“That’s the tomb of Queen Elizabeth the First”; this was the remark I heard when I last visited Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. These words – unquestionably correct – confirm that here was the tomb of ‘Gloriana’ – England’s Queen Elizabeth I, only this is not the entire story. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is all the great marble tomb is – a magnificent monument built on the orders of James I, the first Stuart monarch, to honour Elizabeth, the last monarch of the House of Tudor, for it is her recumbent effigy alone that is upon the tomb. Elizabeth’s effigy reflects the appearance of how the Queen would have looked in old age.
The Latin inscriptions on the tomb all extol Elizabeth’s achievements as they were seen at the time of her death. They praise her for example, as the great monarch who vanquished the Spanish Armada, as a settler of peace, a keeper of governance – and firmly proclaim her royal ancestry as “the daughter of King Henry VIII, granddaughter of King Henry VII and great-granddaughter of King Edward IV” – neatly bypassing the Wars of the Roses and as you would expect, ignoring the brief reign of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, who Henry VII had defeated at Bosworth in 1485. As the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I sometimes received ministers sat beneath a portrait of her illustrious father; but on the tomb, there is, of course, no mention of Queen Anne Boleyn – whom Elizabeth is only recorded to have made two references to in her lifetime. Tombs then, proclaim in a way, their own versions of history.
The white marble canopy tomb of Elizabeth I is actually somewhat larger than the tomb commissioned by James VI/I for his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, who lies close by in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel (the tomb of the great Tudor ancestress, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby and mother to Henry VII, stands next to that of Mary, Queen of Scots.) Elizabeth was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1559. When she died in 1603, she was first buried in the vault of her grandfather Henry VII, in the Lady Chapel, beneath the magnificent Renaissance tomb created for England’s first Tudor king and queen, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, whose effigies were made by the Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano. The original corset from Elizabeth’s wooden effigy survived and displayed at the Abbey until recently. Elizabeth’s coffin was moved in 1606, from the vault of her grandparents (which, incidentally, also contains the casket of their great-great-grandson, James VI/I) and placed beneath the tomb erected to her memory by her successor, James VI/I. Elizabeth’s tomb was sculpted by Maximilian Colt, whilst Jan de Critz painted it.
But there is almost no indication that this tomb contains the burial places of two English queens. This could read like a final sad commentary on Mary I’s short reign, as well as her life. A memorial stone tablet west of the great tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I encourages the historically curious visitor to reflect on the ‘Martyrs of the Reformation’, who died during the reigns of Henry VIII’s heirs. This memorial stone was unveiled by Lady Fisher of Lambeth in 1977.
So, what is there of Mary I here? Mary I attempted to posthumously correct the dishonour in death of her “well-beloved” mother, Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, whose tomb is in Peterborough Cathedral and whose funeral was conducted – as a final insult – as befitted a ‘Princess Dowager’ and the widow of Henry VIII’s elder brother Prince Arthur, whose first wife she had been, as opposed to an English queen consort. The title of ‘Princess Dowager’ was one which Catherine of Aragon had obstinately refused to recognise in life, at immense personal cost. But the deeply religious Catherine was also a woman of stubborn principles and resolutely maintained that her marriage to Henry VIII had been valid because the union with his elder brother Arthur had not been consummated. Catherine’s angry assertion of the fact that her marriage to Henry VIII had been “true” also illustrates her high awareness of the implications all this would have on her daughter’s position as Henry’s own rightful heir, refusing to compromise Mary’s claim to the succession. Catherine of Aragon died in 1536; Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower of London less than four months later; the point has been made that Anne Boleyn’s position as queen was ‘protected’ by Catherine of Aragon’s still being alive – because for Henry to have separated from Anne during the lifetime of his first wife, would have meant that he could still be seen as ‘married’ to Catherine, by those who had refused to acknowledge his second marriage with Anne Boleyn.
