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The King’s Tomb Part II

The cult surrounding the last Lancastrian king was more than welcome to Henry Tudor, who soon petitioned Rome for the canonisation of his saintly half-uncle. He also began to rebuild and enlarge the Lady Chapel in Windsor to make a more appropriate house for King Henry's tomb and shrine. He even intended that he himself would be buried there, but in late 1497 Henry VII changed his mind and decided to transfer Henry's remains to the new Lady Chapel he was constructing at Westminster Abbey. This provoked a dispute between Windsor, Westminster and even Chertsey over the rights to house the 'royal saint'. Arguments and testimonies were gathered for adjudication before the Privy Council, and in March 1498 they found in favour of Westminster. A large elaborate altar-tomb was designed, with shields in Gothic lozenges around the sides and all hedged round by a structure of Gothic tracery on four corner columns. In the upper half were pedistals for statues of King Henry and angels or other saints. The design is preserved in the collection of the British Library (MS. Cottonian Augustus II.i. – and reproduced on page 69 in S. Anglo: “Images of Tudor Kingship”, 1992)

(British Library Cotton MS Augustus II)

Of course, this project was never realised. The canonisation process slowed, and after Henry VIII's breach with Rome, it lapse altogether. The Westminster Lady Chapel now bears the name of King Henry VII and his own impressive tomb together with that of his Yorkist wife occupies pride of place within it. Henry the Sixth remained buried at Windsor and his tomb was still to be seen as late as 1598, but in 1611 John Speed reported: “the Tomb is removed, and where the Corpse is now laid is not vulgarly known.” The King had been buried under the second arch on the south side of the choir. This was now used as the side entrance into the choir itself.

Visitors today see a black marble slab with a crown encircled by the Garter and the King's name inlaid in brass. It was placed on the right hand side of the high altar opposite the tomb of Edward IV in 1790 by order of George III. The pilgrims' collection box and the helmet from the original monument are still there to be seen. There is, however, no vault under this tombstone, and the remains of the King still lie further west under the second arch. The reason for this somewhat strange decision is certainly the fact that the site of the former monument over the King's vault had become a side entrance to the choir, thus necessitating the positioning of King George's stone up closer to the altar.

In January 1910 a tentative search for the King's grave was made, locating a vault under the second arch, where tradition had always placed Henry's tomb. With the permission of the new sovereign, George V, a detailed examination of the site and its contents was conducted on 4th November that same year. The findings were published in 1911. (The report of W. H. St. John Hope, M.A., was published in “Archaeologica” Vol. 62, Pt.2, 1911, No. XXIV, pp. 533-542, and reprinted in “A Fifteenth Century Pilgrimage” 1975, pp. 73-83). Representatives of the chapel and chapter, as well as the provosts of Eton and King's were present. They found a sealed leaden casket, which had been contained in a wooden coffin, since decayed. Dr. A. Macalister, Professor of Anatomy in Cambridge University, made the follow evaluation of the remains:

5th November 1910

The following report contains all the information gathered from the skeleton which I examined yesterday.

The bones are those of a fairly strong man, aged between forty-five and fifty-five, who was at least

5 ft. 9 in. in height (he may have been an inch taller, but I give the minor limit).

The bones of the head were unfortunately much broken, but as far as they could be pieced together they were thin and light, and belonged to a skull well-formed but small in proportion to the stature. Some of the roof bones (occipital and temporal, frontal and parietal) had become ossified together at the sutures. The few teeth found (second molar upper right, and first molar upper left, second bicuspid lower right) had their crowns very much worn down. The portion of the one side of the lower jaw found had lost its teeth some time before death. There were nearly all the bones of the trunk, of both legs, and of the left arm; but I found no part of the right arm.

From the relative positions occupied by the bones, as they lay in the leaden casket when opened, it was certain that the body had been dismembered when it was put in. If the body had been buried in the earth for some time and then exhumed, it would account for their being in the condition in which we found them. It might also account for the absence of the bones of the right arm, as well as for the accidental enclosure of the left humerus of a small pig within the casket.

I am sorry that I can add nothing more. The state of the bones was so unsatisfactory that I could not make any trustworthy measurements.

St. John Hope continued: “Professor Macalister does not mention that the contents of the box were still somewhat moist possibly on account of the 'spices' used to embalm the body at its first burial. One other feature was noticeable, that to one of the pieces of the skull there was still attached some of the hair, which was brown in colour, save in one place where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood.”

After reviewing the information from the chronicles, etc., St. John Hope concluded:

There can, then, be no doubt:

  1. that King Henry VI was buried in an ordinary grave at Chertsey:

  2. that his remains were exhumed and conveyed to Windsor Castle and there honourably buried again in St. George's Chapel to the south of the high altar; and

  3. that the remains were never removed to Westminster.

    In favour of the claim that the contents of the grave lately opened at Windsor are those of King Henry it seems to be established:

(I) that they are those of a man of about the King's age and, so far as we know, of his personal


(II) that they belong to some one who may have died a violent death, as is shown by the blood-clotted hair: (III) that their condition, according to Professor Macalister, is not inconsistent with their burial in the earth on a coffin for some time, which in King Henry's case was thirteen years: (IV) that the care with which the remains were collected and enclosed in a leaden chest points to their being those of a person of some importance: (V) that They were deposited in a place of honour, in a vault specially made for them:

The placing of this chest within a full-sized coffin may possibly have been done from a desire to support the reputation of the incorruptibility of the body described by John Rous: but it is equally possible that it was done for greater dignity and reverence.

Lastly, there is no other person than King Henry VI recorded or known to have been buried in St. George's Chapel to whom remains enclosed in so remarkable a way could possibly belong.”

John Rous was not the most reliable of historians, tending to trim his writings according to whoever was in power. He was not present at the exhumation of 1484 and his assertion in “Historia Regum Angliae” that the King's body was incorrupt is whole unsubstantiated. He wrote that work in the first years of the reign of Henry VII, when it was becoming clear that the Tudor king intended promoting Henry's cause for canonisation. Rous died in either 1491 or 1492. The inclusion of the leaden chest in a wooden coffin was most probably from a sense of seemliness and for appearance sake.

So, King Henry's remains today still lie in the vault that Richard III had made for them under the second arch on the south side of the choir. On 21st May (the anniversary of his death) each year the black marble monument placed by George III near the grave site becomes once again a focus for pilgrimage, when representatives of the King's foundations of Eton and King's College Cambridge attend Evensong in the chapel and lay floral tributes on the tomb. In former years members of the Henry VI Society used to join them there to pay also their respects to the dead King.