Henry VIII had grandiose plans for his tomb at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which were outlined in a document entitled ‘The manner of the Tombe to be made for the Kings Grace at Windsor’.* No expense was to be spared in crafting the vast edifice, ornamented with ‘fine Oriental stones’ and resplendent with white marble pillars, gilded bronze angels, four life-size images of the King and Queen Jane, and a statue of the King on horseback under a triumphal arch, ‘of the whole stature of a goodly man and a large horse’. In all, there were to be one hundred and thirty four figures, including St George, St John the Baptist, the Prophets, the Apostles and the Evangelists, ‘all of brass gilt as in the pattern appeareth’. Henry VIII’s original ‘pattern’ no longer survives but these nineteenth century conjectural drawings drawn by Somers Clarke for Alfred Higgins FSA, which are held in the Chapel Archives [SGC P.169-P.180], provide an indication of the likely magnificence of his intended tomb, although they omit the King on horseback and show only a small proportion of the intended figures.
However, the original tomb was not his but Cardinal Wolsey’s. In 1524, Thomas Wolsey, who had served as a Canon at St George’s from 1511 to 1514, commissioned the great Italian Renaissance sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezanno, to construct a magnificent tomb for him. Work was well underway by the time of Wolsey’s fall in 1529, and the marble base, pillars and statues were immediately appropriated by the King. Henry VIII lost no time in having it redesigned but it remained unfinished at his death in 1547. Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth considered completing it, and Elizabeth I had it moved to Windsor from Westminster in 1567, but it was still in pieces in 1648 when the metalwork was sold by the Commonwealth to pay for garrisoning Windsor Castle. Two nine-foot high bronze candlesticks ended up in St Bavon’s Cathedral in Ghent, replicas of which now stand by the High Altar in St George’s. The black touchstone sarcophagus, which remained at Windsor, was transferred in about 1808 to the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, to form part of Admiral Nelson’s funerary monument.
Henry VIII has no tomb in St George’s Chapel, merely a marble slab to mark his burial place in the Quire. There can be little doubt as to his reaction were he to return to Windsor in this celebratory year.
Clare Rider (Archivist and Chapter Librarian)
* The manuscript no longer survives. However, it was transcribed by John Speed in The Historie of Great Britaine…(London, 1611).
For further information on Henry VIII and St George’s Chapel, click here