London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
Cemetery of the Week #175: Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula Address: The Tower of London EC3N, England Phone: 0870 756 6060 Founded: 12th century? Number interred: approximately 1500 Open: Currently 9 AM – 5:30 daily. Last admission: 5 PM Admission: Adult: £29.90 Child: £14.90 Website:https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/
When the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, some kind of chapel was probably also built on this site, according to London Cemeteries. It may even be the oldest church in London, if Who Lies Where can be believed. Either way, the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula — St. Peter in Chains — was officially founded during the 12th-century reign of Henry I. The crypt is all that remains of that original church. The building that survives today was built by Henry VIII between 1519 and 1529.
Of the 1500 people buried at the Chapel Royal, some were executed on Tower Hill or on the Tower Green just outside the chapel’s door. Among them lies Bishop John Fisher (1467-1535), who was accused of treason after opposing Henry VIII’s decision to secede from the Catholic Church. As a reward for Fisher’s faith, the Pope created him a cardinal and sealed his fate in May 1535. Fisher declared, “The King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the Church of England.” He was executed on June 22.
While his body was buried beneath the floor at St. Peter ad Vincula, Fisher’s head was parboiled and placed on a spike on London Bridge. A folktale says that his head looked healthier and healthier as the summer heat wore on. Eventually, the crowds who came to see the miracle were so disruptive that the head was thrown into the Thames.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the author of Utopia and a friend of Henry VIII’s, served as Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor. More, who believed that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality,” was summoned alongside Fisher to swear allegiance to the Parliamentary Act of Succession on April 13, 1534. Neither man would do so.
A devout Roman Catholic, More refused to speak at all during his trial. Others (some in service of Thomas Cromwell) testified that More refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church of England and denied Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate. The court, which included Anne’s father, uncle, and brother, took only 15 minutes to find More guilty. He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but the king amended that to beheading.
After his execution in July 1535, More’s body was buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. His head was set on a spike on London Bridge, where his daughter rescued it, possibly by bribery. His skull is believed to rest alongside her in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, but More’s cenotaph stands in Chelsea Old Church, where he’d had the chapel rebuilt. A shrine was eventually constructed for him in the vault below St. Peter ad Vincula.
Both Fisher and More were beatified in 1886, before being canonized in 1935.
Their antagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s assistant in the dissolution of the monasteries and Protestantization of England, fell from grace when he arranged the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was accused of heresy and treason and was executed on Tower Hill before being buried here in 1540.
Anne Boleyn’s birth year is uncertain (variously 1500, 1501, or 1507), but her death date is clear: May 19, 1536. After less than three years of marriage to Henry VIII, she’d given birth to a daughter (who would become Elizabeth I) and miscarried three more children, including a son in 1535. By March of 1536, Henry was courting Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour.
The following month, one of Anne’s musicians was arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being Anne’s lover, then went on to implicate four other men. Anne’s brother George was arrested and charged with incest. Anne was accused of witchcraft and adultery, which amounted to treason since she was queen.
She was arrested on May 2. A barge took her from the palace at Greenwich to the Traitor’s Gate at the Tower. As she was escorted to a 14×8-foot cell in the Lieutenant’s lodgings, Anne became hysterical, laughing and crying so much that she frightened those in attendance.
Her show trial on May 15 was attended by 200 people. Anne was acquitted of incest, for which she could have been burned at the stake, but was found guilty of treason. From her room in the Tower, she watched the scaffold being built on Tower Green. An expert executioner was imported from Calais.
Four days later, Anne wore a dark gray gown with a crimson petticoat to her beheading. She knelt upright, after the French fashion of execution, and was blindfolded. The executioner removed her head with a single stroke of his double-edged sword.
No arrangements had been made for her burial, so her corpse lay on the platform until someone retrieved an arrow chest to serve as her coffin. Her ladies waited beside it until someone was found who could open the chapel’s floor so she could be laid to rest. As was the custom for those who were executed, her grave wasn’t marked but its location was recorded.
During Queen Victoria’s renovations to the chapel in 1876, Anne’s body was identified (or not—experts differ) and reburied on the left side of the altar under a marble plaque that bears her name.
The five men accused of adultery with Anne were executed publicly on Tower Hill on May 17, 1536. Without ceremony or memorial, their headless bodies were buried under the nave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. They were buried with quicklime, which dehydrates the flesh and prevented the smell of decay from disrupting services in the chapel.
Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife at age 19, when he was in his fifties and running out of time to father a healthy male heir. They married on July 28, 1540, the day of Cromwell’s execution. The following year, desperate to bear the king a son and save her own life, Catherine began a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry’s favorite courtiers. She also hired Francis Derehem, to whom she’d been betrothed before marrying Henry, as her secretary. The two men confessed, under heavy torture, to adultery with the queen.
After only 18 months of marriage, Catherine was executed on February 13, 1542. Afraid that the executioner would botch it, Catherine called for a rehearsal the night before her death. In the morning, she needed assistance to climb the steps to the scaffold. Her last words, according to legend, were, “I die as a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.” She was beheaded with a single stroke of an axe and buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. Her body was not identified during the Victorian renovation.
The third queen at rest (or not) inside the Chapel Royal was a teenager when she died. Lady Jane Grey was born sometime around 1537, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor. When she was 10, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow, who had remarried after Henry’s death.
At the age of 16, Jane married Lord Guilford Dudley. As Edward VI lay dying in Summer 1553, he drafted a document to forbid the crown from passing to a Catholic. Encouraged by Jane’s father-in-law, Edward specifically named Jane as his successor. The first British monarch raised a Protestant, Edward was the only surviving male heir of Henry VIII, the son of Jane Seymour.
Three days after Edward’s death, Jane was informed she was now queen. Reluctantly, she accepted the crown on July 10, 1553 and took residence in the Tower of London. Nine days later, the Privy Council switched their allegiance to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Jane became a prisoner in the Tower and was convicted of usurping the throne.
Guilford Dudley was executed on Tower Hill on February 12, 1554. Queen Mary allowed her cousin Jane to be executed privately on Tower Green. Jane ritually washed her hands of the throne and blindfolded herself, but when she couldn’t find the executioner’s block, she began to panic. Someone helped her to the block, where she commended her spirit to God. A single axe stroke ended her life.
Lady Jane Grey was buried on the lower step of the altar with her husband, Guilford Dudley. A marble plaque, placed during the Victorian renovation, marks their grave.
When the chapel was restored in 1876, most of the remains and some intact coffins buried under the chapel’s floor were re-interred in the medieval crypt. In all, some 1500 people are buried in the crypt: prisoners (some with their heads), soldiers who had been stationed at the Tower, the Tower’s administrators, and other Tower denizens.
No photos are allowed in the chapel, which is still a working church. It’s possible to attend a communion service or a choral Matins. Otherwise, tourists are allowed inside only by joining a Yeoman Warder’s tour, which is free with an admission ticket to the Tower. Tours begin every 30 minutes at the entrance to the Tower.
Books I Consulted – the highlighted ones I’ve reviewed on Cemetery Travel:
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