Scharf, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, also viewed the decapitated head and took detailed drawings and notes in one of his sketchbooks.

George Scharf Sketchbook
© The National Portrait Gallery, London

Scharf is the first person I have been able to locate who actually documents the tradition that the head is supposed to be of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk.  He also makes several notes recording the heads condition and that it was that of a person beyond the prime of his life. Scharf alsonotes the two cut marks seen at the base of the neck, but makes no mention that the two cut marks differ with the contemporary description of the execution of Henry Grey and that the signs of age are also inconsistent with the age of Henry Grey at the time of his death.[8]

Doyne Bell, a royal official who is recorded as being with Scharf at the same viewing, recalls that Scharf added ‘the arched form of the eyebrows and the aquiline shape of the nose, corresponds with the portrait engraved in Lodge’s series from a picture in the possession of the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield.[9] 

George Scharf’s own opinions regarding the similarities between the mummified head and portrait appears to have only strengthened the claim that the head was in fact that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk.  The writer and artist Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower was noted to have said that Scharf was

no better judge of an historical head, whether on canvas or in a mummified state, that ever existed.[10]

The story that the head was in fact smuggled from the Tower of London and buried within Holy Trinity Church appears to have surfaced from this.  I have been unable to locate any sixteenth century reference concerning the separated burial of Henry Grey’s head and body.  The only published material reporting this story appears after Scharf and others had viewed the head.

The portrait discussed by Scharf was exhibited on many occasions towards the end of the nineteenth century as a portrait of Henry Grey. The painting was engraved and published in Edmund Lodge’s Portraits of Illustrious Personages of Great Britain as Scharf notes. This book was published in 1814 and widely circulated. The National Portrait Gallery also purchased an identical copy of the same painting in 1867 which was again identified as Henry Grey.  

Robert Dudley
(previously identified as Henry Grey)
Oil on Panel
© The National Portrait Gallery, London

Modern research has now identified that this painting is in fact a portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester painted in the 1570’s, debunking Scharf’s theory. 

It is my opinion that it needs to be remembered that the head was viewed and studied over one hundred years ago.  Yes, these individuals where in a prominent position to make an analysis at that time, using the scientific methods known at that time.  Today, with modern scientific methods, the riddle surrounding the identification of the head could possibly be solved once and for all.  Though difficult to obtain, DNA testing could be attempted on the head to identify any possible connection to Henry Grey if a living descendant could be found.  If a living descendant could not be found, then we do know the burial location of two of Henry’s daughters, though permission would have to be granted to allow the opening of the tombs.   

According to reports, the head was supposedly buried in the churchyard of St Botolph, Aldgate in 1990.  I have heard from an impeccable informant that this is not the case, and that the head is held in a safe and appropriate place, the location known to only a handful of people who need to know its whereabouts. If this is the case, then there is some possibility that this riddle could possibly be looked into further at some point in the future.[11] 


[1] My sincere thanks to Claire Ridgeway of the Anne Boleyn Files for reminding me about this.

[2] Kinns, Samuel, Historical sketches of eminent men and women who have more or less come into contact with the abbey and church of Holy Trinity, Minories, from 1293 to 1893, with some account of the incumbents, the fabric, the plate, 1898, page 182-184

[3] Kinns, Samuel, Historical sketches of eminent men and women who have more or less come into contact with the abbey and church of Holy Trinity, Minories, from 1293 to 1893, with some account of the incumbents, the fabric, the plate, 1898, page 139-184

[4] Nichols, J. G, The Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary and Especially of the Rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Written by a Resident in the Tower of London, Llanerch Publishers, 1850, page.63-64

[5] For further information on the restoration of the Chapel and the search and discovery of the bones of executed victims see: Bell, Doyne. C, Notices of The Historic Persons Buried in The Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula in The Tower of London, 1877.

[6] Hill. Rev. Thomas, The History of The Parish of Holy Trinity, Minories, London, 1851, page 16

[7] Bell. Doyne. C, Notices of The Historic Persons Buried in The Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula in The Tower of London, 1877, page 184-185

[8] Heinz Archive. NPG7/1/3/1/2/21, Trustees Sketchbook 1876-1877, page 17-20

[9] Bel. Doyne. C, Notices of The Historic Persons Buried in The Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula in The Tower of London, 1877, page 185

[10] Bell. Walter George, Unknown London, Page 13

[11] http://www.hobleysheroes.co.uk/round-ups-and-articles/la-round-ups/67-london-archaeologist-1990-vol-6-10 accessed March 2020.

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