The Repose of a King: The Burial Place of Henry VIII

Anne Boleyn lies buried beneath the chapel floor of St. Peter ad Vincula. Her husband, Henry VIII, did not even provide a coffin for her. Nothing beyond a length of white cerecloth (waxed linen) for a shroud. So busy was he in planning his wedding to her successor, Jane Seymour, it's likely he didn't give her final resting place much thought. Her grave wasn't even marked until the restoration of the chapel in the Victorian era. It was an ignominious end, meant to erase Anne's memory.

Fate, it seems, has a sense of irony.

Henry planned a magnificent show for his own resting place. He had begun planning his tomb in 1518, during his marriage to Katharine of Aragon. His ego is writ large in every word of the plans. It was intended to outshine the resting place of every monarch in Europe. In 1527, a commission to work on Henry's tomb was offered to an Italian sculptor to the tune of 75,000 ducats, which is the modern equivalent of six million, ninety thousand pounds today. The total weight of the bronze needed to complete it would have been 35,000 pounds.

The tomb was to be built of black and white marble, the exterior covered with semi-precious "oriental stones." Atop each of its ten soaring marble pillars was supposed to be the life-sized figure of an apostle, and in the center, above its canopy, a life-sized figure of the king mounted on a large horse. Gold-covered brass figures of the saints were supposed to surround the recumbent effigies of the king and queen. Massive nine foot candlesticks, each held by the figure of a child, stood between the pillars. A grand altar in a side chantry chapel was planned, where masses for Henry's soul would be said for "as long as the world shall endure." You can see some recreations of the plans here.

Sporadic work was done over the years, based on the expenses recorded in the king's papers. When Wolsey fell, the king seized the materials of the tomb Wolsey was building for himself, including his black marble sarcophagus, and incorporated them into a new design for Henry's own tomb. The disgraced Wolsey ended up in a churchyard, beneath a slab that begs for a little earth for charity's sake.

Despite the three queens that came after her, Henry decided he wanted to be buried next to Jane Seymour. In his mind, she had been his best queen, the one who gave him a son - like she was supposed to - and she had been polite enough to die before he could get tired of her. The perfect woman. After her death, Jane's coffin was stored in a vault beneath the floor of St. George's Chapel, Windsor until the tomb could be completed and she could be interred next to where her husband would rest.

It's difficult to know at this point how much of the tomb was actually completed and how much was just in the planning stages. From what was sold off during the Commonwealth, we can make a calculated guess:

As regards the extent to which the work was actually carried out by Benedetto and his assistants, we may conclude that the podium and the sarcophagus with its base were placed in position; that only two out of the ten panels of the upper bronze frieze of the podium were cast and fixed in their places; that the lower frieze was complete, but that the two intermediate panels at one end of the podium, between the panels of the “frezes” were wanting; that the ten bronze columns were finished all except two, which wanted their capitals; that seven out of the ten statues of apostles had been cast and mounted on their columns; that only nine out of the thirty-four small figures about the bases of the columns were executed; that the closure was complete except as regards its gates; and that the principal statue, the recumbent effigy of the King, was probably cast and in its place on the top of the sarcophagus.
There is nothing to show whether any progress had been made with the altar beyond the making of the small pillars which had been designed for Wolsey, but without them sufficient work is accounted for to explain the comparatively large sum which the bronze fetched when sold as old metal at a forced sale during a time of civil war.

Perhaps the gargantuan cost was enough to make even Henry flinch, which is why completion was delayed. There also seems to have been a problem with the plans because the weight of the canopy could not be borne by the supports.

It's likely Henry thought he had plenty of time to complete his tomb, but at age fifty-six, his body was worn out from obesity, a possible diabetic condition, and repeated infections in his leg wound. His will decreed:

. . . and also by these presents, our last Will and Testament, doe will and ordaine, that our bodie be buried and enterred in the quire of our College of Windsor, midway between the stalls, and the high altar; and there be made and set, as soon as convenientlie maie be donne after our descease, by our executors, at our costs and charges (if it be not donne by us in our life time), an honourable tombe for our bones to rest in, which is well onward and almost made therefore already, with a fair grate about it, in which we will alsoe, the bones of our true and loving wife Queen Jane be put alsoe.

After the funeral, Henry's coffin was stored next to Jane Seymour's in the underground vault in St. George's chapel. It was meant to be a temporary burial until the tomb could be completed.

It seems his son, Edward VI, obediently had some work done on the tomb during his short reign, though his Protestant upbringing made him decide against having the masses said for his father's soul.

Young Edward died before much progress could be made on the tomb, and he didn't end up getting a tomb, either. Instead, he was buried beneath the altar of the Lady Chapel built by Henry VII. The grave was unmarked until 1966, when a tiny slab was put in place to mark the spot.

Work on Henry's tomb came a halt during the reign of Mary. Mary decided she didn't want to memorialize the man who had shattered England's relationship with the Catholic church, and the fact England was broke probably had a lot to do with her coming to that particular conclusion.

In 1556, after Elizabeth came to the throne, she had her treasurer draw up a report about what it would take to finish her father's tomb. She had all of the completed materials transported from their workshops to the side chapel known as Wolsey's "tomb house." But she nitpicked on the details and hem-hawed in that "answer-answerless" way of hers and just never quite got around to completing the tomb. She didn't build one for Mary, either - her sister ended up buried with her in Elizabeth's own tomb. (Which ended up being built by James, because Elizabeth didn't want people thinking too much about her death.)

