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Cheneygates: Where an English King died

The Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey is part of what is the oldest surviving medieval house in London. Its history is significant, but the room itself little seen, because it is not open to the general public. It is part of what is known as Cheneygates, the ancient house of the Abbots of Westminster, being built by Nicholas Litlyngton, who was Abbot from 1362-86 and whose initials feature in the 14th-century roof timbers. The Jerusalem Chamber is a remarkable example of early medieval architecture in London and remained undamaged by the Blitz, with its original roof intact. Now restored, it is perhaps most well known as the room in which the English King Henry IV died in 1413.

The room itself was constructed during the reign of Richard II, whose crowned letter ‘R’, may be found on the wooden beams in the roof. The cedar wood panelling is not original, being added by Dean Stanley, the Dean of Westminster towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. The name of the room underlines its later, Biblical associations – the adjoining room is known as the ‘Jericho Parlour’. This impression is heightened by the presence of a series of fine 16th-century French tapestries depicting the life of Abraham, which formerly were hung around the High Altar of the Abbey, on important occasions. The room’s strong religious links were further emphasised when it provided the setting in 1611 for the Committee compiling the Authorized Version of the Bible; this was repeated for the Revised Version in 1870, the New English Bible in 1961 and most recently, the Revised English Bible in 1989. During the reign of Charles I, the Westminster Assembly of Divines met in the Jerusalem Chamber; it was subsequently used by the Upper House of Convocation. The Jerusalem Chamber is still used for meetings by the Dean and Chapter today.

The Jerusalem Chamber, now within the Deanery at Westminster Abbey, ca. 1870-1900 (By York and Son [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the room’s most notable features is its fireplace, partly original. It was in front of this stone fireplace that King Henry IV – the first English King of the House of Lancaster – died on 20 March 1413. As Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV had imprisoned Richard II; Henry IV, therefore, died beneath the crowned ‘R’ of the King he had deposed, which may be found in the roof of the Jerusalem Chamber. Richard II had built a splendid tomb for himself and his queen at Westminster Abbey, where he had been crowned at the tender age of ten. After his accession in 1413, Henry V ordered that Richard II’s body be brought from the friary in Hertfordshire where he had been buried, to join that of his beloved wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia, situated within the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor at the Abbey.

Henry IV’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey in 1399, as depicted in the famous Froissart Chroniques. In 1413, he became ill whilst praying at the magnificent Shrine of St Edward the Confessor at the Abbey and was brought to the Jerusalem Chamber in the Abbot’s House, in a strange fulfilment of a prophecy believed to have been spoken over the King. It said that he would one day die in ‘Jerusalem’. Today, King Henry IV is commemorated in the Jerusalem Chamber by a portrait on wood and a plaster bust, the latter of which was taken from his tomb effigy at Canterbury Cathedral, where he rests with his wife, Queen Joan of Navarre, not far from the former Shrine of St Thomas a Becket, as he wished.

The Jerusalem Chamber formed the principal room of Cheneygates. Two rooms, the Cheneygates Room and the Inner Room – over today’s entrance to the Cloisters – have been wonderfully restored to help recreate the appearance of how they might have looked when Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, wife of Edward IV, sought sanctuary at Cheneygates in 1470-71, “in right great trouble, sorrow and heaviness” (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 38, 2013). During the time that Queen Elizabeth was in sanctuary at Cheneygates, the Jerusalem Chamber became her main chamber, to which the Abbot’s Great Hall was added and a privy chamber, in which presumably, she gave birth to the future Edward V in 1470, whilst in sanctuary. The future Edward V – one of the popularly named ‘Princes in the Tower’ – was christened at Cheneygates. Also with her in sanctuary was her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. The recently widowed Queen Elizabeth Wydeville would again seek sanctuary at Cheneygates in 1483, following the death of Edward IV and the successful coup mounted by Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. She had fled from the near-lying Palace of Westminster and was once more taken into the Abbot’s House, (“lodging herself and her company”) where she had given birth to her son – King Edward V – that same son who had now been seized by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was admitted into sanctuary by the Abbot of Westminster, John Eastney, who had been one of Edward V’s sponsors at his christening at Cheneygates. The Queen was accompanied by her son, the Earl of Dorset and Lionel Wydeville, the Bishop of Salisbury. Such was the haste with which the Queen moved from the Palace to the Abbey, that those of her possessions which had been transported thence, were in total disarray. The trauma of 1470-1471 which had greatly affected the Queen was thrown no doubt into more tragic relief, by the reminder that it was out of sanctuary that she and the princesses had been taken, to the Palace of Westminster, when Edward IV returned in triumph. Now she had fled the Palace for sanctuary once more – and the King of England was no longer her husband, but instead her eldest son, and he was no longer under her protection.

The College Hall survives from the Abbot’s House, the oldest surviving space for dining in London, still used today. Henry VII – whose most outstanding legacy to Westminster Abbey is the magnificent Henry VII Chapel – dined not here, but privately instead in the Cheneygates Room, whenever he ate with the Abbot of Westminster (1500-52). According to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, Sir Thomas More was also kept in the latter room, before he was taken on to the Tower of London.

The Abbot’s House was granted to the Bishop of Westminster, in 1540. Once again, the stone fireplace became the witness of yet another historical event; in 1624, the then Dean of Westminster met the French Ambassador, who had come to London to discuss the marriage negotiations of the future Charles I and Princess Henrietta Maria of France. The Dean of Westminster later commemorated this event on part of the wooden mantel.

The Jerusalem Chamber also became a place where the coffins of important national figures lay in state overnight before burial, such as Sir Issac Newton in 1727 and William Congreve in 1729.

The Abbot’s House now forms part of the present Deanery and is still used for gatherings of the Dean and Chapter and for private functions, by their permission. The Coronation Regalia was brought to Westminster Abbey and placed in the Jerusalem Chamber, the day before the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen, in 1953. This was in keeping with a time-honoured tradition that dated back to the reign of Charles II, the crowns and Regalia being brought to the Chamber the evening before a monarch’s coronation. On the morning of 2 June 1953 – Coronation Day – the Deans and Canons of Westminster escorted the Regalia from the Jerusalem Chamber, in preparation for the ancient ceremony that would take place in the Abbey that day.

It was a fitting continuum of how a room’s history continues to be added to, in the history of a nation.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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