The first time I visited the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey the effect was overwhelming. First there was the fact that all those people known only from textbooks were represented right in front of me. I was from Australia, where kings and castles are rare. The second notable observation was that these tombs of the most mighty in the nation were jammed together in a most incredible jumble, with elaborate and glamorous structures cutting across each other, built over each other and piled in with increasingly competitive splendour until Henry VII trumped everyone with a gigantic wedding cake decorated chapel. Furthermore some tombs were damaged, some pillaged and some evidently unfinished. Some recent investigations suggest that there may be more tomb chambers in inaccessible places under the floor. See here.
This picture of the south ambulatory gives a hint of the impression. Many of the pictures in this post come from old books, as I have never been in Westminster Abbey at a time when I was allowed, or had the right gear, to photograph the tombs. The above is from L.E. Tanner 1948 Unknown Westminster Abbey, Harmondsworth. (Strange to tell in 1973 they did let me rub two brasses, originals in situ, which was a unique experience. I have never had to explain brass rubbing to successive waves of busloads of tourists anywhere else. They were not royal brasses.)
Medieval high status funerals were sumptuous and lengthy affairs. The body was washed and prepared and laid out, then left for some days in a room lit by candles, continuously watched while prayers were said for the soul. This is an intriguing mixture of practicalities (No ECGs then to ensure that the corpse was definitively dead), primitive cross-cultural fear of the newly departed (They get up to stuff if you don't watch them carefully), Christian piety (Let's get the purgatory winch winding with prayers) and more practicalities (Lots of ceremonial to organise). The body was treated with various oils and concoctions to help it last through the festivities. If the departed had died a long way from where they were to be buried, the heart and/or bowels might be removed for burial in one place, while the rest was transported to the final resting place. Medieval folks were not overly delicate about moving around the remains, or bits thereof, of the dead, as evinced by the translation of saints' relics. This is all part of death as a process, not an event. The departed was definitely in a liminal state during these activities.
The funeral activities themselves comprised processions through the streets, feasting, including giving doles to the poor, as well as the funeral mass itself. The deceased might be placed in a temporary tomb while the grand and final one was was constructed, if it hadn't been done already in anticipation. In the early days the body of a monarch was supposedly carried through the streets on top of a coffin or stage where it could be seen by the masses, but, I suspect for highly practical reasons, this became replaced with the display of a funerary effigy wearing the ceremonial clothes of the deceased. Some of these temporary effigies survive in the Westminster Abbey museum. The practice survived the Reformation, changing its reference to earthly glory rather than as one of the many reminders to pray for the soul in purgatory.
The tomb of the earliest king of all England in Westminster Abbey is that of Edward the Confessor, but it is not contemporary with his death. It is a high medieval shrine set up by King Henry III in honour of the founder of the abbey and, by then, saint. As a saint's shrine it was pulled down at the reformation, then later partly rebuilt, slightly wrong. It is adorned with Italian Cosmati work stone mosaic, as is the pavement around it and Henry III's tomb itself. It tells us nothing about pre-Conquest funerary commemoration. The above illustration is from the Complete Guide to Westminster Abbey of 1895.
The tomb of William the Conqueror was in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, an institution of his foundation, in Caen, Normandy. It was despoiled during the wars of religion in the 16th century.
His son and successor, William II, aka William Rufus, was buried in Winchester Cathedral. His tomb, as shown above, is this simple chest, and no matter what ornamental work may have been lost from the body of the chest, it evidently carried no effigy. His brother and successor Henry I was buried in Reading Abbey and his tomb was destroyed along with the abbey in the general vandalism of the 16th century. I am intrigued that, even after the religious upheavals of the age, that nobody reburied, translated the remains of, or even newly commemorated a monarch of the realm. There is an effigy of a crosslegged knight in Gloucester cathedral attributed to the rumbunctious big brother of these two kings, Robert Duke of Normandy (d.1134), but the effigy is believed to date to the mid 13th century and it has also been subjected to a pretty drastic modern restoration.
The remains of King Stephen were interred in Faversham Abbey, Kent, which he founded. The tombs of himself and wife Matilda were destroyed along with the abbey by Henry VIII's henchmen. When the church was excavated in 1964, their tombs were found to be empty. The unfortunate Empress Matilda was buried in the abbey church at Bec in Normandy, but no medieval tomb remains for her, although her remains are now in Rouen cathedral. Being royalty did not guarantee commemoration for eternity.
