A Box Of Bones

Bones: they’re all the rage now, aren’t they?

We’re all waiting on King Richard III, wondering if he can manage to be the bones beneath the municipal car park in Leicester. Such an unceremonious end. Yet he is not the only king to be bundled up and packed away like a pile of dusty artefacts.

Take Henry VIII.

Henry VIII is in a vault below the hallowed Tudor tiles of the Quire at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and has been for a good long while.

But that wasn’t the way he had planned it.

During his lifetime he had a cast made of himself ready for the most lavish monument. According to the 17th century historian John Speed – who saw Henry’s plans first-hand – it was to have white marble pillars, bronze angels, 134 brass-gilt figures including a life size one of Henry on his horse and two more of himself and Queen Jane.

It should have been most imposing.

But somehow, after Henry’s death, work ground to a halt.

No-one seemed to have enough love for their former King to get the thing completed: and the next thing we hear his effigy is being sold off for cash by the Commonwealth parliament in 1646.

Meanwhile, Henry sleeps in his voluminous vault. He has his wife Jane for company, so that’s nice.

Where shall we put Charles I? the Parliamentarians dithered, after the king’s execution. We don’t want anyone coming to his tomb and making a martyr out of him.

I know, someone said, let’s shove him in with Henry.

And that is just what they did. And when Alfred Young Nutt, that flamboyantly named Surveyor of the Dean and Canons at Windsor, watched the vault opened up in the 19th century to replace a few bits of Charles someone had snaffled as relics, he saw a snug little sight: Henry flanked by Jane on one side, and Charles on the other.

King’s bones, king’s bones.

So I was down at Winchester Cathedral nosing around and happened to look up to see some of my favourite sights: the six chests of kings’ and queen’s bones which have sat, for as long as I can remember, on a shelf high above the quire.

There are, to be precise, six kings, two bishops and a queen. In their ranks are King Canute and his Queen Emma; and also that fated redhead, William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror.

But there was one fly in the casket: the bones had become a little scrambled in the thousand-odd years since their storage.

Everyone’s bones were in with everyone else’s, so to speak.

And as I wandered into the quire on Tuesday, I could not help but notice that the caskets were nowhere to be seen.

It is fortunate, then, that three guides were sitting there companionably, waiting to come on-shift. “I wonder,”I enquired, “if you could tell me where I can find King Canute these days?”

I had asked the right question.

“The bones,” a venerable gentleman told me, gleefully, ” are being analysed and examined so that all the bones belonging to each person can be put in the right box.

“Which, when it is completed, will mean Queen Emma will be next to her husband Canute, you see: and not mixed up with seven other men.”

I can quite see how that would be an advantage, I said.

He grinned.

Have the bones been sent away, I said?

No: they had been spirited away to the lady chapel at the back of the cathedral. A marquee had been erected there.

I made the short walk to the chapel. Highly irregularly it was equipped with a security pinpad and a warning that the premises are security-protected. I had not seen any security. They were probably in cassocks. I should have checked for the clergymen in dark glasses with earpieces.

But standing there: the other side of a piece of canvas where the first great royal family of England was being sorted: I felt myself in the grip of Kings Bones mania.

The nation waits.

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48 thoughts on “A Box Of Bones

  1. I guess it’s better to mix up the bones than to store them where they can be run off with? Henry, Jane and Charles I, who would have thought!

  2. I suppose this mess could have been even worse … At least the bones were tossed into a box and not a bag. This also illustrates that the saying “good help is hard to find” goes back centuries. What epic human error by, dare I say it, boneheads!

  3. I love Winchester Cathedral. My grandmother used to live near there and we were regular visitors. Amazing to hear that they’re sorting the bones now. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Hello Janet! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Winchester Cathedral is so majestic: I used to call it home in a way too – I was part of a chamber choir which would sing the odd evensong there. Lovely place.

  4. Your post has caused some old songs to tumble around in my head. The one that starts, “Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringing me down…” Does anybody besides me remember that?
    We’re having our “bones” issues here in Hawaii, too. Hawaiians consider the bones sacred, and construction is digging up many unmarked graves, causing people to be up in arms about the disturbance. There’s even been court cases to stop the construction. So, yes, I guess you could indeed say that bones are all the rage now. Well, at least Henry, James and Charles I will be sorted out.

    1. Hi Writecrites: yes, have a look at the comments section for the last post – it is filled with a conversation about just that song 🙂

      Wow. Bone controversy in Hawaii too! I guess its just a human thing…

  5. This is clearly very exciting! I suppose there would be those who don’t think it’s of any significant worth, but I appreciate the attention to accuracy, as well as acknowledging the decency of having partners buried side-by-side. Despite his notoriety as a cad (huge understatement, I know) the idea of Henry’s bones being handled casually and without ceremony just doesn’t feel right to me. I’d love an update on this post sometime, Kate if more develops! I’m intrigued. D

  6. A childhood rhyme comes to mind. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the . . . all dem bones connected. Let’s us know when they are all sorted out, Kate.

    By the way, the excitement over whether or not those are King Richard III’s bones in the parking lot made its way to our local Chicago news recently. Of course, I already knew about because I heard it all from a very reliable source at Shrewsday Mansion.

  7. A quest in the quire for the bones of the squire
    A quick question posed to the right quarters
    A quizzical quip about the queen’s mingled bedfellows
    Is she queen consort . . . or consorting quean?

    Inquiring minds want to get to the bottom of this box of bones!

  8. Love your ‘quirks of history’ comments; always entertaining, always informative, very Reithian.

    The question of respect for the bones of dead people and for cultural attitudes to them is a fraught one: kinship, religion, squeamishness, scientific enquiry, they all enter into the argument and muddy the waters for an informed debate. It’s the old emotion vs reason match, isn’t it, played out endlessly. I empathise with the living as much as the next person, but I also find bodies fascinating, having dug up a few bones on archaeological digs. It’s a debate that will run and run.

  9. I meant to comment on this the other day Kate, as I saw this post in a rush in the morning, so I quickly clicked Like and off I went with my day. Did you notice the date in the first photo? Of course you did! it refers to the princes and the prelates, so I’ll have to go down that avenue for a little bit of investigating now. Winchester Cathedral you say…?

  10. I’m sure that King Henry VIII would be miffed to learn he’s sharing his final resting spot. Once he’s been sorted out, I think he should be thrown out because of his murdreous acts.

    This is an intriguing story. Thanks for the update, Kate.

  11. The vision of cassocked clerics with earpieces, dark glasses and semi-concealed uzi’s makes one wonder if there is a ‘Dan Brown’ there waiting to make a mint 😉 And I’m sure that the tale of how the Kings, Queen and bishops came to be ‘mutually’ interred would make for a fine medieval history story 🙂

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