Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Tombs of Henry VIII's Queens: Part One

by Linda Fetterly Root

Katharine[i] of Aragon (1485-1536):

On the morning of her death, Henry VIII’s discarded wife dictated two letters, one to her kinsman The Holy Roman Emperor, and the other, to the husband who had put her aside. It is not the scornful lament to which she was entitled and which the king deserved. In it, she wishes him well and requests Henry to extend benevolence toward their daughter and generosity to her servants. But it ends as the last letter written by a lover: 'Lastly, I make this vow. That mine eyes desire you above all things.’

When the king heard of her death, he donned clothes of celebratory yellow and frolicked the night away. He was not dancing with his wife, Queen Anne, for whom he had all but moved mountains to marry. He had already tired of her.

And thus, the daughter of the legendary lovers Ferdinand and Isabella was taken to the nearby Abbey of Peterborough and interred in the choir aisle to the north of the altar, with no more pomp than due a Dowager Princess of Wales, the title to which she had been demoted. She was put to rest as Arthur’s wife, not Henry’s. Katharine died on January 2, 1536, and was buried 22 days later. A mere three months after that, on May 2, Queen Anne Boleyn was arrested, and 17 days later, she was dead. Four months and a week after Katharine's death, Lady Jane Seymour was Queen of England.[ii]

In his excellent biography Catherine of Aragon, written in 1941, Garrett Mattingly remarked that few of the hopes the Queen still held when she died had been realized.[iii] However, her burial site at Peterborough may well have been an incidental beneficiary of her death. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, achieved by a legislative scheme orchestrated by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541, Peterborough Abbey Church was confiscated but spared. By royal edict, Henry granted Letters Patent to Peterborough making it a Cathedral and named the former abbot as its bishop.[iv] Thus, Peterborough was appropriately Anglicanized. Some historians think it was spared because it housed the remains of a royal who had once been considered Queen of England. It is just as likely that Henry saw it as a potential source of revenue for the Crown.

The site of Katherine’s burial did not fare well. It was desecrated in 1586 and the culprits caught. During the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s troops ravaged both the Cathedral and the town. Their onslaught is described in the Royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus as worse than what would have been expected of either the Goths or the Turks.[v]

In 1895, the dignity of Queen Katharine’s burial site was restored, when the wife of one of Peterborough’s canons, Catharine Clayton, solicited funds from women named Catherine, no matter where they lived or how they spelled the name. Then, Mary Teck, King George V’s consort, grandmother of Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II, joined in the cause, and Katharine's place of interment became clearly marked as the tomb of a Queen of England. Her successor did not fare as well.

Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.

Anne Boleyn (c. 1501- May 19, 1536):

Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Chris Nyborg
Many historians attribute Catherine of Aragon as having captured the hearts and minds of the English people. Albeit unjustly, not even her successor’s apologists extend the honor to her predecessor. There are as many accounts of Anne’s demise as there are screenwriters and historical novelists, and many versions propounded by historians are scarcely more than musings. One thing is certain: the queen was executed for treason within the grounds of the Tower of London on May 19, 1536. Her remains were disposed of according to the custom of the time. As an aristocrat, she was buried beneath the floor within the confines of the Royal Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula. Much haste accompanied her beheading, and no one had thought to order a coffin. Apparently, her remains were carried from the place of her beheading to her place of burial by her ladies and placed into a wooden box.

At the time, notes may have been made as to where the bodies of Royals executed during that bloodiest of weeks were buried, but none survive, and the accuracy of notations used to identify bones found under the floor during a renovation in the late 19th century are unauthenticated.

St. Peter ad Vincula, Wikimedia, Courtesy of Creative Commons
www.graveyards, Matt Hucke,

There are indeed bones of women scattered in at least two locations, but sources differ as to which if either set were Queen Anne's. A commission formed when the floor was torn up during Victoria’s reign, and a surgeon declared a set of female bones to be of the proper age and configuration. 21st-century historian Alison Weir disagrees and believes bones identified as Anne’s sister-in-law Lady Rochford were the Queen's.

While Dr. Weir does not have sufficient facts to declare the issue resolved, she certainly has enough to raise substantial doubt. It will be ironic if further studies show that Weir is correct since Lady Rochford and Anne Boleyn were reputed rivals for Anne’s brother George’s affections. And to add to the controversy, recent research implies that even that assertion may not be true. Jane Boleyn may not be Anne's jealous sister-in-law after all. She may just have been a scapegoat.

The fact that Anne’s burial site has not been resolved is further evidence of how little dignity her remains were afforded at the time of her death. As it stands, all that commemorates her final resting place is a plaque in the floor placed at the behest of Queen Victoria, marking the spot where a wooden box with copper screws in embedded in the concrete, and which may or may not contain the bones of Anne Boleyn. Alison Weir suspects they belong to Kathryn Howard, wife #5.

