Reports have suggested that as many as 35 million viewers in the UK tuned in to watch the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As much of the nation, and the world, continues to reflect on her passing, here Dr Hannes Kleineke editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project explores the similarities between this funeral in September 2022 and the funeral of King Edward IV in 1483.
If some elements of the funeral of Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, might seem arcane to the modern observer, it is worth reflecting on the extent to which they followed time-honoured tradition. This is all the more apparent by comparison of the ceremonial of September 2022 with the funeral of the first English King to be buried at Windsor, King Edward IV, in 1483.
In the mid-1470s Edward had decided to be buried not at Westminster, like most of the earlier Plantagenet Kings, or at Fotheringhay, the collegiate chapel to which in 1476 he would move the body of his father, Richard, duke of York, but in the splendid new chapel of St. George that he began to construct in the lower ward of Windsor castle in 1475. Yet, Edward died suddenly at the age of only 41, and neither his tomb, nor the chapel in which it was to be situated had been completed when he came to be buried. The King had arranged for a chantry chapel to be constructed at the east end of the chapel’s north aisle, overlooking the choir, and it is thought that a tomb carrying a magnificent golden effigy was to be placed at the upper level of this chantry. In the event, this arrangement was never completed, and both the King and his consort, queen Elizabeth Wydeville, were buried in a vault below the chapel floor, the spot marked by a plain stone tomb, the occupant’s status indicated by his heraldic achievements – his sword, surcoat and helmet – displayed above it.
Edward had returned to Westminster from Windsor in the final days of March 1483, and it was there that he suddenly fell ill. The ailment was serious enough for the King to add codicils to his will and to put his affairs in order in other ways. On Wednesday 9 April, he died. The new King, Edward V, had his own household based in Wales, and the King’s only surviving brother and nearest adult male relative, Richard, duke of Gloucester, was in the north: it is not clear whether attempts were made to recall them to Westminster when the seriousness of the monarch’s condition became apparent, but by convention the young Edward could in any event have played no part in the ceremonies surrounding his predecessor’s funeral.
It thus fell to the King’s household and councillors to make arrangements for the monarch’s burial. This was a more strenuous task than might be supposed: England had not witnessed a full royal funeral since that of Henry V in 1422, some 60 years earlier. Following his death in the Tower of London in May 1471, Henry VI had been buried quietly at Chertsey abbey, and the funerals of two of Edward IV’s infant children in 1479 and 1482 had been small-scale affairs compared to the ceremonies that a reigning monarch’s demise called for.
In the first instance, however, interested parties had to be notified. By contrast with the altogether more suspicious Tudor monarchs, whose deaths were sometimes covered up for several days at a time, news that Edward was dead was circulated swiftly: just hours after the King’s demise, two peers, Lords Audley and Berkeley, were dispatched to the city of London to inform the mayor and aldermen. Meanwhile, at Westminster, the King was laid out so that his household and senior nobles and ecclesiastics might pay their last respects. By convention, the King’s body was covered only with a cloth from the navel to the knees, so that all might see that the body showed no evidence of violence. This public viewing lasted for about 12 hours, before the body was taken to be prepared for burial by being embalmed, wrapped in cloth, and finally encased in lead.
There then followed a period akin to the modern lying in state, as the body in its coffin was placed in the palace of Westminster’s St. Stephen’s chapel. It lay within a hearse, a term which at that time denoted an elaborate wooden construction laden with torches and candles and big enough for the principal mourners to enter and pray in with a degree of visual protection from lesser visitors. Here, the King’s body remained for a period of eight days during which daily masses and prayers were sung, while the members of the royal household, all clad in black, kept a permanent watch, and the chapel royal nightly sang the entire psalter.
