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Was a chapel for the House of York planned at Westminster Abbey in 1483…?

A short while ago, I came upon a reference to the foundation stone of Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey (visible in this illustration of the abbey as it may have been in the Tudor period) have been laid first in April 1483. It was from here, as follows:-

“. . .Elizabeth [of York] was given a lavish funeral. She lay in state at the Tower, and was interred later at Henry VII Lady Chapel (the foundation stone of which was laid in April, 1483). She and Henry lay there together, their graves topped with an elaborate bronze effigy. . .”

I asked the Henry “Tudor” Society blog if they could clarify this date, which I thought would probably mean that Edward IV had some input or other. There was no response. I decided the whole thing must be an error, because the date  for laying of the foundation stone is always given as 1503.

Nevertheless, the point niggled away. What if it were true? What if that foundation stone had indeed been laid in April 1483? This, of course, led me to consider what was going on in that month of that year. Answer? The death of Edward IV. Not yet the accession of Richard III, because Edward’s eldest son was to be Edward V. Was Edward IV’s sudden death merely a curious coincidence? Regarding the date, not anything untoward.

I thought no more of it. Then, while pursuing the part of the reference below that refers to Richard III having removed Henry VI’s remains from Chertsey by violence, I noticed the accompanying details about the so-called saintly king’s intended resting place in Westminster Abbey.

It reads as follows, from The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy by John Steane, page 183:

“. . .While Edward [IV] was king the remains of Henry VI were left in obscurity at Chertsey, whither they had been removed after his [Henry’s] mysterious death in the Tower. The government had given out that Henry died from ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’, but popular belief was that he had been murdered, possibly by the Duke of Gloucester. . . (Pause for savage expletives!!!) . . . Prominent political figures who died by violence were likely to earn a popular reputation for sanctity. In Henry VI’s case, bouts of insanity and a reputation for other-worldliness in his own lifetime may have encouraged the formation of a saintly cult. Richard III took steps to supervise this phenomenon more closely when he authorized the removal of the body of Henry VI from Chertsey to Windsor. Although not canonized he [Henry VI] was popularly regarded as a saint and pilgrims flocked to Windsor, contributing to a decline in the numbers wending their way to the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury.

Tomb of Henry VI at St George’s Chapel, Windsor

“. . .A rather unseemly wrangle followed. [My note: When, exactly? In Richard’s reign, or after Bosworth?] The abbeys of Chertsey and Westminster both put forward claims to the body. Chertsey’s claim was on the grounds that Richard III had taken it by violence to Windsor [Huh? I hope this is just a generally accepted term for moving remains around, not yet another accusation to lay at Richard’s door.] Westminster based its case on the fact that workmen and vergers at the abbey had clear recollections that Henry had marked out a place for himself in the abbey choir during his lifetime. The canons of Windsor joined in, strenuously arguing in favour of the saintly royal corpse remaining there. The upshot was that the new chapel prepared at Westminster was used for its founder, Henry VII, while Windsor kept Henry VI under the south aisle of St George’s chapel. His arms are carved in the fan vaulting over the bay in which he had been reburied after his arrival from Chertsey. . .”

The above details are also to be found in Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey by Dean Stanley, who says that Henry VII intended a new Westminster chapel for Henry VI, whom he thought would soon be canonised. But Henry VI wasn’t canonised, and Stanley believes Henry VII wasn’t prepared to lavish money on a non-saint. So he appropriated the planned chapel for himself alone. (This is on page 138 of my February 1911 edition.) All of which suggests that the present Henry VII chapel certainly wasn’t originally intended just for Tudor himself, but for him to rest beside St Henry VI. And presumably soak up the reflected glory.

So, a chapel at Westminster, already commenced for Henry VI, was eventually used for solely for Henry VII. .Oh, and by the way, this would presumably mean that Henry VII would be removing Henry VI’s remains by violence, since Windsor was hardly likely to surrender their royal golden goose without protest. And there is a strong suggestion that the remains were actually brought to Westminster, and when the canonisation failed to materialize, were returned to Windsor. Very respectfully, of course. And maybe followed by a Tudor scowl.

