When Doctor William Harvey died in 1657, age 79, he was one of the most well-known physicians of the age. The reluctant discoverer of the fact that the blood circulates round the body – and does not get regularly used up, as was previously believed – Harvey had served as royal physician to two kings, including accompanying Charles I on his travels during the Civil War, and held prestigious posts at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and at the Royal College of Physicians. Despite this, Harvey was buried in the small town of Hempstead in Essex, and the doctor’s final resting place was almost entirely forgotten by the medical profession.
In his old age Harvey, with no children and having outlasted his wife Elizabeth, retired from practice and lived between the houses of his two remaining brothers, Eliab and Daniel. On 3 June 1657, at Eliab’s house in Roehampton, William Harvey suffered a cerebral artery haemorrhage – a bleed in the brain that was probably a long term effect of the gout he suffered from. Unable to speak, he gathered his nephews around him and gestured that he wished to be bled from the tongue, a common treatment that Harvey’s own research had shown to be ineffective (Power 1897, 166–7).
On 25 June 1657 a three-day funeral procession set off from London, with members of Harvey’s extended family and numerous fellows of the College in their ceremonial robes accompanying the body to the Harvey family vault, which was housed on the north side of St Andrew’s Church in Hempstead. The building of the vault had been paid for by Eliab in 1655, and was close to the family’s country house of Hempstead Hall. Likely imagining that he would be the first occupant, Eliab sadly buried a member of his family there for three consecutive years in the 1650s – two of his daughters in 1655 and 1656, and his brother William in 1657 – before joining them himself in 1671. William Harvey was laid to rest between the bodies of his two nieces.
In the summer of 2019, the RCP Museum team were investigating previously uncatalogued items held in the museum’s store. Eight items, evidently a set, were particularly puzzling. A set of roughly shaped plaques with faces on, two in metal and two identical ones in plaster, and two further metal plaques with an inscription to William Harvey, with two matching counterparts in plaster. The text reads 'DOCTER [sic] WILLIAM HARVEY DECESED [sic] THE 3 OF JUNE 1657 AGED 79 YEARS'.
Due to his prominent position within the medical community, the importance of his discovery, and the large bequest he left the College on his death, Harvey has been adopted over time as an unofficial figurehead for the RCP. 350 years on his painting still hangs pride of place in the RCP’s Dorchester Library, and over the years Harvey’s image and name have been used in various ways to indicate progress in medicine and medical research. So important is Harvey to the College that in 2018 the museum staged an exhibition on his life and works to commemorate the RCP’s 500th birthday.
Harvey-related items are therefore quite common within the RCP’s museum and archive collections. These plaques however were unusual, as unlike most of our Harvey items they do not show his famous profile, based on the RCP’s portrait and visible on the image above.
A suggestion that the faces on the plaques looked like death masks, combined with the inscription, prompted the collections officer to search the collections for references to Harvey’s burial. The metal of the plaques has not been definitively identified, but is believed to be lead or lead alloy, and so a library reference to Harvey having been buried ‘lapt in lead’ provided the first tantalising hint to the history of the plaques.
The Harvey family had an unusual habit of burying their members ‘lapt [wrapped] in lead’ (Power 1897, 174). Both William Harvey and his two nieces were buried wrapped in soldered lead cases rather than in coffins. These leaden cases had detailed – but not hugely realistic – facial features, and further research uncovered some 19th century drawings of these in the archive.
December 1847, and 29-year old Dr Benjamin Ward Richardson was attending a birth in Radwinter, near Saffron Walden. Learning that William Harvey’s burial place was in nearby Hempstead, Richardson soon made a visit to the church. As far as Richardson could tell, ‘no men of science’ had ever visited Harvey’s tomb ‘within the memory of any person in the village’ (Richardson 1878, 777). The vault had been ‘long and grieviously neglected’ – the nearby window was broken, and boys had thrown stones into the vault and onto the coffin, the lead of which was beginning to deform. By the 1850s rumours were reaching the RCP – of which Richardson was now a member – that Harvey’s lead ‘coffin’ was in a poor state of repair, and the famous doctor’s resting place once again became a place of interest to the medical profession.
Concerned for the state of its famous benefactor, in 1859 the RCP sent two of its Fellows, Dr Richard Quain and Dr Alexander Patrick Stewart, to investigate. They found Harvey located directly below the leaking window, and his lead case was "from exposure and natural decay, so seriously damaged as to endanger its preservation, rendering some repair of it [necessary]”, with rainwater having gathered inside through a crack near the feet (Power 1897, 174–5). The other lead cases – 46 in total by this time – were in a similar condition, the damp conditions of the vault having caused serious damage to the lead. Being on official RCP business, Quain and Stewart produced a report, in which they advised the repair of the lead covering Harvey’s body, its movement to a less exposed location, and a stone case to contain it. The Harvey family however would not grant the College permission to intervene.
Nearly a decade later, and twenty years after his original visit, Richardson returned to Hempstead. Although Harvey’s remains now appeared to be ‘comparatively fresh, clean and dry’ (Richardson 1878, 777), Dr Richardson received quite a surprise when, leaning close to examine Harvey’s leaden coffin, a frog jumped out of it. Writing in The Lancet in 1878, Richardson – who was evidently a fan of Harvey and concerned about the state of his final resting place – included in his article prints showing the church and various details of Harvey’s sarcophagus. These images were produced from photographs taken by a friend of Richardson’s during a later visit, and copies of these images in the RCP archive showed a striking similarity to the mystery objects being researched by the museum team.
