The lost tomb of Henry VIII: design, appearance and fate

Image: St George’s Chapel, Windsor; Andrewkbrook1, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on 16th February 1547. However, although he is one of the most recognisable figures of English history there is no large, elaborate tomb. Instead, Henry and Jane Seymour’s final resting place is marked with a plain marble slab installed in 1837 by William IV. The slab also records the burial of Charles I and a child of Queen Anne in the same vault. However, in 1547, Henry VIII had a partially complete tomb which has since been lost. Tantalisingly, there are no known contemporary drawings of the tomb, or drawings from the decades before it was lost. Documentary sources are focused only on particular elements of the tomb/construction process or ambiguously dated. For extra complication, the design and construction took place over nearly 20 years with at least three sculptors being employed by Henry VIII – are some of the sources we rely on actually describing earlier versions of the tomb?

When I first searched on the internet for information about the tomb, I noticed that two sources kept appearing. The first of these is John Speed’s Historie of Great Britaine (1611) which states that Henry VIII was buried under a “costly and stately Tombe begunne in Copper and guilt, but never finished”. Although the incomplete tomb was likely still in the chapel when Speed was writing he (frustratingly!) does not expand on this description. Instead he prints a text that he says shows the intended cost and state of Henry’s monument, if it had been completed. The text is titled The manner of the Tombe to be made for the King’s Grace at Windsor and describes an oversized and highly elaborate structure with effigies of the King and Queen on two tombs of black touchstone. There would have been pillars of serpentine, porphyry,and alabaster; four life size figures of the King and Queen; a figure of the King on horseback under a triumphal arch; and 134 statues including prophets, angels, and the Apostles. This text is often quoted by authors as a description of the tomb of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, which would seem logical as we know that Henry VIII was buried alongside Jane.

The second source is a 19th-century drawing by Somers Clarke to accompany an article by Alfred Higgins in which Higgins conjectured the design of Henry VIII’s incomplete tomb; the drawing was published by St George’s Chapel here as an image of the month. According to the St George’s Chapel blog post, the drawing omits the sculpture of the King on horseback, and several other statues, implying that it is based on the text published by Speed.

Image: Drawing by Somers Clarke of the design for Henry VIII’s tomb as conjectured by Alfred Higgins. Copyright: The Dean and Canons of Windsor

However, when I first came across the drawing I was struck by the fact that, whilst there are similiarities with the Speed text, there are also clear differences. Even allowing for the fact that Clarke may have chosen to omit the figure of the King on horseback to make the drawing more manageable, it clearly has one tomb with effigy not two. I searched further and turned up various secondary sources, including an educational resource also produced by St George’s Chapel, which state that the text reproduced be Speed describes a tomb designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1527. Meanwhile, the Clarke/Higgins drawing is the conjectured reconstruction of a tomb designed for Henry VIII by Benedetto de Rovezzano using elements of a tomb designed for Wolsey.

Intrigued, I decided to take a look at the original versions of these two sources, beginning with Speed Historie of Great Britain. The first thing to note is that Speed tells us he had the manuscript from Nicholas Charles, Lancaster Herald, and that it was “taken from the true Modell thereof”. Speed’s text is therefore a copy of a manuscript which is itself a description of a drawing/design. Speed does not explicitely state when or by whom the manuscript was produced. There is no date within the text to allow us to place it within Henry VIII’s reign, and it does not actually state that the tomb was for Henry VIII and Queen Jane – the text simply refers to “the King and Queene”.

I then turned to the original article by Alfred Higgins which can be downloaded here. Far from having based his conjecture of the appearance on Henry VIII’s tomb on the text printed by Speed, Higgins explicitly dismisses that text saying that it can’t be describing the work of an Italian sculptor in the first half of the 16th century. He writes that “If this monstrous scheme was ever seriously intended…it must have been the idea of some Englishman or Fleming, who thought himself competent not only to complete but vastly augment and improve upon Benedetto de Rovezzano’s unfinished work.”. (Note that this is his opinion based on his study of sculpture not on documentary evidence)

Higgins’ conjectures about the tomb are based on a different set of sources (which he transcribes in a set of appendices): a report by Benedetto de Rovezzano of the items made for Wolsey’s tomb that were suitable for reuse by the King; a survey produced during Elizabeth I’s which details the parts missing from Henry VIII’s tomb and the unused metal available to complete the work; a 17th-century copy of an earlier manuscript listing the weight of copper and other things to be provided for a tomb chapel and altar for “ye King’s highness”; and payments for materials and work made to Rovezzano in the 1530s. The drawing is also of the tomb as Higgins thought it would have looked if it was finished.

If the Speed text and the Higgins conjecture represent two different designs for a tomb (and both are describing/conjecturing the intended final design), then what was the process of designing Henry VIII’s tomb and what did it look like in 1547?