However, Henry VI had apparently already chosen his place in Westminster, but in the abbey choir, not Henry VII’s new chapel, which was erected on the site of the old Lady Chapel, behind the altar. This made me wonder if Henry VI’s known personal choice of Westminster had led to an earlier plan to accommodate the saintly king’s wish. OK, it’s a possible flight of fancy on my part, but it could perhaps offer an explanation for the intriguingly rogue mention of April 1483

I don’t think there is any doubt that in 1503 Henry VII commenced his own chapel, the one that is still there now. But just how much of a previous “new” Henry VI chapel might have remained very close by? An earlier foundation stone, perhaps laid around the time of Edward IV’s death in April 1483? It would have been superseded by the 1503 foundation stone, of course, but there is still the thought (mine, I own up) that another chapel could have been planned from the time of Edward IV/Richard III.

Then again, maybe in April 1483, this originally planned new chapel was not intended for Henry VI at all. Might Edward IV, knowing he was on his deathbed, have decided he wanted to be laid to rest in Westminster? I know he left in his will that it was to be Windsor, but might he have changed his mind at the eleventh hour? He surely wouldn’t normally have built anything for holy but pesky Henry VI, whom he’d despatched to obscurity in Chertsey. Out of sight, out of mind. Edward had no reason to think fondly of Henry VI, unless, of course, his own imminent death made him want to take precautions for an assured entry into heaven. In which case, of course, why not bring the holy chap to Windsor? But just maybe, with the Grim Reaper approaching the castle,  a grand joint venture with Henry VI at Westminster would seem just the necessary safeguard? Being nice to the royal “saint” would earn brownie points in heaven and on earth, which I’m sure is what Henry VII was to think in turn. Edward would also have been content that his son and brother, Richard of Gloucester, would carry out these last-minute plans. Edward had no scruples about intending his illegitimate son to ascend the throne at Richard’s expense. In fact, I don’t think Edward had many scruples at all. If any. But that’s beside the point.

However, if Edward had decided belatedly on his own burial in Westminster, it did not come to fruition. He was interred in Windsor. That is not to say that his successor, Richard III, did not intend to honour his late brother’s possible last wish (if such a wish had existed). Who knows what Richard had in mind? He left no record, so people like me have to read the facts and try to interpret them, and as I am not a historian, the result is rambling articles like this!

Moving human remains around to different places was quite common back then. In 1476, on Edward’s instructions, his father and brother had been removed from Pontefract to Fotheringhay, escorted on the journey by Richard, so it was certainly established practice in their immediate family. Richard had Henry VI brought from Chertsey to Windsor, even though Henry had wanted to rest in neither, but in Westminster. But this may have been expediency on Richard’s part, to accommodate the growing cult around Henry’s tomb. Maybe even to reflect a heavenly glow over Edward IV? Like so many things with Richard, we cannot know anything for certain.

So. . .what was this possible other chapel at Westminster? Surely not anything to do with the old Lady Chapel, which was definitely pulled down to accommodate Henry VII’s grand plan. No, for there seems to be a suggestion that this enigmatic earlier project was something new in April 1483. Might it have been a magnificent tomb for the House of York? Might Richard have eventually planned to bring Edward IV from Windsor and George of Clarence from Tewkesbury? Maybe his father and older brother Edmund from Fotheringhay? Perhaps even Henry VI from Windsor? Whatever his motives and final intentions, the chapel if it existed (for this is all “reading between the lines” on my part) was somewhere Richard would have seen, with great sadness, as a final resting place for his queen, his son. All too soon, of course, it would have been his own too.

But it was never built. Maybe never even planned. Who knows? I just have this feeling that Henry VII was almost pipped at the post by a Yorkist chapel. If only everyone today flocked to see the York Chapel, with all the grand tombs of the family of Richard III. If only. . .

 

 

 

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