Royal Burials of the 17th Century: Guest Post by Tour Guide Girl

For the readers of this fine blog who don’t have the foggiest idea who I am, may I introduce myself? I’m Tour Guide Girl, tweeter, (sporadic) blogger and owner of Tourbauchery Bawdy Walks in London. Thank you to the 17th Century Lady for inviting me to write a guest article, I’m honoured to oblige!

We, as history nerds, often read details of the lives of our favourite historical figures and also read of their deaths. I thought I’d change course a bit to talk about what happens to these characters after they die. I’m going to focus on the Royal burials of the 17th century.

If you’ll permit, I’ll start at the very beginning of the 17th century.

Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

24th March 1603

Queen Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor monarchs, died at Richmond Palace after a reign of 44 years. She was 69 years old.

The funeral was conducted on the 28th April 1603 at Westminster Abbey. The coffin of the last Tudor monarch was interred in a crypt beneath the beautiful Lady Chapel built for the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. Originally grandfather and granddaughter lay together until James VI/I had Elizabeth moved in 1606.


King James I of England and VI of Scotland by Daniel Mytens oil on canvas, 1621. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

James, the new Stuart king, had big plans for the remains of his predecessor. He’d commissioned a grand, elaborate tomb to celebrate the glory of the dead queen. The monument was placed in an aisle of the chapel, so Elizabeth was moved from her spot in the nave and placed directly on top of the coffin of her sister Mary. James was well aware that the relationship between the two half-sisters had been fraught. Their warring mothers, clashing religious beliefs and political rivalry had meant that there was no love lost between the two queens. James ignored this by binding the sisters together in death. Over four decades after the death of Mary, Elizabeth was laid to rest in the same crypt.

The tomb in the Lady Chapel only depicts Elizabeth. Perhaps this is due to the fact that James was staunchly Protestant. Nevertheless, he ordered that an inscription be made that mentions both women. It reads (in Latin)

‘Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of resurrection.’

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Creator: Henry Pierce Bone (1779-1855). Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It’s worth mentioning (even though she died in the 16th century) that Mary Queen of Scots had a 17th century royal burial. Having honoured his female predecessors to the English throne, James VI/I was adamant that he would honour the female predecessor of his Scottish throne by ordering the exhumation of his mother from her tomb at Peterborough Cathedral. Her remains were brought to Westminster Abbey in 1612, a quarter of a century after her execution. Her tomb is in the Lady Chapel, in the opposite aisle to that of her cousin and executioner, Elizabeth. If James gave Elizabeth a grand tomb, he made sure to make that of his mother ever so slightly grander. Thanks to James, two royal women who desperately wanted the other dead lie in the same chapel. They never met each other in life, but in death they are together forever.

Mary, Queen of Scots, lies surrounded by the dead children of her descendants including 14 of the poor children of Queen Anne.

James VI/I outlived some of his offspring, and the burial of the infants tells us much of his character. The two children that died in infancy after James succeeded Elizabeth to the throne of England were both girls.

Mary was the eldest, the first royal baby of the united kingdoms of Scotland and England. Princess Mary, born in 1605, was described by her proud father as a beautiful child. Princess Sophia was born next in 1606. Sadly, Sophia died within days of her birth.

James placed her tiny body in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, close to the Tudor queens. Her tomb depicts her lying in an ornate cradle much like the one she never lived to use. The inscription, when translated from the Latin, is utterly heart breaking. It reads

“A Royal rosebud, untimely plucked by death; torn from her parents to bloom afresh in the rose garden of Christ.”

Princess Mary was not destined to outlive her baby sister by long. In 1607, Mary caught a severe cold that worsened. She contracted pneumonia. Here last words are reported to have been “I go, I go, away I go.” Her tomb depicts the little princess reclining on a pillow, gazing toward the alabaster cradle of her sister. The inscription reads

“I, Mary, daughter of James, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland and of Queen Anne, received into heaven in early infancy, found joy for myself, but left longings for my parents, on the 16th of September, 1607. Ye congratulators, condole: she lived only 1 year 5 months and 88 days.”

James VI/I himself died in 1625. He was buried near his children and wife in; you guessed it, the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. He has no large monument. Even the exact location of his coffin was a mystery for two centuries. He was found, by accident, during 19th century excavations in the chapel vaults, right up close to the coffin of Henry VI beneath the nave.

