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‘Forgotten’ Tudor royal children at Westminster Abbey

In addition to the six Tudor royal burials at Westminster Abbey, there are several more whose location is either unknown or well-hidden to the immediate eye. These royal children, whilst (almost) invisible in terms of a lack of memorial or a monument that is at best, unseen, we tend quite naturally to only look for those tombs which we know can be found.

All of the (legitimate) children of Henry VIII are buried at Westminster Abbey.  Mary I and Elizabeth I, England’s first two queens regnant – share a large tomb in the Henry VII Chapel, although only bearing Elizabeth’s monument. Their half-brother’s grave is recorded by a modern stone located most appropriately given his lineage, to the west of the vault, which contains his paternal grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The first Tudor King and Queen lie in the magnificent tomb created by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who also designed the tomb of Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort – also buried at the Abbey.

The Abbey somehow provides something of a diagram of the Tudor royal family tree in architectural form; albeit with one of its most important branches missing. Henry VIII is of course, buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in a vault which he shares with his third, “entirely beloved” wife, Jane Seymour. Henry VIII’s fourth queen, Anne of Cleves, is buried in a low stone sculpted tomb in the Sacrarium at Westminster Abbey, to the south of the High Altar, an exalted location which befits her queenly status, but one which comes at a price, because her own monument is practically obscured by other monuments and overshadowed of course, by the Altar itself. Its hallowed location aptly reflects the deeply held piety of Queen Anne, who was buried according to Catholic rites.

At least four royal Tudor children, however, have almost vanished.  Elizabeth of York, who predeceased Henry VII by six years, died on 11 February 1503 – her birthday – at the Tower of London, as a result of childbirth. She was buried in the new  Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, “having fulfilled the age of 37 years”, as the inscription reads on her tomb by Torrigiano. Elizabeth of York’s death was the tragic result of an admirable forbearance in the face of horrific personal tragedy, namely to conceive another child while still grieving for her eldest son. Which she duly did, only a month after the death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales in 1502: “[We] are both young enough to have more”. In fact, Queen Elizabeth gave birth on 2 February 1502, to a daughter, Princess Katherine, who died eight days later. Despite her bold and brave attempt to give birth to new life in the wake of shocking personal anguish, Elizabeth of York herself too died, seemingly as the result of a post-partum infection. Queen Elizabeth’s surviving children were of course, as history now knows, Prince Henry, Duke of York, later King Henry VIII, Princess Margaret Tudor, future Queen of Scotland and Princess Mary Tudor, future spouse of Louis XII of France and later, Duchess of Suffolk. But there were other children.

Tempting as a counterfactual argument can be, these children did not survive infancy and become the subject of intense discussion as to their future marital prospects alongside other ruling royal houses, so they are destined to remain historical question marks. Aside, however, from their dynastic value to their parents as child-chess pieces on the European marriage board, the royal children were still undoubtedly loved as children. The grief that had been felt over the death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, had been heartrending and extreme. It left the new Tudor dynasty – whose roots stretched no further back than the legitimate victory at Bosworth Field and Henry VII’s distant descent through Henry V’s queen, Catherine of Valois – with the shaky reality that there was in fact, only one remaining son that stood between Henry VII having no successor to the House he had established to rule England after his death.

While there is no certain evidence to support the marriage of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, the claim of the grandson that did result from the relationship – Henry VII – would certainly have been lent greater weight by the presumption that it had been legitimate. Claims were held to be strengthened through marriage with another blood claimant – similar to a thoroughbred mentality – hence the union of Henry Tudor with Elizabeth of York, thereby uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York, the hitherto warring white and red roses being now the Tudor rose of a new dynasty.

Henry VII’s infant daughter, Princess Elizabeth Tudor, was set to marry the future King Francis I of France, for which discussions were already in place when she was an infant. Princess Elizabeth Tudor (who had been born on 2 July 1492) died at Eltham Palace, while her parents were at the Palace of Sheen on 14 September 1495, aged three years and two months. The cause was likely to have been a short – unspecified – illness, probably thought not to have been serious, because both Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were not summoned to Eltham and were still away when the child died. Princess Elizabeth died when Elizabeth of York was already in the fourth month of pregnancy with what would turn out to be another daughter, Princess Mary Tudor, future Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. Elizabeth was transferred in a ‘black chair’ [chariot] of six horses to Westminster. Her cortege was placed in the choir, covered with a black cloth, “fringed with red and white roses” and the words in gold “Jesus est amor meus”. The grief-stricken inscription on the plate which was placed at the foot of her effigy says it all quite simply: “Death snatched her away”. Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth spent the sum of £318 on her funeral, a vast sum according to the time and especially for Henry VII, who in public enjoyed a reputation for parsimoniousness, which clearly did not extend to his expression of private grief. The King and Queen did not attend the service. Princess Elizabeth’s tomb consisted of a small chest of grey marble with a black marble slab on top. Her copper-gilt effigy has not survived. Elizabeth’s tomb, erected by her grieving parents, cost £371.os.11d. (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 309, 2013). It may be seen to the right of the altar,  in front of the great shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, although its inscription is long since worn away, having begun to do so in the 1700s. The inscription, however, was fortunately recorded before it began to wear away, having previously been copied by the antiquarian John Stow. (Weir, Pg 309).