On Wednesday, 17 April, the King began his final journey to Windsor. In the morning, Edward’s coffin was conveyed the short distance to Westminster abbey for the funeral service. It was carried by the knights and esquires of the household, and four of the senior knights carried over it a canopy. The coffin was accompanied by all available secular lords and senior ecclesiastics, the King’s eldest nephew, John, earl of Lincoln, taking the place of the chief mourner. While the mourners were soberly clad in black, with hoods obscuring their faces, the procession was a riot of colour, surrounding the monarch’s coffin with a forest of armorial and religious banners. In the abbey, the coffin was once more placed to rest in a hearse, and on a bier above the coffin was placed a funeral effigy, a likeness of the King, dressed in his surcoat and mantle, a crown placed on its head, and a sceptre and an orb in its hands.
At the time of Edward’s death, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourgchier, was too old to conduct the strenuous ceremonies, so it was the archbishop of York, Thomas Rotherham, chancellor of England, who took the lead in the funeral service. Once the service had ended, the coffin with its effigy was placed in a chariot covered in black velvet and drawn by six horses likewise draped in black. Accompanied by the noble and ecclesiastical mourners, the procession made its way to Charing Cross, and from there via Brentford to Syon abbey. Here, the coffin spent the night before setting out on the final leg of the journey on Thursday 18 April.
Then as now, the passing of a royal funeral cortege created much interest in the towns and villages it touched and local people and local clergy could be expected to form processions of their own and meet it. When passing a township, the knights and esquires of the household led the horses of the chariots to prevent them from bolting. Edward’s procession thus slowly made its way through Middlesex and Buckinghamshire until it reached Eton. Here, it was met by the members of the College of St. George who accompanied it across the bridge and up to the royal castle. The building work at St George’s was as yet incomplete, but the choir stalls were in place, and further black drapery probably hid how much was missing. Before the high altar a ‘mervelus well wrought herse’ had been constructed, its gilding and heraldry contrasting with the black of the surrounding building. In this, the coffin and effigy were now placed, and as the members of the college of St. George sang a further psalter for the dead King, a selection of lords, knights and royal household servants settled down to keep a further night’s watch for their dead master.
On the morning of Friday, 19 April, the final commendation of the body began with the offering of the King’s knightly achievements, his armorial surcoat, shield, sword and helmet at the high altar. At this point, there was a disturbance, as two of the lords present, Thomas, Lord Maltravers, son and heir of the earl of Arundel, and William, Viscount Berkeley, who should have received and held the King’s shield, disagreed over which of them should be allowed to stand and process in the position of honour on the right, and began to jostle for precedence. Once the other lords had put an end to this unseemly display, Sir William Parr rode in the King’s horse which, like the other items, was handed over to the canons of St. George’s.
By this stage, it was not merely the lords who were jostling. The chapel was crowded, and one of the observers noted that his view of the final stages of the ceremony was limited ‘by cause the prese of the people was soo great’. Eventually, the King’s coffin was lowered down to its permanent resting place, and the officers of the late King’s household threw their staves of office into the open grave. The reign of Edward IV was at an end.
While the king’s planned tomb and effigy were never made, an elevated tomb of touchstone was placed over the vault containing the King’s coffin (in which it would nine years later be joined by that of his queen), and shielded from the north aisle by a set of magnificent wrought-iron gates now moved to face the choir. Above the tomb were displayed for more than 150 years the King’s magnificent armorial achievements, until they were stolen by parliamentary soldiers in 1642.
Edward IV’s plan to establish a mausoleum for the Kings of England was nevertheless to bear fruit many centuries later. Although in the centuries that followed Edward’s death and the completion of the chapel it could only on occasion claim the body of a sovereign, George III returned there after death, and with the exception of Queen Victoria (laid to rest in a separate mausoleum constructed for her and her consort, Prince Albert, in the grounds of nearby Frogmore) all subsequent British monarchs bar Edward VIII (buried at Frogmore) lie in the chapel.
Source: A.F. Sutton, and Livia Visser-Fuchs, with R.A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (London, 2005).