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The ‘Forgotten’ Georgian Vault at Westminster Abbey

In addition to the handful of tombs of England’s medieval kings and their queens consort clustered close to or around the great shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, one royal vault is quite unlike the rest.

Some tombs are harder to find in the first instance. The first Stuart King of England James I, for example, shares mortal eternity in the resplendent Torrigiano tomb designed for his Tudor ancestors, Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York in the magnificent Lady Chapel, the first King and Queen of the preceding dynasty. The Stuart tombs in the Quire of the south aisle of the Lady Chapel have their own modest slabs for Charles II, Mary II, William III, Prince George of Denmark and Queen Anne. These are at least, respectably visible in their roped-off marked vaults. No monument was erected for King Charles II for example; instead, his impressive life-size effigy stood beside his grave for over a century. The boy king, Edward VI’s tomb, is more hidden than otherwise, lying under a barely-noticed marble slab appropriately at the foot of the grave of his grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry VIII’s spectacular tomb at Windsor, of course, was never completed. So by historical accident, the awesome Tudor King lies beneath a simple slab with his third wife, Queen Jane Seymour in a vault he shares with Charles I and an infant child of Queen Anne, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The slab is in the Quire – also the aisle down which every royal bride has walked who married there, from Queen Victoria’s reign onwards. The reputation of the monarch sometimes atones for the lack of a monument; in Henry VIII’s case, in breathtaking proportion.

One vault, however, is different. It contains a hidden world of stories, passion and anger, hatred and betrayal. The grouping of this royal vault makes a fascinating and curious study for consideration, bearing in mind the relationships these royal individuals had had in life. It is arguable whether their shared location would have been welcome to them when taking in account their recorded behaviour when they did gather together as a family. It is questionable whether this grouping is, in fact, a reconciliation in death, or the continuance of their earthly conflict. It was succinctly put by the biographer Stella Tillyard when considering this, the Georgian vault at Westminster Abbey: ‘A warring family would be brought together again. Silent and unable to quarrel…’ (Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair, Pg 4, 2006).

For George II shares his last resting place not only with his beloved wife, the brilliant Queen Caroline among others, but also the son he detested, Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales. We might recall here the King’s legendary ‘hot’ temper and the famous episode when Frederick, Prince of Wales, bundled the heavily pregnant Princess Augusta into a carriage at Hampton Court on the night of 31 July 1737, so that his heir could be born away from his parents’ roof, at St James’s Palace. This was the climax of the royal war that had raged between the King – the hero of Dettingen who had personally led his troops into battle – and his eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Queen Caroline had resolved with obsessional dislike, to be present at the delivery of her daughter-in-law but instead was forced to travel to St James’s to see her newborn grandchild. This was an unhappy consequence of the intense dislike that was unfortunately handed down as a legacy from the Georgian Kings to their heirs and would continue to be so, just as George II had experienced his own complicated relationship with George I. George, Prince of Wales would be the despair of his father, King George III. This hatred would cause Queen Caroline to issue the shocking statement on her deathbed – at least, according to her confidant, John, Lord Hervey: ‘At least I shall have one comfort in having my eyes eternally closed… I shall never see that monster again’ (op cit, Lucy Worsley, Courtiers, Pg 246, 2010). William Augustus, Caroline’s favourite son who she would far have preferred as her heir, shares the Georgian vault, by a melancholy irony. Frederick’s death was greeted in turn with George II’s empty reaction whilst playing cards: ‘Why, they told me he was better’ – still later, he remarked to Lady Yarmouth: ‘I lost my eldest son, but was glad of it’ (Tillyard, Pg 4).

Queen Caroline’s body was taken to Westminster Abbey by twelve Yeomen of the Guard; her ladies wore black crepe. Handel’s ‘The Ways of Zion do Mourn’ was composed as a funeral ode for Queen Caroline; today a recording of it is played in the room which was once her Oratory, at Hampton Court Palace. George II ordered that in due time, the sides of his coffin and hers should be removed, so that eventually, they might lie together in perpetuity, a sentimental continuance of the passionate relationship they had enjoyed in life, despite his mistresses. George II died at Kensington Palace on 25 October 1760 – contrary to his having always asserted that he ‘would never die’ there. He had risen at six o’clock in the morning and drunk his usual cup of chocolate an hour later, administered to him by his German valet, Schröder. The King was laid to rest alongside Queen Caroline on 11 November, twelve Yeomen of the Guard having escorted his body to Westminster. He would be the last British King to be buried at Westminster Abbey; all subsequent monarchs have been laid to rest at Windsor.

George II and Queen Caroline also share the Georgian vault with their grandchildren, Princess Elizabeth Caroline, Prince Frederick William, Prince Edward Augustus, Princess Louisa Anne and Prince Henry Frederick. George II’s children Prince George William, Princess Caroline and Princess Amelia lie with their parents in the Georgian vault. Three daughters are missing though. Princess Louisa rests at the great burial church of Roskilde in Denmark alongside the Kings and Queens of Denmark, as the Queen of King Frederik V. Princess Mary was buried at Hanau as Landgravine of Hesse-Kassel; their eldest daughter, Anne, Princess Royal was buried at the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft as Princess of Orange.

The modesty of the Georgian vault at Westminster Abbey with its simple black and white marble checkered floor means that unsuspectingly, visitors tread over the resting places of the one-time British Royal Family. There are no monuments; only the respectfully solemn letters which may be read in the King’s case: ‘G.R’. It nevertheless presents a strange sight to the onlooker, watching those understandably lost in awe at the fan-vaulted glory of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, not realising the royal vault beneath their feet.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.