In due time, Mary I’s will set out that the body of Queen Catherine of Aragon – who had initially wanted to be buried in the Church of the Observant Friars in Greenwich – should be moved after her own death, in the hope that they would be together, whereby “honourable tombs or monuments” could be made for them both. Elizabeth I certainly does not today lie alongside Queen Anne Boleyn and would never have wished to, having done arguably little to rehabilitate her mother’s disgraced reputation, preferring for historically sensible reasons to be seen instead as her father’s daughter. Despite drawing up her secret wishes to do so, Mary I does not today occupy a tomb next to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, who incidentally, is buried still at Peterborough Cathedral. As for Mary herself, she rests with her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, in a tomb that – almost – only commemorates, Elizabeth. And so, the daughters of Henry VIII by two different queens – Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – share a resting place in death. The sense of mutual rivalry and suspicion seems to go with them, to the grave. For Mary, this seems one of fate’s cruellest twists, to share this resting place with the daughter of the woman who had caused her and her “well-beloved” mother, to lose the life they had known, as she understood it; although Mary’s admirable attempts to lavish Elizabeth with gifts as a child, also shows that Mary was prepared to try to love her half-sister, who also gave her a symbol onto which to heap maternal feelings of her own. One cannot help but think that Mary’s final resting place, in Elizabeth’s tomb, is not one which she would have chosen for herself.
Mary I was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1553. She died childless on 17 November 1558 and was buried in the Abbey on 14 December 1558. Mary’s funeral effigy still exists – and will go on public display when the new Jubilee Galleries are opened at Westminster Abbey in 2018. All that remains of Mary I – in terms of anything at Westminster Abbey that directly makes mention of her – is one single Latin inscription and even that links her together with her half-sister, Elizabeth, England’s ‘Gloriana’, who conquered the Spanish Armada sent by the husband that Mary undoubtedly loved, her widower, Philip II of Spain. The Latin inscription reads: “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection”. Mary’s heart is said to have been buried under one of the choir stalls in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace.
Seemingly forgotten in death, Mary I was a child of extraordinary significance – the only surviving healthy child of Henry VIII’s marriage to his first queen, the Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon, she suffered the indignity of being declared illegitimate and styled as no more than ‘the Lady Mary’ after the marriage of her parents was proclaimed invalid in favour of Henry VIII’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Forcibly separated from her mother, in an attempt to break them both and compel them to yield, Mary’s youth and adolescence were fraught with ill-health and unhappiness; Catherine of Aragon was sent from court and died on 7 January 1536, to Mary’s overwhelming grief. A mere four months after her mother’s death, Anne Boleyn was executed, which meant that Mary’s circumstances changed yet again. The hope for a reconciliation with Henry VIII rested upon the conditions that the Catholic Mary recognise Henry’s Supremacy as Head of the Church of England, her parents’ divorce and the fact that she was thereby declared a bastard.
Unable to follow the private pleadings of her conscience, Mary relented to her father’s will, which eventually paved the way for her acceptance back at court, where her father’s third wife, Jane Seymour (since their marriage on 30 May 1536) was personally sympathetic to her and actively promoted her reconciliation with Henry. In conceding to her father’s demands, Mary had gone against her conscience – but ironically, Mary’s recognition of her parents’ divorce – something that Catherine of Aragon had stubbornly refused to do – meant that this led to her being restored to her father’s favour, so that when Henry died, Mary was among his designated heirs in his Will, with Edward first and herself second, followed by Elizabeth. When Mary became queen, one of her first Acts of Parliament was to boldly declare that the ‘Great Divorce’ had been masterminded by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and that the marriage of her parents had been ‘lawful’, thus making her Henry’s legitimate heir. For Mary, this Act was a proclamation, as much as to her own conscience as to England, reversing the cruel humiliation that she had suffered in her childhood and youth and justifying her mother, Catherine of Aragon, at last.
Mary’s wish, to be reunited with her mother after death was also destined to remain unfulfilled. Dying without issue in 1558, she was succeeded by Elizabeth. They are buried far from their father, Henry VIII, whose own tomb is at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, together with his third queen, Jane Seymour, who bore his longed-for son and heir, the future Edward VI, after whose premature death in 1553, Mary succeeded as queen. The young King Edward VI, the beloved and longed-for son of Henry VIII and half-brother to both Mary I and Elizabeth I, is himself resting in a tomb that could easily be ignored – because it is dominated by the massive Renaissance tomb of his Tudor forebears, their shared grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York at Westminster Abbey. No tomb was ever built for Edward VI; the tablet simply records the grave of Edward VI is to the west of the tomb of Henry VII, in front of the modern altar in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel.
So, all three surviving children of Henry VIII by his first three queens, rest together at Westminster Abbey; although the tomb of Mary I could – almost – seem lost to history.