Charles I (1600-1649) with M. de St Antoine. Creator: Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) (artist). Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

James was succeeded by Charles I, the only monarch in English history to be executed. Charles was beheaded on 30 January 1649. The next day his head was sewn back onto his body. The British monarchy fell with the death of Charles, so no great funeral or tomb was planned. No funeral was permitted. Charles was refused a burial at Westminster Abbey with his parents and siblings. Instead, St George’s Chapel within the walls of Windsor Castle was chosen as a suitable spot. It was far from London crowds, as well as far from Oliver Cromwell. The chosen burial place was the vault already containing the coffins of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Despite the necessarily gargantuan size of Henry’s coffin, there was space in the vault. Charles was slipped into the spot in silence as parliamentary witnesses made a point of not removing their hats.

Charles II, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, decided that his father should be exhumed and reburied with all pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey. Charles II would honour his father with the solemn funeral and imposing monument that he should have received over a decade before. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and sculpt and enormous memorial. However, Charles II soon decided that the £70k Parliament had provided for all the plans may be better spent on something else. The plans were shelved indefinitely and Charles I remained at Windsor. Funnily enough his vault mate Henry VIII had also been hastily buried in St George’s and had his plans for a grand monument scrapped by his offspring. Today, the two kings share a simple tomb slab (a relatively new addition!)

One of the unifying themes of 17th century Royal burials is that few are lucky enough to remain left in peace, being shunted about or poked and prodded for political gain and/or pure curiosity.

Henry VIII and Charles I were left ignored, until 1813. Workmen accidentally broke through the walls of the vault. The coffin of Charles was opened up by the Prince Regent, the Duke of Cumberland, Count Munster, the Dean of Windsor, Benjamin Charles Stevenson and Sir Henry Halford. All were eager for a good poke around (though they ignored Henry, Jane, and a tiny coffin containing a baby born to Queen Anne.) Lo and behold, when the coffin is opened these illustrious yet morbid men were faced with a decomposing body with a pointed beard and a stitched up throat. Dr Halford noted that the headsman’s axe had cut cleanly through the 4th vertebrae. The Prince Regent promptly offered the doctor the vertebrae as a gift, along with a tooth and a clipping of hair. He’s reported to have told Halford:

“these are more in your line than mine, you had better keep them”.

The surgeon then proceeded to turn the royal vertebrae into a salt cellar, complete with golden setting. Nearly half a century later Queen Victoria heard of the desecration and ordered that the bone be reunited with the rest of the remains.

Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, oil on canvas, circa 1649. Image: Then National Portrait Gallery, London.

Oliver Cromwell would have found this all quite amusing, no doubt, but he would have hated his own fate.

Ollie died in 1658. Having denied Charles I a funeral and burial at Westminster abbey nearly a decade before, Cromwell had no qualms planning one for himself. He was interred in the Lady Chapel amongst the monarchs of the realm. But not for long.

Charles II (1630-1685). Creator: Willem Wissing (1656-87) (artist). Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Charles II may not have bothered moving his dad to the Abbey, but he certainly wasn’t going to let Cromwell remain there. On the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Charles II ordered the exhumation of Oliver Cromwell. Along with the remains of other regicides, the corpse was subjected to a posthumous execution. The corpses were hanged for a day at the notorious gallows of Tyburn before being taken down and beheaded. The bodies were thrown into a pit nearby and so possibly remain somewhere below modern Marble Arch.

The heads were mounted on poles on the roof of Westminster Hall, the site of the trial of Charles I.

Cromwell’s head remained there, stuck above parliament, for 25 years. In 1685 (funnily enough, also the year Charles II died) the skull was blown down in a fierce storm. It wasn’t buried until 1960, having changed hands several times, in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

At the Abbey, a simple stone marks the place that Cromwell’s body had lain for such a short time, and the vault itself was used for Charles II’s illegitimate offspring.

Charles himself made sure he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Fitting for a man of his libido, he was buried on the 14th February 1685. His funeral was quiet and his monument small. He lies in the Stuart vault in the Lady Chapel, rather squished in (when Queen Anne was interred there in 1714 she’d grown so plump that her coffin was larger than normal. Her other family members had to be budged up to fit her coffin in the vault.) The vault has not been opened since 1976, and that was to investigate a suspected gas leak. Charles’ coffin has apparently weakened and collapsed. In fact, the remains of the Merrie Monarch are visible through gaping holes. The Dean of Westminster, Dr Edward Carpenter would have repaired the coffin, or provided Charles with a brand new one befitting his rank, but Queen Elizabeth II had ordered that the vault was to remain unaltered. And so, unbelievably, a monarch of Great Britain lies, very nearly hanging out of a rotten coffin.

