The most famous mummies to be found in London are in the British Museum, but these are Egyptians, not Londoners who have been embalmed.
So in an effort to redress the balance here a four of London’s finest desiccated deceased once living in the capital.
All these four have rather curious histories after having shuffled off this mortal coil.
Catherine of Volas tomb effigy
We wouldn’t know of Catherine of Volas but for an entry in a famous diary. Dying in 1437 Henry V’s Queen was embalmed and buried at Westminster Abbey. Half a century later alterations to the Abbey necessitated placing her coffin above ground. There she stayed, and for more than 200 years she remained an object of curiosity, with the public paying 1/- (5p) to view her corpse lying in an open coffin.
That old reprobate, Samuel Pepys in his diary wrote of treating himself on his 36 birthday
. . . and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.
A Skeleton in the Closet
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, legal and social reformer and was best known for the concept of animal rights. In his will, he requested that his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his ‘Auto-icon’. Originally kept by Dr Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as ‘present but not voting’. According to the university, it is a myth that the Auto-icon casts the deciding vote in meetings in the event of a tie. The Auto-icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.
London’s only mediaeval true mummy is in the church of St. James Garlickhythe. ‘Jimmy Garlick’ was discovered by workmen in 1839 while excavating under the chancel. Thoroughly desiccated by time the corpse of a young man had been dried by natural mummification – a rare event in London’s climate.
An excellent account with images of Jimmy Garlick when he was exhumed can be found at Revisiting old Jimmy Garlick.
Where there’s a will . . .
Martin van Butchell had an unusual marriage contract with his wife. The wife had an unusual clause written into the 18th-century contract. It stated certain articles could only be retained while [his wife] remained ‘above ground ‘.
Upon her demise, Martin had her body embalmed, dressed in her wedding clothes and placed in a glass-topped case positioned in his drawing room.
In so doing he drew large crowds to view, what he described as “dear departed”.
His new wife begged to differ and the body was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons, remaining there (above ground) until 1941 when a German finally laid her to rest.