The tombs in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitane, their son Richard I and Isabella, the wife of King John represent the first tradition of English royal effigy tombs. The above is an old engraving of the tomb of Henry II, but if you google "Fontevraud tomb effigies" and go to the images you will see dozens of pictures. There are a few things to note. The effigies are not in situ, and in fact are only a fraction of what was known to have originally been there. They sit in stark emptiness in a restored church with none of their medieval context. There is still some colouring on the figures. They are all definitely lying down on a bier with their heads on pillows, the postures gently reposeful. Their eyes are closed. The effigy of Eleanor of Aquitane holds a book, but that is a later restoration and it is not clear if it is entirely accurate. Old drawings show her without hands. They do not show the enigmatic features of later tombs, but appear to be quietly dead. They do not have any strong individualising physical features.
Richard I was doubly commemorated, as his heart was removed and buried in the cathedral of Rouen in Normandy. The full sized effigy has more of the enigmatic features of later tombs. His eyes are open and his drapery hangs down straight as if he is vertical, but he lies with his head on a pillow and his feet on some kind of supporter. He wears his crown and carries his sceptre as emblems of his office. What his original tomb arrangement was is not apparent.
The early 13th century tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral, as shown in an earlier blog posting, has many features which are prototypical for later high status tombs. The base is a large table tomb adorned with architectural motifs and heraldic shields in quatrefoils. The full sized effigy is of dark marble which has held its detail over the centuries, not requiring a coat of gesso to impress the fiddly details; a high status materials touch. His feet rest on a very dynamic lion. He has two bishops by his head, one swinging a censer, which would be very difficult to do in a horizontal position. Angels were more common in later tombs, but I guess they served the same purpose. He is lying down, yet his eyes are open and he has a hand on his sword. Whether he originally had any other architectural arrangements is not apparent. Leland indicated that the tomb had been newly renovated at the time of his travels in the early 16th century, so he fared better than some monarchs.
As mentioned earlier, Henry III carried out major works in Westminster Abbey, rebuilding the entire church in Gothic style, building the shrine of Edward the Confessor, laying down the Cosmati work pavement which few people now get to see, and constructing his own tomb in the manner of a grand shrine with mosaic work of foreign manufacture. Henry III was highly competitive in the arts and piety arena, especially with his counterpart Louis IX of France, who incidentally gave him an elephant. That stretched his ingenuity. Louis IX built the Saint Chapelle to house his holy relic of the crown of thorns. Henry III glammed up Westminster Abbey for his English saint, then saw Louis with some blood of Jesus and raised him with the footprints from the Ascension. His own effigy is goldsmith's work on a grand scale, a bronze silver gilt effigy. While lavish, it is a standard high Gothic king with curly hair, a crown and somewhat effete hand gestures: a symbol of 13th century kingship, not a picture of an individual. Note that his hands are raised. He's not really dead yet. His heart was sent to Fontevraud to be with the family. The photograph above is from F.H. Crossley 1921 English Church Monuments AD.1150-1550, London.
Now if it seems that royal funerary commemoration was getting a little competitive, what happened next got it quite out of hand. When Eleanor of Castile, the beloved wife of Edward I, died in 1290, the grieving widower set up a chain of memorials such as had never been seen. She died in Harby, Nottinghamshire. Her bowels were buried in a lavish tomb in Lincoln cathedral with a silver-gilt effigy which has since succumbed to later forces of violence. A procession then took what was left of her to London, and at every stop along the way a memorial cross was built. She was then deposited in a grand and decorative tomb in Westminster Abbey which bore an identical effigy to the one in Lincoln. Her heart was to be entombed in the Blackfriars' church in London.
The effigy on her tomb depicts a beautiful young woman with flowing hair, lifelike hand gestures and a swaying posture like an early 14th century Madonna; idealised but individualised. She was, in fact, no young thing and had had a tribe of children. Her crowned head lies on a pillow and her lions sit at her feet, as if she is horizontal, but her head is under an architectural canopy and her drapery suggests verticality. Enough said. we've been here before. This picture is from E. Blore, 1826 The Monumental Remains of Noble and Eminent Persons, London.
Only three of the original twelve Eleanor crosses survive. At left above is that in the small village of Geddington, Northampton. At right above is the cross at Hardingstone, near Northampton. Located in what was once a no doubt peaceful spot beside Delapre Abbey, it is now trapped between a golf course, an arterial road and the most horrendous roundabout in Britain. I nearly died getting this picture. Not shown is the one at Waltham Cross, but the battered lump on the left is a bit of carved masonry from the destroyed cross at Lincoln. A replica of the Charing Cross in London was made in the 19th century, the original having been pulled down in the 17th century. I have wondered what the good folks had against these beautiful memorials, but perhaps they did smack of popishness and proto-sainthood.
