Gloriana: requiescat in pace

Gloriana was the name given by the 16th century English poet Edmund Spenser to the character of Queen Elizabeth I in his poem The Faerie Queene. It is also the title of Benjamin Britten’s opera, based on Lytton Strachey’s book Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History.

In 1869 a remarkable exploration took place in the vaults of London’s Westminster Abbey when it was found that no one knew the whereabouts of the burial place of King James I. This astonishing piece of Victorian detective work amid the confusion of royal tombs and coffins in the Abbey’s vaults is recounted in the Appendix to a remarkable book (in two illustrated volumes) called Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey, written by Dr Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, and first published in 1899. The book offers a narrative history of England’s “coronation church” and is a plum pudding of anecdotes and facts. The search for James I included the first sighting of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth I buried there in 1603.

The death of Elizabeth was an occasion of national mourning. Thousands of people turned out to see her funeral procession to the Abbey on 28 April 1603. The English historian and antiquarian John Stow, who attended the funeral, wrote:

 “Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.”

Elizabeth’s funeral procession is recorded in a magnificent 40-foot scroll held by the British Library, which identifies each of the main participants by name. The procession included common people, knights and their ladies, and aristocrats. Among them, all of England is represented.

Elizabeth was first buried in the vault of her grandfather, King Henry VII, in the Abbey. Her successor, King James I, erected the large white marble monument to her memory and her body was moved beneath it in 1606. There she lay until Dean Stanley glimpsed her more than 250 years later. The following extracts describe the scene.

“The excavations had almost laid bare the wall immediately at the eastern end of the monument of Elizabeth, and through a small aperture a view was obtained into a low narrow vault immediately beneath her tomb. It was instantly evident that it enclosed two coffins, and two only, and it could not he doubted that these contained Elizabeth and her sister Mary. The upper one, larger, and more distinctly shaped in the form of the body… rested on the other.”

“There was no disorder or decay, except that the centring wood had fallen over the head of Elizabeth’s coffin, and that the wood case had crumbled away at the sides, and had drawn away part of the decaying lid. No coffin-plate could be discovered, but fortunately the dim light fell on a fragment of the lid slightly carved. This led to a further search, and the original inscription was discovered. There was the Tudor Badge, a full double rose, deeply but simply incised in outline on the middle of the cover, on each side the august initials E R, and below, the memorable date 1603.”

“The sight of this secluded and narrow tomb, thus compressing in the closest grasp the two Tudor sisters, ‘partners of the same throne and grave, sleeping in the hope of resurrection,’ the solemn majesty of the great Queen thus reposing, as can hardly be doubted, by her own desire, on her sister’s coffin, was the more impressive from the contrast of its quiet calm with the confused and multitudinous decay of the Stuart vault, and of the fullness of its tragic interest with the vacancy of the deserted spaces which had been hitherto explored in the other pails of the Chapel. The vault was immediately closed again.”

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