The sad tale of James IV’s body
- 9 September 2013
- From the section Scotland
Scotland's King James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago. But what became of his body after the massacre?
Earlier this year, the discovery of the body of Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, beneath a car park in Leicester was front-page news.
The obvious implication, that finding long lost kings was a piece of cake, has led to me being repeatedly asked if I am going to look for the body of James IV.
His corpse, disfigured by arrow and bill, was identified after the battle and taken to Berwick, where it was embalmed and placed in a lead coffin before being transported to London.
The recipient of this gory package was Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII, and in charge of the family business while the English king fought in France.
She, in turn, sent the dead king's surcoat, blood-stained and slashed, to her husband with the recommendation that he use it as a war banner.
As time passed however and Henry returned from France, there was the question of what to do with the troublesome Scottish king's body.
The obvious solution would have been to bury it, with the monastery of Sheen in Richmond upon Thames, where it was residing, being the obvious choice for James's grave.
It wasn't as simple as that though, as prior to Flodden, the Scottish king had been excommunicated from the church as punishment for breaking the Truce of Perpetual Peace, which was signed between Scotland and England in 1502 and strengthened by the marriage of James to Henry VIII's sister, Margaret Tudor.
In reality the excommunication was in retaliation for James's support of the French, who were at war with the Papacy of which England was an ally at the time.
Under these circumstances a proper burial in consecrated ground was out of the question.
So it was that the body of James was left to moulder in the woodshed of Sheen monastery, even after the Pope had granted permission for burial.
Eventually, the desiccated corpse was forgotten about and by some act of carelessness the head became detached.
The story then goes, for there isn't much hard evidence for some of this, that workmen played football with it, some time after which it was nabbed as a trophy by Elizabeth I's master glazier, who took it home.
It is not hard to imagine his wife growing tired of a musty old head cluttering up the place and insisting he get rid of it.
Whatever the reason for disposing of it, the head was taken to Great St Michael's Church in Wood Street in the city of London, where it was dumped into a charnel pit, the last resting place of stray bones and crypt sweepings.
The monastery of Sheen was eventually demolished after the Dissolution, and whether the king's headless corpse was buried there we shall probably never know, not least because looking for it would involve digging up a golf course.
Nothing lasts forever, and the church in Wood Street was also done away with and today, after several redevelopments, the site is occupied by a pub.
It was a sad, ignominious end for one of Scotland's most charismatic warrior kings, but perhaps it is he who will have the last laugh, especially if an archaeologist should be foolhardy enough to go looking for him, as the pub under which his head is said to rest is not called The King's Head, but The Red Herring.