Renewing the wax covering Edward I’s body in Westminster Abbey…

Believed to be a depiction of Edward I, born 17/18 June 1239, died 7 July 1307.

While working my way through the Close Rolls of Richard II, I came upon the following intriguing  entry for 11 July 1377, not long after the boy-king’s accession:-

“….To the treasurer and the chamberlains. Order of the king’s money to renew the wax about the body of King Edward I buried in the church of St. Peter Westminster, as used heretofore to be done….”

Left: Tomb of Edward I (with stairs), Right: The same angle, closer.

You’ll find here a description of what was found when the tomb was opened in 1774. (I’m guilty of breaking it up into paragraphs, to make it easier to read, and of inserting the illustration of Edward’s remains):-

“….There is extant a minute description of the tomb and its contents, by Sir Joseph Ayloffe, an antiquary, who was present. ‘On lifting up the lid of the tomb the royal body was found wrapped in a strong and thick linen cloth, waxed on the inside: the head and face were covered with a sudarium or face-cloth of crimson sarsinet wrapped to three folds, conformable to the napkin used by our Saviour in his way to crucifixion….”

The opening of Edward I’s tomb in Westminster Abbey in 1774 by the Society of Antiquaries. Illustration dated 1786.

“….On flinging open the external mantle, the corpse was discovered in all the ensigns of majesty, richly habited. The body was wrapped in a fine linen cere-cloth, closely fitted to every part of the body, even to the very fingers and face. The writs ordering the renewal of the waxen covering of the body of King Edward I. being extant, gave rise to this search. (They will be found in the third volume of the ‘Archæologia’). Over the cerecloth was a tunic of red silk damask; above that a stole of thick white tissue crossed the breast, and on this, at six inches distant from each other, quatrefoils of filigree-work of gilt metal set with stones, imitating rubies, sapphires, amethysts, &c.; and the intervals between the quatrefoils on the stole powdered with minute white beads, tacked down into a most elegant embroidery, in form not unlike what is called the ‘true lovers’ knot.’…

“….Above these habits was the royal mantle of rich crimson satin, fastened on the left shoulder with a magnificent fibula, of gilt metal richly chased, and ornamented with four pieces of red and four of blue transparent paste, and twenty-four more pearls. The corpse from the waist downwards was covered with a rich cloth of figured gold, which fell down to the feet and was tucked beneath them. On the back of each hand was a quatrefoil, like those on the stole. In the king’s right hand was a sceptre with a cross of copper gilt, and of elegant workmanship, reaching to the right shoulder….

“….In the left hand was the rod and dove, which passed over the shoulder and reached to the ear. The dove stood on a ball placed on three ranges of oakleaves of enamelled green; the dove was of white enamel. On the head was a crown chased with trefoils made of gilt metal. The head itself was lodged in the cavity of the stone coffin, always observable in those receptacles of the dead. . . . . The corpse was dressed in conformity with ancient usage even as early as the time of the Saxon Sebert.” It may be added that the dress is represented with tolerable accuracy on a seal of Edward himself, to be seen in Sandford‘s ‘Genealogy.’….”

“….This tomb, which is very plain, and has, apparently, sustained very little injury, is in the north-western corner of the chapel. It bears the following apposite inscription:—
‘Edvardus primus, Scotorum malleus, hic est.’

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure exactly what wax was renewed periodically. It seems it has to be the strong linen cloth that covers the body. Anything more would surely have resulted in the gradual destruction of the remains, which clearly hasn’t happened. All I can say with any accuracy is that some wax was definitely renewed from time to time. It seems to have happened next two years later, on 8 June 1379:

“….To the treasurer and the chamberlains. Order of the king’s money to cause the wax about the body of King Edward I, interred in the church of St. Peter Westminster, to be renewed as used heretofore to be done….”

I have to wonder that if it was deemed necessary every two years or so….when did the practice end? Or does it continue to this day?

You can read more about Edward I and Eleanor of Castile (his first queen) here.

A pair of statues thought to depict Edward I of England (r. 1272 – 1307 CE) and Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 1290 CE). The statues are part of the outside of the Lincoln Cathedral in England. They may not have originally depicted Edward I and Eleanor, and were altered during a 19th Century CE restoration.

And if you want a different viewpoint regarding Edward I, try this article.  

Eleanor of Castile’s effigy in Westminster Abbey


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