Entrance to the tomb of Henry VII as seen on the opening of the vault in 1869. Drawing by George Scarf.
I cannot say I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about Henry VII’s possible reaction to King James being laid to rest alongside he and his wife, Elizabeth of York, in their vault in Westminster Abbey. After all, the costs incurred in the building of Henry’s memorial and tomb were astronomical and I’m sure, from what we know of Henry’s character he didn’t intend to shell out all that money for the benefit of long distant Stuart descendants, especially those known for their dribbling, to be buried alongside him and his ‘derest late wif the Quene’ . It’s clearly stated in his will the vault was intended just for he and Elizabeth alone. But shove James in there they did, which its thought was how Elizabeth’s coffin got damaged. Oh the outrage and its not on!
‘AND we wol that our Towmbe bee in the myddes of the same Chapell, before the High Aultier, in such distance from the same, as it is ordred in the Plat made for the fame Chapell, and signed with our haude: In which place we wol, that for the said Sepulture of vs and our derest late wif the Quene, whose soule God p’donne, be made a Towmbe of Stone called Touche, sufficient in largieur for The us booth.’
How did James come to be interred in Henry VII’s vault? Unfortunately it’s not known, but we do know how it was discovered to be the case. In 1868, Dean Stanley’s attention was drawn to conflicting reports of the whereabouts of James’ and his Queen, Anne of Denmark’s vault. Recognising the importance of ‘the knowledge of the exact spots where the illustrious dead repose‘ (1) Dean Stanley resolved to get to the bottom of it.
Although it had been noted by one brief line in the Abbey’s Register that James had been buried in Henry’s vault
‘this was not enough for Dean Stanley. He loved exploring and he persuaded himself that he must first eliminate all other possible places by opening up each of the Royal vaults in turn’ (2).
Vault after vault was opened, some were empty, some crammed full. The coffins were discovered of a multitude of royal and noble personages including Mary, Queen of Scots (Dean Stanley thought James might have been interred with his mother), Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth, the latter ‘s coffin on top of the other, Edward VI, the numerous children of James II and of Queen Anne, and many others too numerous to mention here. The vault of James’ wife Anne of Denmark was also found, her coffin standing alone besides the empty space where James, her husband, should have been. Where was he?
James lst painted by Daniel Mytens
Laurence Tanner, Keeper of the Muniments and Librarian, Westminster Abbey, wrote
‘Night after night the Dean with a few of the Abbey staff was able to carry out his self-imposed task undisturbed. On one occasion the historian Froude was present. Speaking of it afterward he said ‘it was the weirdest scene – the flaming torches, the banners waving from the draught of air, and the Dean’s keen, eager face seen in profile had the very strangest effect. He asked me to return with him the next night, but my nerves had had enough of it’ (3)
At last, with nowhere else left to look, the actual vault of Henry was opened and to the Dean’s genuine surprise, if not perhaps to that of others, James was found! James’ coffin, a wooden one with a lead one inside was easily identifiable by the inscription on a copper plate soldered to the lead one :
Principis Jacobi Primi,
Franciae et Hiberniae, qui natus apud Scotos xiii
It was discovered on examination of the other two lead coffins therein that Elizabeth’s had been slightly damaged at the top, possibly when it was removed to allow James’ in and then she was replaced, being rather squashed into the space between the two kings. Its easy to imagine Henry spinning in his coffin, as, after the enormous expense of his funeral, he and his Queen are now sharing their tomb with a gooseberry, albeit a royal one. And here they are…
The lead coffins of Henry, Elizabeth and James. Elizabeth lies in the middle, with Henry to her right.
If you liked this post you might also like:
- Dean Stanley, Westminster Abbey, p.651
- Laurence Tanner, Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary, p.177
- Sir M E Grant Duff Notes from a Diary Vol 1 p235