Jane Seymour (1509-October 24, 1537):

Perhaps it is time to look at Queen Jane Seymour in a different light than the one in which she has been cast. At least insofar as Henry VIII was concerned, of his six wives, Jane was special. His affections for her are usually explained by her ability to present him with a male heir, an achievement not to be downplayed. However, some recent research suggests there was more to Queen Jane Seymour than her label as ‘a little mouse' implies. At the very least she lasted a year without offending Henry as long as she kept her opinions to herself, a lesson learned when she approached him about pardoning the peasants who had taken part in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The reign of Henry Tudor’s third wife was painfully brief. She triumphed over both of her predecessors by giving Henry the son he craved, but the birth cost Jane her life. Twelve days later, she was dead, either of a partially unexpelled placenta or puerperal fever. Henry's plans for her elaborate coronation became arrangements for a royal funeral. She was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive one. The funeral procession began at Hampton Court where she had died and thereafter, laid in state, and ended at Windsor Castle, where Henry planned to be interred. Because of the elaborate nature of his tomb, which remained very much a work-in-progress, she was placed in what was planned as a temporary crypt in the Quire of Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor Palace, while Henry sorted the details of the elegant tomb he had been planning for decades. He had hired a series of celebrated Italian sculptors to render elaborate designs, none of which pleased their patron.

Later representation of Henry VIII's family as
he defined it. (Wikimedia Commons, (PD)
Henry had begun planning his tomb during the happy early days of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Years later, after five more marriages, he chose to share it with Queen Jane. All he had to do was live long enough to see it finished. He died in 1547, leaving a partially completed set of ornaments for an unfinished tomb.

Sharing a crypt with the mighty Henry VIII should have assured Queen Jane's remains a resting place superior to all others, but such was not the case. Finances and what moderns call regime change intervened. In Henry's will and again, on his deathbed in 1547, he reaffirmed his desire to be buried at Windsor, with Jane alongside him. He anticipated his son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Edward's powerful Seymour uncles would see to the tomb’s completion, including life-size effigies of Henry and Jane, and a marble statue of himself upon a warhorse. He had not considered continental politics, religious strife in England, or the threat of Calvinism and the Scottish Reformation. Henry's death left Edward Seymour, then Earl of Hereford, and Protector of the Realm, with more pressing problems than a dead king's tomb. As he approached majority, studious and devoutly Protestant Edward VI had no time for such frivolities. During the Catholic restoration that occurred in Mary I’s reign, in spite of her deep affection for Queen Jane, she had no desire to deify the father who had rejected her. When Protestant, parsimonious Elizabeth Tudor succeeded her half-sister, she found other uses for her money. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, and the Tudor Dynasty made way for the House of Stuart, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, was preoccupied with rehabilitating the image of his mother, Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, who had been beheaded in 1587 on a warrant signed by Elizabeth Tudor, and buried at Peterborough on the opposite side of the altar from Katharine of Aragon. It was she, who never set foot in England other than as a fugitive, and later, as a prisoner, who was reinterred in a glorious tomb in the Lady Chapel at Westminster. 

To finance the Civil War, Cromwell's Commonwealth parliament sold the effigy of Henry VIII and other substantially completed components of Henry VIII’s planned memorial. The author of the commentary at the Saint George’s Chapel page cited below remarks that ‘a less ambitious scheme achievable during his lifetime would have been a wiser choice’.

CONCLUSION OF PART I ~ Tombs of Henry VIII’s Queens

St.George's Chapel,Wikimedia, courtesy of Alan Thoma

The only marking above the royal vault at Windsor Castle where Henry VIII and his third wife, Queen Jane are buried dates to the 19th century and is as follows:[vi]


Join me in September for a look at the burial sites of Henry VIII's last three consorts, Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, and Katharine Parr.

[i] The author uses the spelling that appears at the site where the Queen is buried. Mattingly uses the popular spelling of the name. The queen herself signed as Katalina.

[ii] Garrett Mattingly, infra, states the King secretly married Jane Seymour the day after Anne’s execution, i.e., on May 20, 1936, not May 29.

[iii] Mattingly, Garrett, Catherine of Aragon, 1941, Book of the Month Club Edition, 1990, pages 429-430.

[iv] See the official Peterborough Cathedral website for an excellent recap of Katherine’s life, the present festival held in her honor, and a short biography.

[v] The entire quote is found infra.



Historical novelist Linda Root left a career as a major crimes prosecutor anticipating a retirement spent writing Historical Crime Fiction. She began compiling a Murder Book, aimed at convicting Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots of conspiracy in her husband Lord Darnley’s murder. Instead of the book she planned, her research inspired her to write a novel, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, first published in 2011. It was followed in 2013 by The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots and four stand-alone books in the The Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, with a fifth in progress: They are: 1) Unknown Princess (formerly The Midwife's Secret; 2) The Last Knight’s Daughter, (formerly The Other Daughter); 3) 1603: The Queen’s Revenge;  and 4) In the Shadow of the Gallows. The Deliverance of the Lamb will be published this winter..She has also published an adult fantasy, The Green Woman, as J. D. Root.Visit her Amazon Author Page for a complete list:


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed both of these posts! Thank you! Currently going through a Tudor obsession!


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