With all this grandeur and lavishness, it is strange that the tomb of the mighty Edward I, which resides in Westminster Abbey, is an entirely plain tomb chest with no effigy and a simple, and much later, inscription. Perhaps the family felt that the old man had spent enough of the family budget on funerary commemoration already.
Edward II was brutally murdered in 1327 (or perhaps not, but that was the story), but that didn't stop them from fitting him up with an extravagant tomb in Gloucester Abbey. The elaborate openwork Gothic canopy is very impressive. The effigy is a very early example of the use of alabaster, a stone found in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire with qualities that made it eminently suitable for the purpose; attractive, shiny, translucent and easily carved in intricate details. Certain details on this tomb became standard on alabaster effigies of lesser mortals in the later 14th and 15th centuries; the lion at the feet gazing at the effigy, the upward looking angels by the pillow. The tomb has survived despite being in an abbey, as the abbey church was redeployed as a cathedral after the Reformation, suggesting that perhaps tombs were not specifically targetted for destruction. But if the building they were in was destroyed, nobody bothered to replace them.
The effigies of Edward III (d.1377) and his queen Philippa of Hainault (d.1369) in Westminster Abbey add a new element to effigial representation, unflattering realism. The tombs themselves are mighty and magnificent with canopies for weepers around the effigies and also on the sides of the chest, large canopies with heraldry and all the competitive grandeur of the 14th century. The effigy of Edward is gilt bronze, while that of Philippa is of alabaster.
In an earlier posting I indicated that bronze tombs were not really an English thing. The small selection of royal tombs in this material represent very high prestige and expensive monuments from the very top of the social tree.
The depiction of Edward III is not the idealised Gothic king symbol, but an old man with a weary face and a long beard. The effigy that was carried in his funerary procession is preserved in the abbey museum, and has a slightly lopsided mouth, as if it was taken from a death mask after he died of a stroke. Phillippa, likewise, is depicted as a plump older woman, not an idealised queen symbol. This personalised depiction was not, on the whole, passed down even to the higher levels of aristocratic funerary depiction. The images come from E. Blore 1826 The Monumental Remains of Noble and Eminent Persons, London.
These two figures are weepers from the tomb chest of Edward III depicting two of his children; on the left Edward Prince of Wales and on the right Joan of Carlisle. The pictures come from F.H. Crossley 1921 English church Monuments AD 1150-1550, London. Such depictions of weepers became very common on later 14th and 15th century tombs. Sometimes they represented saints, sometimes the children of the departed, always shown as smaller in size than the main effigies, whatever the medium.
A fascinating thing about these lavish tombs is the condition they got into. Many of the weeper figures on the tombs are missing, and these are figures of their children, not the saints which might have offended the reformers. The side of the tomb and canopy of Queen Philippa's tomb were also damaged, and her hand holding a sceptre has been broken off. Some of this damage occurred when the lavish tomb and chantry of Henry V was added in not so many reigns later, in order to fit it in. Later monarchs were not so respectful of their predecessors, but fear not, Henry V got his as well.
Edward, Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince, predeceased his father, dying in 1376. Famous as a warrior, his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral has all the trappings of the high status military tomb. The gilt bronze effigy sits on a table tomb adorned with heraldic shields. He wears the latest and toughest armour; his short surcoat or jupon bears his coat of arms and his head rests on a helm with a mighty crest. His feet rest on a rather strange animal. Above the tomb hang his achievements; a tunic, helmet, gauntlets and shield, which are still there, or at least were when I last looked. His is the very prototype for knightly effigies of the late 14th and 15th centuries. Whether this is just a generic type of the bold, knightly tomb, or whether every knight after that wanted to be depicted as the Black Prince, I leave you to decide for yourself. Furthermore, his tomb has not been kicked and battered like those in Westminster Abbey. It helps to have a large part of a grand cathedral to yourself.