Harvey’s sarcophagus is the one in the shaft of light from the window. The face, though indistinct, resembles that on the plaques found in the museum. The inscription at the bottom of the image was taken from a rubbing from the sarcophagus’ breast-plate on one of Richardson’s later visits to the vault, and is identical in shape and features to the museum’s other mystery plaques.
Having found such a tantalising link with the objects sitting in the museum store, further research was carried out. Richardson is a continual feature in the story of Dr Harvey’s tomb, and his concern for Harvey’s mortal remains is evident in his writing. When visiting the church in 1878 he noted ‘to [his] dismay’ that the sarcophagus had collapsed further in on itself than it had during his last visit a decade earlier, and recommended its re-interment in Westminster Abbey (Richardson 1878, 778).
Despite this call to action and the increased interest in the Harvey vault, nothing was done until the hand of the College was forced in January 1882. In late January new cracks were noticed in the tower of Hempstead church, causing the curate to cancel that day’s bell-ringing. Not unduly worried, he asked the vicar for advice and then left for the day. However, a few hours afterwards ‘the whole mass lay in ruins’ – the southern wall and stairs of the tower had crumbled away, followed by the main body of the tower. The Harvey vault was on the other side of the church and so remained unharmed, but this drastic incident finally caused the RCP to take notice of Richardson’s calls for an improvement of Harvey’s resting place (Richardson 1882, 203).
Once the College had decided to take action towards improving Harvey’s tomb, there were immediately many matters to attend to, resulting in a lot of letters that are now in the RCP archive. Much discussion was spent on options for and pricing of a new marble sarcophagus, and the legal representative of the Harvey family had to be found to give permission for the movement of the remains. Discovering ‘the legal representative of our great anatomist’ proved rather difficult – although a surviving family member was identified - a Mrs Lowes – she was around 90 years old and it was unclear if she would be able to give her approval (MS1024/205). Reverend Eustace of Hempstead Church wrote to the College in May 1882 to say that ‘any application to her [Mrs Lowes] is out of the question’, and that all contact should instead be directed to her nephew, Mr R. J. Lloyd, who luckily gave his permission (MS1024/212).
With the new tomb selected and the family’s permission granted, arrangements for a ceremony to re-inter Harvey were full steam ahead, with only slight delays caused by the mixing up of Hempstead, Essex, with Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire (MS1024/226 and MS1024/233).
On 18 October 1883, a delegation from the College set out from St Pancras station on a specially arranged train to Saffron Walden, from which they then travelled on to Hempstead church. The Bishop of Colchester was to conduct the ceremony, but on the day Reverend Eustace had to step in at the last minute when the Bishop missed his train. Realising that he had gone to Liverpool Street station rather than St Pancras, the Bishop attempted to have a telegram sent to Tottenham with the intention that he would instead meet the train there. However no one could be found to authorise the telegram, and the bishop presumably gave up and left the station at that point, as a telegram from later that day describes the problems and ends ‘and he has not been seen since’ (MS1024/242 and MS1024/243).
Back in Hempstead, Harvey’s lead sarcophagus was carried in ceremony by eight Fellows of the College and placed into the new marble tomb. Sir William Jenner, the President of the College, then placed a metal box into the tomb. This contained a bound copy of Harvey’s works and a scroll, sealed into a bottle, describing the proceedings of the day and summarising how they came about. The new marble lid was then slid across, and the remains of William Harvey were ‘sealed up for all ages’ (Lancet 1883, 707).
Harvey’s remains may have been safe, but the tower of Hempstead church still remained in a perilous condition. Reverend Eustace petitioned the College for financial help in January 1884, which the College rejected. The church continued to struggle, and as late as 1934 it was still looking for money to repair the damaged tower (MS1024/249, MS1024/259 and MS1024/258). Since then the church tower has been restored, and in photos of modern day St Andrew’s Church, Hempstead you can clearly see the line where the tower fell, visible as a colour change in the stone.
Seemingly innocuous objects often prove to have intriguing back stories, and the mystery plaques found by the museum team are a great example of this. It is not believed that the plaques were the actual plates from Harvey’s lead sarcophagus – none of the correspondence mentions anything being removed from the original sarcophagus, and the condition of the plaques is much better than would be expected if they had been kept in the wet conditions of the Harvey vault. There is also no mention of copies being taken of the face and inscription on the lead sarcophagus before its re-interment, other than the rubbings done by Richardson’s party. However, considering that the images and first-hand accounts of the tomb directly match these items, and the similarities in material and style between the plaques and the tomb, it seems very likely that these are copies of the inscriptions on William Harvey’s lead sarcophagus.
An example of each of the plaques has been formally entered into the museum’s collection, allowing us to tell stories of the life – and death – of William Harvey and of the RCP’s on-going fascination with this famous anatomist.
Lowri Jones, collections officer
Update September 2023
The RCP Museum team has recently come across this image in the Wellcome Collection. It is a photograph of the inside of the Harvey family vault in Hempstead Church. In it you can clearly see William Harvey's lead sarcophagus, with the same face and inscription as seen in the plaques that are now part of the museum collection.
"Harvey may be regarded as the founder of modern cardiology … and it seems appropriate that the Harveian Library should contain a special section devoted to the heart and circulation, which I hope may be of service to Harvey’s disciples."