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Kings and Queens of England - death and disposal.

I'm Lynne Quarrell and I'm doing some programmes dealing with the Kings and Queens of England from the Norman Conquest on. I thought it might be interesting to do a short article on what happened to them afterwards. Most got a good send off but the preliminaries could be messy. You may know that the corpses of traitors were cut up and spread around the country as a warning but if you thought that kings and queens would be immune to such handling but you'd be wrong although the motivation was different.

 

It was usual for Kings and Queens to 'Lie in State' not least so you knew they were really dead but this presented a problem as like everyone else they tended to go off, especially in warm weather. When they were inconsiderate enough to die abroad and still wanted to be buried in England that was a real problem. Roads could be virtually impassable in wet weather and it could be weeks before you got favourable wins to cross the Channel. Henry II didn't get to be buried where he wanted but was hastily laid to rest in Fontevraud Abbey for just this reason. He probably wasn't too pleased when his wife, Eleanor, joined him as in the later years of their marriage they hated each other. It's a nice place though and well worth seeing if you're staying in the area.

 

To give time to arrange a worthy funeral, or just get them home, drastic measures had to be employed. You're probably aware that the Egyptians mummified their dead having discovered from sand burials that drying out was a good way to preserve them. This developed into a process in which the internal organs were removed and placed in canopic jars in case the owner wanted them later. The heart, believed to be the essence of the person was left in place but the brain, to which they attached no importance, was removed through the nostrils using something like a crochet hook. Maybe that's why resurrected mummies in those horror films seem a bit lacking in higher reasoning. The body was then covered in a salt called natron, for 40 days until it had completely dried and carefully wrapped in linen and covered with a type of resin to seal away damp. Small items like fingers and toes were often lost but on the whole it so well that many are still around. There would be more except for the activities of tomb robbers and those who used powdered mummy in quack medicines.

 

People in the Middle Ages didn't know about the Egyptians but arrived at a similar process. They removed the internal organs but didn't bother with the salting although they must have known it to be effective as they used it on fish and meat, but in some ways they went further than the Egyptians. Of course these costly processes were only for the well to do. The rest had to fend for themselves.

 

The royal dead were carefully washed and dried and the internal organs removed. Long veins in the arms and legs were opened and drained of blood and dried and the body placed face down so that the back could be treated. Finally the body was anointed with oils, herbs and spices and placed in a coffin and sometimes wrapped in lead. The internal organs might receive separate burial at places with particular meaning. Rouen Cathedral has the heart of Richard Ist while his bowels are at Challus where he died and the rest of his body at Fontevraud Abbey with his parents Henry II nd and Eleanor and other family members. The most extreme efforts at preservation is Henry V th who died campaign in France. His whose body was cut up and boiled and the flesh mixed with spices and placed in a jar to preserve it for shipment back to England although churches in both Paris and Rouen tried to lay claim. If you need all your bits for resurrection he's not going to be happy.


No matter how radical the process it wasn't always reliable. Oliver Cromwell never had the title of king, although he ruled the country for several years but his embalmer certainly knew is stuff. After the restoration of Charles II Cromwell's head was disinterred and was on a spike over Westminster Hall for a quarter of a century until it blew down. It got passed around various places until it was finally reburied in the 1960s. Judging from photos it was still in good shape. On the other hand it was said that the corpse of William the Conqueror was placed in two small a coffin and burst during the funeral service. It's not the only lurid story about exploding corpses but these may have been propaganda. In William's case when the tomb was opened in 1522 the body was said to be in good condition and a portrait was painted which hung on the wall over the tomb for some years but has now disappeared.

 

William seems to have been a bit unlucky. There are stories that the funeral cortege caught fire en route to St. Stephen's Abbey in Caen, Normandy although how that came about is hard to imagine. Nor did he rest in peace. In 1562 the church was pillaged by French Protestants and the bones scattered. Only a thighbone was recovered and reburied with a fine monument but in 1742 the monument was removed and the casket placed under a slab, itself smashed during the French Revolution but replaced in 1802. Something of a bumpy ride.


Some royal burials in Great Britain were also disturbed, most at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and some have been lost but most remain, mainly at Westminster Abbey and Windsor. Others are scattered throughout the UK and abroad and some are accessible. The Egyptians also believed that while your name was remembered you weren't really dead so here's a list of locations follows in case you want to try to pay your respects:

St Stephen's Abbey Caen - William Ist

Rouen Cathedral- Matilda. Also Henry son of Henry II who would have been King had he lived, and the heart of Richard I

Fontevraud Abbey- Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Ist, Isabelle of Angouleme (wife of King John) - plus heart of King John

Reading Abbey (destroyed at Dissolution) - Henry Ist

Faversham Abbey (destroyed at Dissolution)- Stephen, his wife and eldest son. - a monument in the nearby church St. Mary of Charity may be his)

Worchester Cathedral - John

Westminster Abbey - Henry III , Edward 1, . Edward III, Richard II (previously buried elsewhere), Henry IV, Henry V, Possibly Edward V (see below), Henry VII, Edward VI (he remained unburied for some time while negotiations took place with his Catholic sister, Mary I, about what rites should be performed), Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II, James II, Mary II, William III, Anne, George II,

Gloucester Cathedral - Edward II

Windsor - St George's chapel -Henry IV Edward IV, Henry VIII (with Jane Seymour), Charles I (his head was reattached before the body was embalmed), George V, George IV

Windsor - Albert chapel - (in or under) - George II, George III, George IV, William IV, Edward VII

Windsor- Frogmore Mausoleum -Victoria (with Albert), Edward VIII (in the Royal burial ground)

Church of the Grey Friars, Leicester (destroyed at Dissolution) - Richard III - body may still be in its original location although legend says it was thrown into the river. A memorial slab has been placed in Leicester Cathedral.

Leineschloss, Germany - George I

St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, Jane Grey (also Anne Boleyn and various other executed nobility)

Uncertain - Edward V, one of the Princes in the Tower who disappeared after his throne was usurped by his uncle Richard III. Bones in a mortuary chest at may be his. James II, died in exile, body remained unburied for some time with the hope that one day they would go back to Westminster but the body disappeared during the French Revolution.