So small is the tomb, however, that it could easily be overlooked – an infant princess, who had been a younger sister of the future Henry VIII, born the year after his birth in 1491. Thomas More wrote in his Elegy on Elizabeth of York, a poignant tribute to the baby Elizabeth: “Adieu sweetheart! My little daughter late, thou shalt, sweet babe, such is thy destiny, thy mother never know; for here I lie… At Westminster, that costly work of yours, mine own dear lord, I shall never see”. (A. P. Stanley, Historic Memorials of Westminster Abbey, 6th edition, Pg 199, 1882).

Elizabeth of York’s baby son Prince Edmund (1499-1500) and her daughter Princess Katherine, whom Elizabeth died after having given birth to in 1502, were both buried at Westminster Abbey, but no memorial exists to either, and the location of both is unknown.

Poignantly, in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel, next to the tomb of Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, is the monumental tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose vault actually contains a vast amount of her descendants, who all share a resting place with their historically ‘doomed’ ancestress. Amongst these are many children of the Stuart dynasty –  that followed the House of Tudor through a sad irony, due to the Tudor’s own distinct lack of philoprogenitiveness – who died in infancy, including the first ten children of James II and the eighteen babies of Queen Anne – the last Stuart monarch – all of whom had meant to help secure her own dynasty. Elizabeth of York was the great first Tudor queen (consort) and is also the ancestress, of course, of the royal House of Stuart – through her daughter, Queen Margaret of Scotland – sharing the vault of Torrigiano’s tomb, not only with her husband Henry VII, but also her great-great-grandson, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, discovered when A.P Stanley, Dean of Westminster, ordered a search for the latter in 1869, when the vault was opened.

But there is another child, whose birth was the course of rapturous joy, who had he survived, would undoubtedly have resulted in a very different reign for King Henry VIII, likely altering his urgent need for further marriages and perhaps making a marriage with Queen Anne Boleyn unnecessary, with enormous consequences for subsequent English history. One ‘heir male’, could have temporarily comforted the King’s dynastic anxiety, but would only have perpetuated the fear felt by Henry VII when his second son, Henry, Duke of York, was the sole male child to survive, leaving the burden of the succession on his young shoulders. Because it was the same anxiety, transferred to the next generation. By the time that Catherine of Aragon’s pregnancies had ceased, Henry VIII’s love of Anne Boleyn was a genuine coincidence of conscience, enabling him to – probably subconsciously – combine his passion for Anne, with a passionate need to father an heir.

Henry, Duke of Cornwall, eldest son of Henry VIII and his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, was born at Richmond Palace in 1511. The country celebrated with pageants and the Westminster Tournament, recorded on its famous ‘Roll’; bells pealed throughout England. The baby prince died, however, on 22 February; he was buried at night at Westminster Abbey, attended by ten children of the Chapel Royal; lengths of black cloth were ordered. Henry VIII spent a “lavish sum” on the funeral of his son, burying the hope that had occasioned his birth. When finally Catherine of Aragon did bear a healthy child in 1516, a daughter – the future Mary I – Henry VIII bravely declared that “by the grace of God, boys will follow… We are both still young”. It was nearly an exact echo of the words roundly pronounced by Elizabeth of York, on the death of his elder brother, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, in 1502. The great wish of Henry VIII – the heartfelt Tudor longing for sons, was dashed by a miscarriage of Queen Anne Boleyn in 1536, just identifiable as having been a boy, but later fulfilled by Jane Seymour, with the birth in 1537 of the future Edward VI. As it happened, Catherine of Aragon’s ‘healthy’ child, was the future Mary I; whose tomb – dominated by the vast memorial to her half-sister Elizabeth I – is in the Abbey, not far from the presumed burial place of her baby elder brother, whose birth was greeted with such rejoicing. Jane Seymour’s son, therefore, shares the great resting place of Westminster Abbey, with the baby prince that Catherine of Aragon gave birth to, thereby fulfilling the hope of Henry VIII, two marriages later.

The location of the burial of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, the beloved baby boy whose birth was attended with such national outpourings of joy, is believed to be in the Sacrarium, on the north side of the Sanctuary, close to the entrance of the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, near therefore, to the tombs of the child Princess Elizabeth Tudor and of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The architect George Gilbert Scott was engaged in the construction of a new High Altar at Westminster Abbey in the 1860s, during which time a small lead casket of a child was discovered near to one of the steps. It was not disturbed, however, and there is no memorial, or even an inscription, as the spot is only a supposed one.

While these four royal children did not survive to maturity, their lives are still of great historical importance, despite the fact that there are no memorials to them, save for that erected by Henry VII for Princess Elizabeth Tudor. Indeed, one could be forgiven for not even noticing the latter, as there is not even an inscription. These children are mentioned generally, as footnotes in the historical narrative, because so little is known and monuments to the other three were not made. As children of history, they are certainly not the only ones which have been ‘forgotten’ in favour of their more well-known siblings, who survived to adulthood. But they are surely, still important.

©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.