As the nation mourns the passing of Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, today Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, reflects on the burial of another royal consort in the midst of an epidemic, some six centuries prior.
When the late Duke of Edinburgh is laid to rest at Windsor on Saturday, 17 April 2021, he will become the latest in a long line of royalty buried in St. George’s chapel since its reconstruction by King Edward IV. When King Edward died in 1483 (on 9 April, like Prince Philip some 538 years later), the chapel remained unfinished. Nevertheless, the King was not the first member of his immediate family to be interred there. Already, two of the King’s children who had died in infancy had been buried at Windsor, Prince George in 1479 and Princess Mary in 1482.
The ceremonies surrounding the funeral of Edward IV extended, accompanied by the pageantry befitting a King, for ten days as the body was taken from Westminster to Windsor, and there eventually placed in its final resting place on 19 April. Edward had intended that his grave should be marked by a chantry chapel on the northern side of the choir of St. George’s, which was to include, probably at an upper level, a tomb complete with an effigy of the monarch. While the chantry was completed as planned, as a result of the political upheavals that followed the tomb chest and effigy were never put in their intended location. The King’s body itself was placed, as he had asked, in an underground vault covered by a black marble slab beneath Robert Tresilian’s splendid iron gates still in situ (albeit now moved to the sanctuary side of the arch).
Edward’s consort, Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, survived him by nine years, dying at Bermondsey Abbey on 8 June 1492. As the widow of a King she was entitled to the full trappings that her late husband had enjoyed, but her reduced circumstances and perhaps also her own pious preferences, dictated that her funeral should be a far more modest affair than Edward’s had been. In her will, Elizabeth had expressed the wish to be buried with her husband at Windsor, ‘without pompes entring or costlie expensis donne thereabought’.
On the day after her death, the queen’s body was taken by boat up the Thames to Windsor, accompanied only by two clergymen (the prior of the Charterhouse at Sheen and her personal chaplain), a single distant cousin, and two female attendants. At Windsor it was carried through the little park to the castle, where it was received by only a single priest and a clerk, and buried immediately, at 11 o’clock at night, and with almost unseemly haste. More recently, it has been suggested that far from showing disrespect to the dead queen, the austere arrangements had been necessitated by Elizabeth’s death from an epidemic disease, which made it imperative that her body be disposed of with speed.
Indeed, with the body safely out of the way in the same vault as Edward IV’s, the formal parts of the funeral service could proceed. On the following day (11 June), a hearse (a wooden structure designed to hold burning candles around a coffin or effigy) was constructed in the choir of St. George’s, and a day later (12 June) the principal mourners began to arrive. These included the dead queen’s three unmarried daughters, the Princesses Anne, Katherine and Bridget (her eldest daughter, Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII’s consort, was too heavily pregnant to attend), her daughter-in-law, Cecily, marchioness of Dorset, two nieces and a granddaughter. All of these ladies knelt around the hearse as a Dirige was sung.
On 13 June, a group of male relatives also arrived at Windsor. They were headed by Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son, Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset, and also included her son-in-law, John, Viscount Welles, and her nephew, Henry Bourgchier, earl of Essex, as well as Edmund de la Pole, the son of the recently deceased duke of Suffolk (Edward IV’s brother-in-law John de la Pole). On this day, a mass of requiem was celebrated and a further Dirige sung. The bishop of Rochester, Edmund Audley, presided, and two of the canons of Windsor read the lessons. In the masses that followed on 14 June, sung respectively by Canon John Vaughan and the dean of Windsor, William Morgan, the marquess of Dorset took the place of the chief mourner in place of the absent queen, but the ladies once more took the lead in the important ceremony of the offerings that followed the masses, the Princess Anne now taking the place of her sister the queen. As the body of the deceased had already been placed in its underground vault, an important part of the ceremony, the placing of lengths of cloth over the coffin had to be omitted, but some degree of colour and pageantry was added by the participation in the ceremonies on this day by the royal heralds, headed by Garter King of Arms, and the members of the college of St. George, the dean and canons, as well as the poor knights of the Garter, and members of the late queen’s household.
Nevertheless, to any knowledgeable observer the trimmed-back funeral arrangements contrasted sharply with the more elaborate ceremonial accorded to Edward IV and is children between 1479 and 1483, and to which Elizabeth Wydeville might also have been entitled in other circumstances.
A.F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with R.A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (2005)
Euan C. Roger, ‘To Be Shut Up’: New Evidence for the Development of Quarantine Regulations in Early-Tudor England‘, Social History of Medicine, xxxiii (2020), 1077-96
Tim Tatton-Brown, ‘The Building of the New Chapel: the First Phase’, In St George’s Chapel, Windsor. History and Heritage ed. Nigel Saul and Tim Tatton-Brown (Wimborne Minster, 2010), 69-80..