  • 1518: Henry VIII was already considering his tomb. An indenture was drawn up for Pietro Torrigiano to design a tomb commemorating and Katherine of Aragon. It was a logical choice as Torrigiano had designed the tomb for Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The new double tomb for Henry VIII would have used the same white marble and black touchstone but it would have been larger than his parents’ tomb. Together with Torrigiano’s tomb for Margaret Beaufort, the three memorials would have made for an elaborate and striking dynastic commorative scheme. However, Torrigiano left England without permission in 1519 – to the embarrasment of the Florentine merchant bankers who seem to have acted as art brokers.
  • early-1520s: After Torrigiano’s departure, the narrative of the tomb usually jumps to 1527 and a contract with Jacopo Sansovino. However, in 2006, historian Cinzia Sicca published an article that makes use of Italian sources. In it, she suggests that three “models” for the English royal tomb (by three different sculptors) were sent to the Florentine merchant banker Giovanni Cavalcanti c. December 1521-early 1523. One model was by Jacopo Sansovino, another may have been a model by Baccio Bandinelli incorporating 142 bronze figures and a statue of the king on horseback. Sicca suggests that all the options presented to Henry VIII by the Florentines would have been too large to fit in Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey, so a decision was delayed while the setting for the tomb was considered.
  • 1527: After this delay, the story of the tomb resumes with a contract negotiated by Jacopo Sansovino’s patron for a large piece of sculptural work for Henry VIII. As with the Torrigiano contract, Florentine merchant bankers would underwrite the costs. The work would have cost 75,000 ducats and it is generally accepted that the contract was for a tomb. It has been suggested that this is the tomb described in Speed’s Historie of Britaine. In that case “the Queene” would still be Katherine of Aragon.

The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot the date of 1527 and question whether Henry VIII would be commissioning a monument featuring his wife when he is trying to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and has yet to marry Anne Boleyn. Perhaps then it actually describes one of the earlier models?

  • 1524-29: Whilst Henry VIII was considering his tomb, Thomas Wolsey had also commissioned a tomb to be erected in Westminster Abbey. It was being made by another Florentine sculptor, Benedetto de Rovezzano.
  • 1530-36: After Wolsey’s fall from favour, Henry VIII acquired the elements of his tomb, including a single black touchstone sarcophagus, a base for the tomb, pillars, and statues of angels bearing candlesticks. A large gilt effigy of the king, similar to those on his parents’ and grandmother’s tombs, was probably cast. The last payment to Rovezzano was made in 1536, after which work seems to have halted.
Image: Candle-bearing angel by Benedetto de Rovezzano originally for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb
(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • 1546: Henry VIII wrote his will and makes specific reference to his tomb. He states that it is “well onward and almoost made”. He wants his executors to set up his tomb as soon as possible after his death, if it has not been completed in his lifetime. The tomb is it is to have a “fayre grate” about it and an altar for masses. His bones and those of his wife Queen Jane are to be placed in the tomb. Although Jane’s body is to be placed within it, there is no indication in the will that there is to be an effigy of her on the tomb.
  • 1547: There are some consistent elements across the sources that give us an indication of the likely appearance of the tomb in 1547: a black sarcophagus which can now be seen in St Paul’s Cathedral (probably with a gilt effigy completed), pillars, some form of platform/plinth/base, and an abundance of gilt figures – including four angels bearing candlesticks which have survived . However, the report produced in Elizabeth I’s regin indicates that there would have been gaps on the tomb as it was lacking a number of elements including some of the pillars, multiple statues, small figures of beasts, and several friezes.

So, why was Henry VIII’s tomb never finished and what happened to it?

Henry faced the same problem as many Tudor noblemen: if you rely on your descendants to carry out your wishes for a tomb, then there is no guarantee it will be completed. Edward VI faced financial difficulties due to wars with Scotland and France; he was interested enough to include a request in his own will for Henry VIII’s tomb to be completed but he did not carry out the work himself. Mary seems to have made no effort to complete her father’s tomb. Elizabeth asked William Cecil to look into finishing the tomb and he commissioned the survey into the work required to complete the monument, but, again, the work was not carried out.

Image: Lord Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral. Paul Hudson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The sarcophagus was originally designed for Wolsey and then appropriated by Henry VIII.

With the death of Elizabeth, the personal connection to Henry VIII was lost and there seems to have been no impetus to finish the tomb. During the English Civil War, the metal elements of the tomb were sold; four bronze candlesticks, possibly removed at this time, ended up in St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. Four bronze figures of angels bearing candles have recently been identified as being the work of Rovezzano for Wolsey, and were amongst the elements appropriated by Henry VIII for his tomb. Two were found at an auction in 1994, and two were discovered in 2008 at a country house. They are now in the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The base and sarcophagus, once intended for Wolsey, may have remained in place a while longer but they were eventually removed and, in the early-19th century, were reused for the memorial to Lord Nelson in St Paul’s Cathedral.


John Speed, Historie of Great Britaine (1611); Alfred Higgins, ‘On the Work of Florentine Sculptors in England in the early part of the sixteenth century; with special reference to the tombs of Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII’, The Archaeological Journal (1894) pp. 129-191 (with drawings by Somers Clarke); transcriptions of the sources used by Higgins, pp. 199-220; Cinzia Maria Sicca, ‘Pawns of international finance and politics: Florentine sculptors at the court of Henry VIII’, Renaissance Studies Vol 20 No 1 (2006).

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