Saturday, September 06, 2008

Question from Elizabeth M. - Burials in Westminster Abbey

With Westminster Abbey being a royal peculiar, how did so many non-royals wind up being buried there? Were these people, based on the accomplishments in their lives, offered burial in the Abbey by the monarch, or did they or their families have to ask for permission? Or do not all burials in the Abbey need royal permission?
Also, when and why exactly did Westminster Abbey seem to fall out of favor as a royal burial site, with Windsor being the preferred place for many generations?


Anonymous PhD Historian said...

The when and why of the shifting to Windsor of royal burials was covered in an earlier post, but to repeat my explanation here,

"I am afraid I do not know with certainty why royal interments shifted from Westminster Abbey to St George's Chapel, Windsor, but it seems to be related to George III's personal preference for Windsor as a royal residence. Prior to his death in 1820, only 4 English monarchs had been buried at Windsor: Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII, and Charles I.

Though George III is responsible for purchasing and transforming Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace, he spent a great deal of time at Windsor Castle, probably because he could indulge there his fondness for farming. His preference for Windsor became even stronger in his later years, during his illnesses. And he was more or less sequestered there during the lengthy Regency of his son (1811-1820). He died at Windsor.

George III is responsible for having created the Royal Vault within St George's Chapel, just prior to the beginning of his last illness in late 1810. George's youngest daughter, Amelia, was the first Hanoverian to be buried in the vault upon her death in November 1810. George III's wife Charlotte, sister Augusta, son Edward (father of Queen Victoria), and granddaughter Charlotte were all buried at St George's Chapel before George III himself, so it had already become something of a family tradition when he was interred there in 1820. He was followed by four more sons, two daughters-in-law, a grandson, and two granddaughters.

His granddaugther Victoria chose to be buried not in Westminster Abbey or St George's, but instead in a new mausoleum on the grounds of the Frogmore Estate, a royal retreat on the grounds of Windsor Park. That mausoleum holds only Victoria and her husband Albert, but the cemetery surrounding it has become the favored burial place of the non-sovereign members of the royal family since the reign of George V.

George VI, the present queen's father, is of course buried in the chapel that bears his name attached to St George's Chapel at Windsor, as are his wife (Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), and his daughter, Princess Margaret. The preferred burial site of Queen Elizabeth II has never been revealed, but I will bet that it will be the George VI Chapel, with her father, mother, and sister."

The official website for Westminster Abbey notes that there are over 3300 people actually buried within the church and its cloisters. A very useful, albeit very short, partial list with photos of each person's monument can be found at But note that many of the people on the posted list are actually buried elsewhere and only memorialized within the Abbey.

The tradition of burying the nation's heroes and great men within the Abbey seems to have begun at about the same time that England emerged as a dominant power in both Europe and the world ... the late 17th and early 18th century. Certainly by the reign of George III (mid 1700s), the tradition was fully established. And from then to WWI, a kind of national mythology was being created to support Great Britian's growing claims to an ever-expanding world empire (there has been a LOT of scholarship published on this phenomenon). One element of the creation of a national mythology is the enshrinement of a cadre of national heroes. And what better place to literally gather those heroes together than in the same place where most of the monarchs are buried and honored? If the national identity is personified and embodied in the monarch, it would be only proper to honor the nation's heroes alongside its monarchs. Thus Westminster Abbey became a convenient single location for honoring those who contributed most conspicuously to making Britain "Great."

It would seem to me, just off the top of my head, that 3300 people buried in such a relatively small space would leave it a bit crowded. I imagine that despite the tradition of honoring the nation's heroes and great men and women by burying them in the Abbey, restrictions had to be imposed at some point limiting further burials to only the truly exceptional. And while monarchs could obviously still be buried there without anyone's permission being needed, burials in the 20th century have been extremely rare. Winston Churchill, the Unknown Soldiers from WWI, and perhaps a handful of others.

Any burial within the Abbey today would definitely require permission from both the Crown and the Church of England, as would the placement of any memorial for someone buried elsewhere. This is only speculation on my part, but I imagine there is some kind of committee or commission (probably incorporating the Dean of Westminster, the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and representatives of the Royal Household and the government) that maintains a rather short list of persons eligible for burial within the Abbey. Those eligible are, I'd imagine, notified when they become eligible so that they can decide whether not to accept the honor. But in true English fashion, it is all probably very hush-hush, and only a handful of people ever know who is on the list. But that is just a guess on my part.

September 06, 2008 6:01 PM  
Anonymous Nikki said...

If I am facing the High Altar, what side is Anne of Cleves on, my right or left? I want to find her tomb while I am there!

September 06, 2008 8:33 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

If I'm reading the diagram right, if you're standing with the sanctuary and altar in front of you, go around the lectern on the right and she will be there down low, shortly after you make the turn. I'm probably not describing this very well! And you can always ask a guide to help you find her.

When I was searching for Lord Wm. Blakeney (a relative on my mom's side), one of them helped me find him. I only vaguely knew he was in the nave somewhere... turned out he was under some chairs. But the let me take a photo, which was cool!

