Skip to content

The King’s Tomb Part I

The final resting place of King Henry the Sixth is to be found in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, where his remains were re-interred in 1484 on command of Richard III. It is not the burial site King Henry intended, nor was it the site later chosen by the Tudor Henry VII for the tomb of his Lancastrian half-uncle and the shrine of his Lancastrian saint.

King Henry himself wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey near the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, for whom he had a special devotion, and where so many of his royal forebears lay. Between 1448 and 1460 he made several visits to the chapel there to find an appropriate place for his tomb, as recorded in the reign of Henry Tudor by a number of monks, officials and servants who had witnessed these visits. (Grosjean: Henrici VI Angliae Regis Miracula Postuma, pp. 184*-194*) The first visit probably took place in 1448, when the King was concerned with writing his testament and with the security of his two college foundations. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that John Thirsk was present to mark out the chosen site. Thirsk was the master mason of the abbey from c.1429 until 1450. In 1449 King Henry appointed him master mason at Windsor Castle. He died in 1452.The King's visits always began with Henry kneeling in prayer at the shrine of St. Edward. His devotions were recalled as having taken anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. His prayers undoubtedly may have been long, but memories after a lapse of some 50 years may also have exaggerated the pious excersices of a saintly king. He was received by Abbot Edmund Kirton and sometimes by the prior, John Fleet. King Henry was accompanied each time by a small group of lords and courtiers -- apparently those who were inattendance on him in the palace of Westminster. We have seven lists of accompanying persons, three of which appear to refer to the same occasion. We have a possible five separate visits, assuming that the witnesses' memories were reliable. His confessor, Master Thomas Manning, and his faithful chamberlain, Sir Richard Tunstall, seem to have been present on most occasions. On what was his first visit of investigation for a suitable burial place, Abbot Kirton suggested the site of Queen Eleanor's grave (consort of Edward I), but Henry refused to disturb her. To the assurance that the queen's monunment could be moved elsewhere in the church, the King gave no answer. Taken into the Lady Chapel, it was then suggested that the grave of his own mother, Queen Catherine, could be moved to provide a place there before the altar. To sweeten the somewhat awkward suggestion, it was proposed that at the same time the queen's grave could be "more honourably apparelled than it was",  but King Henry did not respond to this proposal either. It was apparent that the King lacked any clear conception of where he wanted to be buried and some of his Entourage suggested: "Sire, this is the first time that ye have anything done in this matter. We think it best that upon better deliberation ye determine your mind therein." Henry concurred. "I hold that well done."

William Stodard, a chantry priest of the Lady Chapel in St. Paul's churchyard, maintained that the King's chamberlain, Sir Richard Tunstall, had told him that King Henry intended to be buried next to his father, the illustrious Henry V.  However, when Abbot Kirton suggested that it would be most fitting to place the King's tomb next to that of his father, Henry changed his mind. "Nay, let him alone. He lieth like a noble prince. I will not trouble [disturb] him." Finally Henry settled for a site to the north of St. Edward's shrine, where the abbey's collection of relics were displayed next to the tomb of Henry III for veneration by the pilgrims. Turning to the lords accompanying him, he asked: "Is it not fitting that I should have a place to be buried in here, nigh to Saint Edward, where my father and all my ancestors be buried?"  They promptly agreed: "Yea." Borrowing then a white staff from Lord Cromwell, Henry deliniated the length and breadth of his intended tomb, pacing out the seven feet in length himself. Henry is variously recorded as having said: "Here, me thinketh, is a convenient place." Alternatively: "Forsooth and forsooth, here is a good place for us." Or again: "Forsooth, here will we lie." (Of course, the one or the other may originate from one of his later visits, or even more likely from the variation of memories after so long a time. After all, no one was copying down the King word for word.) The abbey's master mason, John Thirsk, was then summoned, and in the presence of the King and his lords marked out the grave on the flagstone floor with an iron pick. It is said that the marks are still discernible on the chapel floor, although I have been unable to verify that fact. Within a few days of Henry's decision the relics were moved at the King's cost to another part of the church. A monument was apparently commissioned, but nothing was achieved "because of the great troubles that then did follow" (Steane: The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy, p. 63). The work may have been held up by Thirsk's own death in 1452, followed the next year by the King's great illness and by the political upheavals thereafter, caused by the challenges from the duke of York and his faction.