The effigies of Richard II (d.1400) and his queen Anne of Bohemia (d.1394) continue in similar royal tradition: grand tomb arrangements, expensive gilt bronze effigies which appear to have elements of portraiture about them, heraldic type symbolism engraved all over their clothing. They are also damaged as the arms are missing. Originally they were holding hands. I'm not sure who could have objected to that. The foot supporters and jewels from the queen's dress have also disappeared. The head of Anne of Bohemia's funeral effigy survives, but many of her bones were evidently extracted over the centuries through a hole in the tomb. The tomb was built in Richard's lifetime after the death of the queen, but his body was not put into it until 1413 at the order of Henry V, due to some unpleasant circumstances of his death. "Let us sit down upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings ..."
Having usurped the throne from Richard II, Henry IV had the common decency to get himself buried somewhere else, in Canterbury Cathedral. The tomb is the usual, by now, grand arrangement. The effigies of himself (d.1412) and his queen Joan of Navarre (d.1437) are very finely made of alabaster, retaining sufficient colouring to indicate that they were once quite gaudy and gay. The king is portrayed as a fat, grumpy old bloke; not at all the idealised image of kingship or warriordom. The crowns get bigger. The sceptres and hands have disappeared, as in other royal tombs. What's with this? Were they actually made of valuable materials? Presumably Queen Joan had twenty years or so looking at her own mortuary effigy in the Cathedral before she actually died. That would be strange, but I guess it gave her a head start on purgatory. Her effigy may display all the traits of liminality, but she was well away from the threshold.
Now some of the threads we have been following come together. Henry V (d.1422), battle hero, patriot king of England and all that jazz, was commemorated in Westminster Abbey with a huge, elaborate and lavish chantry chapel. There is no greater symbol of the necessity to pray for the rescue of the soul of the dead from purgatory. As mentioned earlier, the building of this structure cut into earlier royal tombs and caused elements to be removed. It is located close to the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and practically overtowers it. The competitive grandeur of royal tombs is getting a bit out of hand.
However, I cannot show you an interesting old photograph of his effigy, because all that remained on the top of his tomb until relatively recently was a somewhat shapeless lump of wood. The effigy originally had a silver head and sceptre, while silver gilt plates covered the body. These were stolen in 1546. It was a great era for church despoliation, but this can only be considered pillage for gain, not religious indignation. The chantry, actual symbol of unapproved religious practice, remained. No prizes for pointing out that the destruction of religious property was about re-appropriating resources from the church to the crown, but reducing the monument to the hero king of England to a hunk of timber seems a bit extreme. In 1971 he was given a new crowned head and hands made of polyester resin to make him look a little less pathetic.
Are we seeing a story here? In the crowded jumble of decayed magnificence which is the area of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey there is a cycle of construction, partial destruction of other monuments in the process, and destruction or neglect. Each memorial represents a process of ceremonial which takes place over several time cycles. The funeral festivities themselves were public events of some splendour which took place over the shortest cycle, although that could be extended if the person had died at a distance from the burial place. The construction of the tomb and translation of the remains involved a longer cycle. Through all this process the deceased is in a state of liminality and requires the prayers of all to assist them through the process of purgatory. The decay and destruction of these monuments cannot simply be ascribed to an event called the Reformation. It is not clear just how long they were expected to survive. The building of these memorials was highly competitive, but showed no enormous respect for the works of predecessors.
This is not the end of the story of royal burials, but it gives us the picture. Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VIII are tucked away in St George's Chapel in Windsor castle. Richard III, as we know, was buried under a car park. That is to say, he was buried in the Dominican Friary at Leicester which was totally destroyed at the Reformation and they eventually built a carpark on top of him. His remains had evidently not been thrown in the river as rumour suggested. The huge decorative and pompous chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey contains a grand Renaissance style tomb behind an intricate metal screen. The gilt bronze effigies on the tomb have their eyes open and their hands praying. Purgatory was still there. They were still in a state of medieval liminality. The grand Tudor tombs which later occupied Henry VII's chapel represent a changed form of commemoration; one of their earthly glory forever.
So looking at the tombs of the elite of the elite, those who were buried in institutions that were destroyed tended to have their tombs lost forever. There seems to have been no attempt to destroy these royal tombs on religious grounds, although some were pillaged and damaged. Some were damaged by competition from the more recently deceased. The best chances for permanent commemoration were in buildings which survived the Reformation with a religious function intact, but where there was not so much competition.
In later centuries, tombs changed their meaning. But how long was forever?
Numerous factual details have been gleaned from the Westminster Abbey website, where there are also numerous modern photographs, if you can navigate your way around. There are also many images of the royal tombs online if you look for them, but it can be hard to get the total impression of these things just from an image.