King James II by Unknown artist oil on canvas, circa 1690. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

James II technically outlived the 17th century, dying in 1701, but I’ll briefly mention him anyway as he too has not been left in peace. He was buried, exiled, in France. The French kept candles burning for him around his tomb Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in the Rue St. Jacques in Paris. During the French revolution his tomb was raided.

Mary II was buried just before the end of the 17th century in 1694. Where? You guessed it, the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. There was a lavish funeral costing £50,000 and featuring gorgeous music specially composed for the occasion by Henry Purcell. However, the beautiful monument to Mary was designed but never started. Her husband William III was buried close to her in 1702 with nothing more to mark them than simple inscriptions on the floor.

17th century monarchs didn’t cease to be fascinating when they died as these stories hopefully prove. Both St George’s Chapel at Windsor and Westminster Abbey are open to the public, so why not go visit the graves and pay your respects?



Hear ye! 11 thoughts — so far — on “Royal Burials of the 17th Century: Guest Post by Tour Guide Girl”:

  1. Ralph Pottinger

    Very good and only one mistake noted, and that I’m sure is a typo rather than a fault in knowledge: James I of England VI of Scotland, is buried alongside Henry VII and not Henry VI as indicated

  2. Melodie

    I wonder if you could help me – I’ve been writing a piece on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, based on facts. The one part I’m lost on are the following details, which maybe someone can help me with. 1) Why was the Earl, nobility, buried under a rock with no headstone? 2) I have seen photos of John Wilmot and Elizabeth Wilmot’s coffin plaques which has me wondering – have their bodies been moved since burial? 3) Searches for where he was buried turn up nothing – does the graveyard he was buried in still remain? 4) If his body was not moved how were the coffin plaques acquired and, with no headstone, can one locate the burial site to pay respects?
    Any help would be GREATLY appreciated!

    1. francinehvr

      As Margaret has already pointed out, Spelsbury church is where the remains of John Wilmot 2nd Earl of Rochester lie. His resting place is simply in the Lee family vault beneath the north transept. The brass plate from his coffin, along with plates from other coffins buried in the vault, is set on the wall of the tower, just inside the west door.

      1. Melodie

        Awesome! Thank you so much for the information! I’m in the US (planning to visit the UK next year to explore sites related to him) and Google searches weren’t pulling up the actual graveyard, nor was anywhere giving me a burial place besides ‘under a rock’ (which is not helpful). I appreciate the lead more than words can say!

        1. francinehvr

          You’re welcome! I lived in Oxfordshire for a good many years and have ridden most of the countryside on horseback. Don’t forget to visit Burford where he attended school, and Ditchley where he was born. best F.

  3. Margaret Porter

    Rochester did not want a monument, he requested that he be buried beneath a stone and that there be no marker or inscription. Further research could determine whether this request was included in his will (proved 23 Feb, 1681/2). It’s possible that the coffin plaques were not attached at all–particularly in Rochester’s case, as he wanted no inscriptions. His unmarked grave is supposedly in the grounds of All Saints Church in Spelsbury, west Oxfordshire, not far from Woodstock, where he died.

  4. francinehvr

    Melodie, as Margaret has already pointed out, Spelsbury church is where the remains of John Wilmot 2nd Earl of Rochester lie. His resting place is simply in the Lee family vault beneath the north transept. The brass plate from his coffin, along with plates from other coffins buried in the vault, is set on the wall of the tower, just inside the west door.

  5. Eileen O'Leary

    The story of King Charles I neck bone being turned into a salt shaker was a yarn made up by some Eton boys. Halford was given the relics to write about in a report on the discovery of the King’s burial place. He was unable to return them before the vault was sealed up, and so they were kept, with due reverence, by the Halford family until his grandson, who concerned that he had no heirs to take care of these relics, returned them to the Prince of Wales. They were then placed back into the vault on December 13th, 1888. This information is from a booklet published in 1950 by Edmund H Fellowes.


Please contribute thy thoughts!

Your e-mail address will not be published.