A King's Tomb

The Church of King's Langley, Hertfordshire, contains a richly decorated tomb. Was it destined to be Richard II's?

Richard II, from a portrait c. 1300sWhen Richard II's first consort, Anne of Bohemia, died in June 1394, his grief knew no bounds. He decided that unlike any previous king and queen of England, they should both be buried in the same tomb, and that on it their gilded effigies should lie (in the words of the contract with the coppersmiths) "crowned, side by side and clasping their right hands and holding sceptres in their left hands". The tomb was to be in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. As the space there was already full room was made by removing a tomb on the south-west, which probably contained the bodies of Hugh and Mary Bohun, children of an Earl of Hereford and grandchildren of Edward I. Into the space thus made the body of Anne was lowered at a funeral of unexampled splendour, when the famous quarrel took place between the King and the Earl of Arundel.

The contracts for making the tomb and effigies, in accordance with sealed plans, were let in 1395; and the work was to be completed in two years. In his last will, dated April 1399, the King enjoined that he should be buried with Anne in this tomb, then evidently already complete. The final payments for it appear in the Issue Rolls early in 1399.

Anne's death caused all previous arrangements for Richard's interment to be abandoned; but it happens that the tomb that had been prepared for him previously, and which was superseded by the splendid double tomb in Westminster Abbey, still exists, though hitherto unrecognised as such, in the parish church of King's Langley, Hertfordshire. It is a chest tomb, designed to stand free in a chancel or chapel, with the head of the effigy to the west, so as to face the altar, and the feet to the east. There are three shields with coats of arms in relief in quatrefoils on the two short sides, and seven on one of the long sides; but the moulding on base and top runs round all four sides, so that seven shields must have existed, or at least been intended, on the fourth side also. These, and the original top, have disappeared.

There is ouly one person for whom a tomb could have been made which bore at its head the undifferenced arms of England, flanked by the two royal saints. That person is a king of England. There is ouly one king of England on whose tomb these particular arms could be placed. That king is Richard II. Apart from his grandfather, Edward Ill, only he bore these arms of England - England and France ancient, quarterly. Only he affected the company of the two royal English saints, Edmund and the Confessor, who, together with John the Baptist, present him to the Virgin and Child on the Wilton diptych. Only he conld have placed the Emperor of Germany (Charles IV, father of his beloved wife, Anne of Bohemia) in the place of honour above all the sons of Edward III. At his feet were his connections through his mother, the "Fair Maid of Kent" - his half-brothers, the Earls of Kent and Huntingdon, and the Earl of Kent's father-in-law, the Earl of Arundel. In the sequence of Edward III's sons on the south or right side of the tomb, the third place must have been occupied by John "of Gaunt", Duke of Lancaster. As to the missing left-hand side, there was no lack of other relatives who could have occupied it - the Mortimers, for instance, and the Veres.

What happened to this tomb after it became redundant in 1394? The arms now on the centre shield of the long side are those of Isabel, wife to Edmund "of Langley", Duke of York (York impaling Castile and Leon). The next entry in the St. Albans chronicle, after that which records the death of Anne of Bohemia, runs as follows: "The same year died the Duchess of York . . . she was buried by the King's command at his manor of Langley in the Friars' church". In fact, Isabel of Castile had died over a year before in December 1392, but the annalist's mistake is intelligible if the final interment only took place after the death of Anne.

Richard not only "commanded" her to be interred at Langley. He also allowed his uncle to convert for the purpose the tomb in which he himself had been destined to lie in the chancel of the Dominican Friars' church at King's Langley. It was only in the previous century or so that predecessors of his had been buried at Westminster. But Edward II was at Gloucester, and before that John was at Worcester, Stephen at Faversham, the earlier Angevins at Fontevrault, Henry I at Reading and Rufus at Winchester. Why not Richard in the favourite rural resort of his family?

Conversion of the tomb for its new purpose was easy. It would be moved from the centre of the chancel into a canopied recess on the north side, thus rendering superfluous the seven shields on the left side of the tomb, which was now flush against the wall; and the centre shield on the south side, which now became the front, was changed so as to replace Lancaster's arms by Isabel's. This was an easy operation; for all the shields are separately carved and affixed. The three tell-tale royal shields at the west end were now partly or wholly concealed, and so were the Roland arms at the east end - though, as it turned out, this would not have mattered, because the Duke of York himself, at a later date unknown, married a Roland as his second wife. Instead of the effigy, a slab, with an inset brass of Isabel and no doubt an inscription, was made to cover the tomb. A king's tomb had been altered into a subject's.

In August 1402, the Duke of York also died, and in accordance with his will of November 1400 was buried in this tomb "at Langley, by my well-beloved erstwhile partner Isabel, on whom God have mercy". Meanwhile, in February 1400, the body of Richard II, after being brought south from Pontefract, where the deposed monarch had mysteriously died, received the last rites in St. Paul's Cathedral. It was then, by Henry IV's command, conveyed the same night - to King's Langley! There it was buried privately at dawn by the Abbots of Waltham and St. Albans and the Bishop of Chester in the place, but not in the tomb, originally destined to receive it. It is inconceivable that Henry IV pitched by accident upon the very place for disposal of his deposed predecessor that contained a tomb which could only have been made for him.

Fourteen years later, as an act of expiation, Richard's body was exhumed by Henry V and brought from King's Langley, to be buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, in the marble tomb with the gilded effigies which contained the bones of Anne of Bohemia.

After the Reformation, the church of the Dominican Friars at King's Langley fell into ruins; and, apparently in Elizabeth I's reign, the tomb of Isabel and Edmund was brought down the hill to the parish church and placed against the north wall of the chancel, where its west end projected for some little distance. As it also abutted on the east wall, the Roland shields were moved round from the east end to cover the exposed part of the north side. The cover, robbed of its brass, was put on one side and replaced by a cut-down altar top. Finally, in 1877, the tomb was moved to the east end of the north aisle and re-erected in the position of an altar, with its long sides facing east and west, and the Roland shields back in their proper place. Above it is a heraldic stained glass window to which Queen Victoria subscribed. The old cover, with its matrix of a female figure, stands a few feet away. On the occasion of the removal, the tomb was found to contain the jumbled bones of a man and a woman, who, so far as their ages could be ascertained, might have been Edmund and Isabel. There was also, mysteriously, the body sheathed in lead of a woman aged under thirty.

Enoch Powell was a British Member of Parliament and Treasury Secretary