Sunday, October 05, 2008

Question from John - Arrangement of burials in/under Westminster Abbey

Hi there,

My wife and I just came back from a trip to Westminster Abbey, and were curious about how the bodies are buried. In a vault, or in plain soil beneath their slab. Some stones have 15 or more names on them!!! Mary was beneath Elizabeth I etc. How does this work?
This question came about because I spoke to a remarkable old lady who was in the Lady Chapel (who's floor level is higher than the rest), who was telling me that "No-one's been down there for around 30 years since we though there was a gas leak under Mary Q of Scots." she continued, "There's a stone on the floor over there that turns and you can get down".
I wonder if there's a plan or something.
The lady also mentioned that during a search for a particular monarch's body, they knew where to look first, but in order to have an excuse for a good rummage, they searched all the other caskets etc first!!!
Any info on this stuff would be good.
Anyone drawn up a layout of the foundations or lower floors of the Abbey?


Anonymous said...

What a great question! I've been to the Abbey (and to many other English churches and cathedrals) many times and sometimes wondered myself exactly how the bodies are placed beneath the floors. At least at St Pauls Cathedral, there is an undercroft and crypt that visitors can enter to see actual sarcophagus tombs ... but that church is much more modern than the Abbey and has far fewer people buried in it.

You might have a look at the Abbey's own website. On the page for Art and Architecture (, there is a list at the bottom of books for further reading. T. Cocke's "900 Years: The Restorations of Westminster Abbey" will probably provide the most information on your question.

Good luck, and do let us all know what you discover!

Anonymous said...

I can't answer the question about bodies being in the soil. But I did have an interesting conversation about Edward III's body with a docent of Westminster.

He was asked whereabouts, in his tomb, was Edward. The answer was that he lies, as do all the bodies in their tombs, at about a person's waist level. In the old days, folks could put their hands into Edward's tomb through a small hole and many pulled out scraps of material.


Anonymous said...

The lady in the Lady Chapel was probably referring to the search for James I in the nineteenth century. Antonia Fraser writes of it in her book, "Mary Queen of Scots. James was eventually found with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York but the bodies of many of Mary's descendants (most of them babies and children) were found with her.
For information on Westminster Abbey try the books by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster; and "A House of Kings" which is the official history of the Abbey.

Anonymous said...

'Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey' by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1887) that Diane mentions is excellent.

You can download a free copy at Google Books. (at - look for 'more' link at top, and choose 'Books').

The appendix has a great chapter on the search for James I's tomb. During the search, the author uncovered the coffins of Mary Stuart, Mary I, Elizabeth I, Edward VI, Henry VII and his queen, etc. There are also drawings of the various relics they found, and good descriptions of Tudor and Stuart burial practices.

By the way, Google Books has a GOLDMINE of books to download for free : contemporary Tudor Chronicles (Henry Machyn, Grey Friars, Chronicle of Queen Jane and Queen Mary, Leti`s Life of Elizabeth I, etc.), books on Henry VIII's state papers, Foxe's 'Acts and Monuments', Paul Friedmann's 'Anne Boleyn' in 2 vols, Agnes Strickland's series on English queens, old Victorian books on Lady Jane Grey, etc.

Do take a look!

Roland H. : )

Anonymous said...

In 1776 a schoolboy from Westminster School next door was able to reach into the tomb of Richard II and steal part of his jaw bone. His family was so ashamed that they dare not return it to the Abbey until 1906.