The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and previously that of the Duke of Edinburgh, have once again brought the question of the posthumous fate of British monarchs to public attention. Aidan Dodson, Honorary Professor of Egyptology at the University of Bristol, and author of over twenty-five books, including British Royal Tombs provides a brief history.
My own interest in British royal tombs goes back to childhood, when my mother told me of my grandfather, who had worked at Windsor Castle. Once a year he had the task of descending to the ‘George III’ royal vault in St George’s Chapel to place a floral tribute on the coffin of the Duke of Kent, killed in an air crash in 1942, on behalf of his widow, Princess Marina of Greece.
His coffin was removed from the vault in 1972, when she died, and they were then buried together in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore in Windsor Great Park. Living near Windsor, I frequently visited the Chapel with my father. I began to seriously research the topic after a visit there with an Egyptological colleague, who asked me about the details of the various tombs there – leading to the writing of my study of the Royal Tombs of Great Britain, the first edition of which came out in 2004.
The tombs of kings and queens have always held a certain romantic interest, as well as a more concrete archaeological and historical one. Although perhaps not as spectacular as some from the great ancient civilizations, those of Great Britain are often fine examples of the work of contemporary craftsmen, as well as often being housed in some of our finest ecclesiastical structures. Some also have histories that shed an interesting light on the times in which a monarch lived and died – and the impact of later events on the preservation, or even survival, of their places of burial.
Tombs attributable to the highest status individuals in Great Britain go back to the Bronze Age or earlier, but it is not until Saxon times that we can start to put names to burials. Thus, although the great ship burial at Sutton Hoo, found in 1939, and the tomb at Prittlewell, found in 2000, contained no names as such, arguments can be put forward to attribute them respectively to Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 599–625) and Sæberht of Essex (c. 603–616).
From then onwards, contemporary chronicles or actual remains allow us to trace the burial places of most of the rulers of the early English Kingdoms, of England itself, Scotland, and then the United Kingdom.
Many of the kings of Wessex and the earliest kings of England, were interred at Winchester. When the Old Minster was demolished at the end of the 11th century, at least some of their remains were moved to the new Cathedral, ending up in a series of mortuary chests around the presbytery. Although disordered in their moves, and their desecration in 1642 during the Civil War, studies are now underway to reassemble and possibly re-identify, individual skeletons, which include those of Canute and William II.
Other kings were buried elsewhere, often in the churches of religious houses founded by themselves, including the interment of some of the early Norman kings in France. However, with the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey, already housing the penultimate pre-Norman king, Edward the Confessor, by Henry III, this church became the principal (but by no means only) mausoleum of the kings and queens of England and then the United Kingdom, down to George II.
In Scotland, the early burials of its kings on the island of Iona were followed by the building of Dunfermline Abbey by Malcolm III, which became, albeit again with exceptions by kings interred in their own foundations, a preferred royal place of interment until the death of Robert I Bruce.
Between then and the union of the crowns, the kings of Scots were buried in a wide range of locations, although three were interred in the Chapel Royal at Holyrood, adjoining the royal palace. Mary Queen of Scots was first buried in Peterborough Cathedral after her execution at Fotheringhay, but moved to Westminster Abbey by her son James VI & I after ascending the English throne, where he was himself buried – in the same vault as Henry VII, through whose daughter he owed his right to be king of England. Victoria’s own mausoleum.
St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle included the tomb of Edward IV, responsible for the construction of the current building, with Henry VI later reburied there. Although Henry VIII was laid to rest in the Chapel, to be joined there by Charles I after his execution, it was not until the time of George III that it took over from Westminster as the royal mausoleum: all subsequent kings and queens have been buried there, or nearby at Frogmore in Windsor Great Park, where Victoria built her own mausoleum, and close to which the former Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) was buried.
The actual form of the royal tomb varied over time, with some bodies placed within free-standing tombs, usually topped with recumbent effigies of the deceased (although, for example, that of Edward I is an unadorned simple stone sarcophagus); in other cases, the body lay in a shallow vault below the monument. Vaults became much larger from the late 17th century onwards, capable of holding multiple burials, and intended for use over several generations; at the same time the practice of erecting a visible monument to the monarch was discontinued until the late 19th century. Vaults became much larger from the late 17th century onwards.
The last of these was constructed for George III at Windsor, but still has many empty spaces, as Victoria built her own mausoleum at Frogmore, with a double table-tomb for the queen and the Prince Consort, while her successors all opted for individual tombs in St George’s Chapel.
The most recent of these, completed for George VI in 1969, took the form of small chapel built onto the side of St George’s, with a vault underneath, to contain the king’s coffin (temporarily placed in the George III vault after his death in 1952) and that of his wife, buried there in 2002. The late Queen and Duke of Edinburgh have now joined them, also after an initial (and extremely brief, in the case of the Queen) ceremonial interment in the George III vault.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, treatments of royal bodies had become quite elaborate, with embalming through the use of herbs and spices, and the sealing of the corpse within a closely-fitting lead shell, looking not unlike an Egyptian mummy-case. Internal organs were removed (the brain by sawing the top off the skull) and similarly preserved in spices, often placed in chests at the foot of the coffin – again, curiously akin to ancient Egyptian practice.
Some organs might be placed apart from the body, particularly the heart in a ruler’s favoured church, while in Norman times a king might wish to distribute them around his far-flung possessions (e.g. Richard I, with his body at Fontevraud, his heart at Rouen, and his intestines at Chalus, where he had died, all in his Norman French territories). The last king to be subject to evisceration was George II: his successor George III forbade the practice, and it has not be practised in British royal burials since.
British royal tombs are widely distributed, although many of the outlying ones are lost, especially though the destruction of monasteries and their churches during the reformation, both in England and Scotland. Nevertheless, some of the ruins of the churches that had once sheltered our former rulers are well worth a visit, especially in Scotland.
On the other hand, a most interesting example of a royal burial is that of Richard III, originally made in a Leicester church that was destroyed at the Reformation, and spectacularly rediscovered in an archaeological excavation before a fresh interment in the city’s Cathedral.
Yet Westminster, Windsor and Winchester remain the royal mausolea par excellence, where can be found the mortal remains of our rulers going back well over a millennium, now joined by our most recently-deceased monarch.
Aidan Dodson is Honorary Professor of Egyptology at the University of Bristol, with wider interests in royal funerary archaeology around the world. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, he is the author of over twenty-five books, including British Royal Tombs (2nd edition, Pallas Athena, 2018).