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
Sources used in this post:
- Bettley, J. Lapt in lead: the remains of William Harvey at Hempstead Church. Essex Journal 2001;36:43–7.
- Munk, W. Reinterment of William Harvey. Notes and Queries 1883;Series 6, volume 3:321–323.
- Power, D. William Harvey. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897.
- Richardson, BW. Fall of the Church at Hempstead, in Essex, containing the remains of William Harvey. The Lancet 1882;1:203.
- Richardson, BW. The Remains of William Harvey. The Lancet 1878;2:776–8.
- The Removal of the Remains of William Harvey. The Lancet 1883;2:706–7.