September 06, 2008 8:58 PM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

Lara's description of how to find the Cleves tomb is exactly correct. The only thing I might add is that it is built into a wall, rather than standing alone in the middle of the floor, and the monument is not particularly conspicuous. See for a preview photo and you will probably recognize it when you walk past it following Lara's directions.

September 06, 2008 9:33 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

I meant to mention in my previous comment that I almost missed Anne the first time I was at the abbey because I wasn't expecting her to be kind of tucked out of the way like she is. It's a shame Anne didn't get a nice effigy somewhere along the way.

And when I was there 5 years ago showing my father around, I totally forgot to go find her again. I think dad was having more fun looking at the overall architecture than the tombs anyway. :)

September 06, 2008 10:04 PM  
Anonymous Nikki said...

Thanks for that info, I will find her! I was also looking on the Abbey website for Edward VI. He's not buried directly beneath the marker with his name, he's under the current altar in the Lady Chapel, correct?

If my memory serves me right, the tomb of Henry VII is to the right of the altar (if you're facing it)? Is Edward under or near him, or is there another burial vault somewhere?

September 07, 2008 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Nikki said...

I forgot to post that I like the website. It usually gives you good pictures of the grave markers of people. There's a really good pic of Henry VIII's marker. Go to "famous people" and then search away!

If you do a search for Anne of Cleves, and then look at the photo from the Westminster Abbey website, you can put the two together and get a better idea of what to look for.

September 07, 2008 8:18 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth M. said...

I suppose 3300 burials is not beyond the realm of possibility, given that there are some instances of several people being buried in one tomb. I am thinking of Antonia Fraser's description of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. She states that in her tomb were also found the coffins of Arbella Stuart, Elizabeth of Bohemia and her son Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and at least the receptacles of 20 or more infants, including maybe all of the stillborn and short-lived babies of Queen Anne. Are the names of Arbella Stuart and Elizabeth of Bohemia mentioned on a plaque as being buried here in Mary's vault? I wonder how many other tombs there have more than one person buried in the vault?

September 07, 2008 12:22 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

Re: Edward VI

Right, he's actually under the altar at the head of the tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. According to the guidebook, the marker for Edward VI was placed in 1966 by Christ's Hospital to honor Edward, who was their founder.

September 07, 2008 2:13 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

me again... I really should wait and finish my thoughts before posting a comment since I always seem to end up thinking of more things to add.

Here's the link to the Westminster Abbey page on Edward's VI tomb:

September 07, 2008 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn Roberts said...

‘Peculiar’, as in Royal Peculiar means a church that operates under different circumstances than was/is usual, and does not imply it is exclusive to the use of royalty. Since Anglo-Saxon times certain churches chose to be exempt from any ecclesiastical jurisdiction other than that of the Sovereign. In 1222 Westminster Abbey became a Papal Peculiar, meaning that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London had no jurisdiction there. This of course came to an end with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when it was put under jurisdiction of Henry VIII.

As far as the many burials go, 3000+ is not unusual in the very old European churches and it is likely that simple overcrowding was the reason for the burials ceasing. Just a point for Phd – although the plaque on the floor exhorts us to Remember Winston Churchill, his funeral actually took place at St. Paul’s and he was buried in the churchyard in the small Oxfordshire village of Bladon, near Blenheim Palace, the place of his birth (which, incidentally, stands on the site of the old royal palace of Woodstock).

Those looking for lesser-known graves in the Abbey can find that of Lady Anne Mowbray in the St. Erasmus Chapel, next to the chapel where Mary I and Elizabeth I are buried. The supposed bones of her husband, Richard Duke of York and Norfolk and his brother Edward V are entombed in a sarcophagus near Mary and Elizabeth. These boys were the Princes in the Tower; Richard married Anne when he was 4 and she was 5 but she died aged 8 and he disappeared when he was 10. His elder sister was Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII – speaking of whom, if you are at the Abbey, do take time to see his funeral effigy and death mask, it is so realistic and was, apparently, in his time regarded as being a very good likeness.

Sadly, I have had an e-mail from some Australian visitors to say that when they looked for Lady Anne’s burial place it was covered by a piano and some rolled-up carpets!!

September 09, 2008 10:27 AM  
Anonymous PhD Historian said...

Thanks for the correction, Marilyn. The Abbey's website does say quite clearly that Churchill was buried elsewhere. I should have seen it. That he was buried elsewhere reinforces my notion that burials within the Abbey have all but ceased in the 20th century, perhaps due to overcrowding.

September 09, 2008 3:35 PM  
Blogger Foose said...

Lara, this is the first time I read this thread ... Blakeney -- are you related to the Scarlet Pimpernel? (Yes, I'm being silly...)

December 19, 2008 10:46 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

Hehe... Yes! Well, as much as someone can be related to a fictional character. :)

December 20, 2008 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no more space for a coffin in George VI memorial chapel so if not Elizabeth and Philip will be cremated like Margaret they can´t be buried there.

Off course no official information will be given from buckingham palace before one of them dies but I read somewhere that they eventually have choosen the mausoleum in Frogmore where Victoria and Albert are buried.

If that´s true, wouldn´t it be fantastic with UK:s two longest reigning Queens in the same mausoleum united in the eternal life.

June 27, 2009 8:34 AM  

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