The "tomb house" at Windsor was in a sort of curious limbo. Its upkeep and repairs were not the responsibility of the church to which it was attached, but instead was the responsibility of the crown. After the reign of James II, it fell into a state of neglect.

The vault where Henry and Jane's remains were stored was hastily opened in 1648 to inter the remains of Charles I after his execution. A year later, the Commonwealth government, in need of funds, decided to sell off the brass parts meant for Henry's tomb.

... in the chappel of Windsor Cathedral (sic) to be sold, and if the value exceed not six hundred pounds, then that money to be paid unto the Governor, Colonel Ven; who was so cunning, and had so much kindness afforded him by the Committee, as to have it sold for no more; and so he had that money besides other sums shared by the by, of which the Parliament were deceived. That monument which the Committee call brass defaced, was that curious, costly, elaborate tomb, erected at the immense charge of Cardinal Wolsey, intended for the memory of King Henry the Eighth, and so served the Cardinal’s design also for his own memory, as the redifying of St. Paul’s Church in London continues the monument of Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The other was a piece of rarity, and sold for a song to a Dutchman, that made of it much more for the weight of brass.

A couple of the candlesticks survive in a chapel in Ghent, Belgium. The black marble sarcophagus survived as well, and was eventually used to bury Lord Nelson.

The location of Henry's little vault was forgotten by the time of the reign of Charles II. (Perhaps they didn't look too hard, because it meant that Charles II could keep the money Parliament gave him for the erection of a tomb to commemorate the slain king.) By 1749, the "tomb house" was a ruined mess, with no windows, used for storing building materials.

Even as late as 1810 we find from the Annual Register, under date 26th October (vol. lii, p. 284), that “the building adjoining St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, called Cardinal Wolsey’s Chapel, was sometime since filled with lumber, although it had been understood that His Majesty intended to have a vault made there for the interment of the remains of his family; however, within these few days the lumber has been taken out of it, and the windows put in." In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1811 (p. 651) there is the following entry, "The Mausoleum at Windsor begun by Cardinal Wolsey has lately been finished agreeably to the directions of his present Majesty."

It wasn't until 1813 that Henry's vault was re-discovered. Sir Henry Halford wrote an account of the discovery, which is described as an accident caused by excavating under the "tomb house" in order to prepare a mausoleum there for the current king.

They opened the coffin with the lead plate identifying it as that of Charles I, removed the king's head to confirm it was really him and not an impostor's body as some rumors had it, and took some souvenirs. The people of that age were always delightfully ghoulish. In 1888, the vault was opened again to return the relics and a sketch was made of the interior.

They noted that Henry's coffin had been broken open and peeked inside. Inside was a skeleton, still bearing traces of a beard, which belie the old rumors that Mary had her father exhumed and burned as a heretic during her reign. The outer coffin of wood was badly decayed and all that remained was the lead wrapped around the body.

They thought the damage looked like it had been caused by an explosion from within, which matches up with one of the old stories of Henry's coffin bursting during the funeral rites and fluid leaking out. However, some of the damage could have occurred when Charles' coffin was shoved into the vault. The jumble of rubble behind that looks like wood could be from a stand or bier on which Henry's coffin was placed inside, that collapsed beneath the coffin's weight.

Jane's coffin was ignored and left undisturbed. The prince, who was in attendance, didn't think their mild curiosity was enough to justify disturbing her remains. They also discovered a tiny coffin resting on top of Charles', containing an unnamed infant child of Queen Anne (1665 – 1714).

The "tomb house" was eventually used by Queen Victoria to memorialize her beloved husband, Albert. Other kings and queens were laid to rest around Henry; most kings and queens since George III have been interred there in the Royal Vault, fittingly memorialized.

Henry's grave remained unmarked until 1837, when William IV took pity on the two kings who had no memorial whatsoever and had an inscribed slab installed on the floor to mark the spot.

In the end, Henry's resting place was no more grand than the resting spot of the queen whose memory he had sought to erase. He, too, lies beneath the floor of a chapel with no edifice erected above to memorialize him - only a slab in the pavement that bears his name.


  1. A befitting end to a vicious, cruel man. Henry VIII was hated so
    much by the general public, that people were paid to attend his
    funeral. It must have galled his evil soul that he remained in
    an unmarked grave for nearly three hundred years.

    Thanks for the insight.

    1. That is a load of bull. He was not hated, he was loved, the women he married were hated, all but Katherine of Argon.

  2. And he is buried in a main throughofare at that with countless feet walking over him.

  3. Henry was for me g
    gracious in the beginning however the tyrade of extremity fascinates me to this day and yet for all his wrong doings I cannot help but wonder and indeed nor deny that he was and is England's sovereign prince that paved a legacy everlasting of this land.
    Judge him not for his ill will but for the line he laid because all in all he is still in simple terms king henry viii king of England.

    1. Henry was a torched soul, because of his need to be considered as much a man, as other European kings, who all had male heirs, and if he did not have one, then he was somehow less of a man, plus with two massive accidents who destroyed his health and his mind, he just became more and more out of control.

  4. Henry was for me g
    gracious in the beginning however the tyrade of extremity fascinates me to this day and yet for all his wrong doings I cannot help but wonder and indeed nor deny that he was and is England's sovereign prince that paved a legacy everlasting of this land.
    Judge him not for his ill will but for the line he laid because all in all he is still in simple terms king henry viii king of England.

  5. I attended a mass with the plaque marking Henry VIII directly in front of me. The irony was not lost on me.