With the death of Henry's only son, Edward Prince of Wales, at Tewkesbury in May 1471, there was no longer any reason for the usurper Edward IV to keep the old Lancastrian king alive. Edward entered London in triumph on 21 May 1471, and later that same night King Henry the Sixth was murdered in the Tower of London. According to the chroniclist Warkworth, he "was put to death, the xxi. day of May, on a Tuesday night, betwixt xi. and xii. of the clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King Edward, and many other." (p. 21) There was, of course, no question of a burial in Westminster Abbey amid the royal tombs. King Henry's Body was given a superficial embalming with spices in the Wakefield Tower where he had died. His corpse was then encased in a wooden coffin and borne with tapers to St. Paul's cathedral. This was less a mark of honour and respect for an annointed king than the wish that all might see that he was truly dead and that the Lancastrian claim to the throne had died with him. Accordingly his face was uncovered for all to see, although the wounds to his skull would have been carefully bandaged to disguise his murder. The official Yorkist version was to be that on learning of the defeat at Tewkesbury and of the death of his son, "he took it so great despite, ire, Indignation, that, of pure displeasure and melancholy, he died the xxiij. day of the month of May." ("The Arrival of Edward IV in England....", p. 38) Warkworth (writing within seven years of the events) claims that the King's body bled on the pavement of St. Paul's: a variation on the belief that a murder victim would bleed in the presence of its murderer; in this case the King's corpse proclaiming his death to be one of violence. The next day, 23 May, his coffin was moved down to Blackfriars at the riverside. Here his body reputedly bled anew. After the customary absolutions and a mass for the dead, the funeral procession complete with tapers and guards boarded a barge to travel up the Thames to the Benedictine abbey of Chertsey.

At Chertsey Henry was laid to rest under the floor of the Lady Chapel, probably before the altar there. Later evidence indicated that the burial was not in a vault but in an earthen grave, perhaps even without the wooden coffin. (Could the wooden coffin have rotted away in the damp soil over the period of 13 years? Or more likely, was the coffin too large for the earthen grave before the altar?) In no time the site of the murdered king's grave was attracting pilgrims. Naturally the Yorkist regime of Edward IV officially discouraged any signs of devotion to the old deposed king. As early as 1473 Edward went so far as to prohibit pilgrimages in the kingdom except by royal licence. In 1480 the London Mercers' Company warned its members that pilgrimage to the Chertsey grave was forbidden. Despite Yorkist disapproval, the cult of saintly murdered king grew apace. In 1484 Richard III ordered the transfer of the King's remains to newly reconstructed St. George's Chapel within the grounds of Windsor Castle, where at last a worth tomb monument might be constructed.

What moved Richard III, the former Duke of Gloucester, to this decision? It could hardly have been personal admiration for the old Lancastrian king. Was it a guilty conscience? Either for his own involvement in the death of King Henry or for the involvement of his brother and the House of York? As the trusted brother of Edward and as Constable of England, it would have been appropriate for him to have borne to the Tower the command to liquidate the Lancastrian monarch and to see that it was carried out successfully. Of course, the re-burial at Windsor now diverted the welcome income from pilgrimages to the finances of St. George's Chapel, and it would enable his officers to monitor and regulate all such pilgrims. However, I think it was meant in fact as a gesture to mollify and to win over Lancastrian sympathisers at a time when Richard was facing the threat of invasion by Henry Tudor as the last claimant of Lancaster.

Despite later assertions (when his cause for canonisation was being promoted), that the King's body had been found incorrupt, the examination of the remains in 1910 clearly show a different story. The body seems to have lain in the bare soil and could not be taken up whole. Indeed, the absence of the bones of the King's right arm in the grave at Windsor indicates that they were left behind in the earth at Chertsey. The exhumation seems to have been a hasty and a 'rough and ready' affair. The King's bones were hurriedly collected and placed in a small wooden case, which was then transferred (probably by water) to Windsor. The whole exercise was carried out by night undoubtedly to avoid attracting attention and any local hostility to the disturbance of the grave and the removal of the King's relics from Chertsey Abbey. At Windsor the King's remains were reverently re-interred under the second arch on the south side of the choir in St. George's Chapel, ironically enough diagonally opposite the tomb and chantry chapel of his adversary, the usurper Edward IV. An imposing monument was planned, but was probably constructed (or at least certainly finished) after the death of Richard III the following year at Bosworth Field. However, Richard did commission his master blacksmith, John Tresilian; to fashion the iron collection box maked with an "H" for pilgrims' offerings, which still stands today next to the King's grave.

The monument survived the iconoclasm of Henry VIII and his Reformation well into the reign of Elizabeth I. It was apparently demolished under the first Stuart king some time before 1611. A sketch of it from the late 1500's exists in the British Library. (Harl. 6298 f. 148) The effigy of King Henry is shown bearded and in full armour, his hands together in prayer on his chest. His crowned head rests on his helmet and at his feet are two of his heraldic supporters, the antelope and the leopard or lion. Below on the side of the tomb an angel bears his shield with the royal arms of England and of France, as is also to be seen in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge. Above the tomb, reminiscent of the Black Prince's tomb in Canterbury cathedral, hang the King's surcoat in the form of a tabard, his sword and gauntlets, and his shield, all surmounted in the centre by his crowned helmet, which itself is still to be seen at his grave today. These accoutrements were not original, of course, and only the King's spurs are missing. Since these were indeed the genuine spurs of the King, they were held as relics for display to the pilgrims.

© The British Library Board, MS 6298 f. 148
© The British Library Board, MS 6298 f. 148