Where is King Henry VIII Buried and Why Doesn’t He Have a Tomb?

St. George's Chapel with the vault where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried in the floor.  Image from http://www.wingfield.org/Churches/ENGLAND/St%20George'%20s%20Chapel/St%20George's%20A.jpg
St. George’s Chapel with the vault where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried in the floor. Image from http://www.wingfield.org/Churches/ENGLAND/St%20George’%20s%20Chapel/St%20George’s%20A.jpg

King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547. It was the end of an era. His will commanded he be buried with his beloved wife Jane Seymour, the only wife to give birth to a surviving legitimate male heir. Henry had given her a magnificent funeral after which she was buried in a vault under the quire of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. This vault was meant to be their temporary resting place.

Henry’s body was bathed, embalmed with spices and encased in lead. It laid in state in the presence chamber of Whitehall surrounded by burning tapers for a few days and was then moved to the chapel. On February 14, the body began its journey from London to Windsor. The procession was four miles long. An elaborate, tall hearse bore the coffin as it rumbled along the road. On top of the hearse was a lifelike wax effigy dressed in crimson velvet with miniver lining and velvet shoes. There was a black satin cap set with precious stones which was covered with a crown. The effigy was adorned with jewels and the gloved hands had rings.

The remains spent the night in Syon Abbey and the next day arrived at Windsor. Sixteen members of the Yeoman of the Guard bore the coffin into the black draped chapel. It was lowered into the vault in the quire. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester spoke the eulogy and celebrated the requiem mass as Katherine Parr, the dowager Queen, observed the ceremony from Katherine of Aragon’s oriel window. After the mass, as the trumpets sounded, the chief officers of the King’s household broke their staves of office and threw them into the vault, signaling the end of their service.

Katherine of Aragon's oriel window in St. George's Chapel, Windsor  (http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/worship-and-music/experience-st-georges/st-georges-panorama/quire.html)
Katherine of Aragon’s oriel window in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/worship-and-music/experience-st-georges/st-georges-panorama/quire.html)

The king had left money for daily masses to be said for his soul until the end of the world. But the Protestant rulers of Edward VI’s government stopped the masses after a year. Henry’s will left instructions for a magnificent tomb to be built.

History of the Tomb

As early as 1518, Henry had plans drawn up for a tomb for himself and his first wife Katherine of Aragon. The initial plans were made by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, the same man who designed the tomb for Henry’s parents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. This tomb can be seen in the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey to this day. Torrigiano planned for Henry VIII’s sarcophagus to be made of the same white marble and black touchstone as his father’s only it was to be twenty-five percent bigger. An argument over compensation for the designing of the plans ensued causing Torrigiano to return to Italy sometime before June 1519. There is evidence Henry considered giving another Italian, Jacopo Sansovino a commission for seventy five thousand ducats to work on a design in 1527.

Effigies of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey
Effigies of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey

During the seventeenth century, antiquarian John Speed was doing some historical research and unearthed a now vanished manuscript that gave details of Henry VIII’s tomb. It was based on Sansovino’s design from 1527. The plans called for a vast edifice decorated with fine Oriental stones, white marble pillars, gilded bronze angels and life-size images of Henry and his Queen. It was even going to include a magnificent statue of the King on horseback under a triumphal arch. One hundred and forty-four brass gilt figures were to adorn the tomb, including St. George, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles and the Evangelists.

It just so happens that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister in the early years of his reign, had plans for a resplendent tomb for himself. Benedetto da Rovezzano, an employee of Wolsey’s from 1524 to 1529, kept a comprehensive inventory of the statues and ornamentation for this tomb. When Wolsey died, Henry adopted some components of Wolsey’s tomb for his own. Rovezzano and his assistant Giovanni de Maiano worked on the tomb for Henry from 1530 to 1536.

After Wolsey died, Henry actually appropriated the sarcophagus from his tomb. He planned to have a gilded life-size figure of himself on top. There was to be a raised podium with bronze friezes embedded in the walls along with ten tall pillars topped with statues of the Apostles surrounding the tomb. Between each of the pillars there would be nine foot tall bronze candlesticks. The design called for an altar at the east end of the tomb, topped with a canopy held aloft by four elaborate pillars. This would also include sixteen effigies of angels at the base holding candlesticks. The tomb and altar were to be enclosed by a black marble and bronze chantry chapel where masses could be said for the King’s soul. Had this design been finalized, it would have been much grander than the tomb of Henry’s parents.

Imagined drawing of Henry VIII's tomb (Copyright:  The Dean and Canons of Windsor)  http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/archives/archive-features/image-of-the-month/title1/henry-viii-tomb.html
Imagined drawing of Henry VIII’s tomb (Copyright: The Dean and Canons of Windsor) http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/archives/archive-features/image-of-the-month/title1/henry-viii-tomb.html

The effigy of the king was actually cast and polished while Henry was still alive and other items were manufactured in workshops in Westminster. Work progressed during the last years of Henry’s reign but wars in France and Scotland were draining the royal treasury and work slowed. Rovezzano returned to Italy due to bad health. Some of the work on the monument continued during Edward VI’s reign but his treasury was always short of funds. Edward’s will requested the tomb be finished. Queen Mary I did nothing on the tomb.

Queen Elizabeth I had some interest in the project. Her minister William Cecil commissioned a survey of the work needed to complete the tomb and new plans were prepared in 1565. Whatever completed items there were in Westminster were moved to Windsor but after 1572, work came to a standstill. The components languished at Windsor until 1646 when the Commonwealth needed funds and sold the effigy of Henry to be melted down for money. Four of the bronze candlesticks found their way to the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium.

After the execution of King Charles I in 1649 (or 1648 in the old dating scheme), his remains were hastily placed in the same vault in the Chapel. It was deemed appropriate to bury him there because it was quieter and less accessible than somewhere in London in an effort to reduce the number of pilgrims to the grave of the martyred king. During the reign of Queen Anne, one of her many infants died and was buried in the same vault in a tiny coffin. In 1805, the sarcophagus that had been Wolsey’s and Henry’s was taken and used as the base of Lord Nelson’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The grave was then forgotten until it was rediscovered when excavation commenced in 1813 for a passage to a new royal vault. The old vault was opened in the presence of the Regent, George Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. Several relics of King Charles I were removed for identification. When they were replaced in 1888, AY Nutt, Surveyor of the Fabric to the College of St. George made a watercolor drawing of the vault and its contents. Henry VIII’s coffin appears badly damaged. Jane Seymour’s was intact.

A Y Nutt's watercolour of Henry VIII's vault
A Y Nutt’s watercolour of Henry VIII’s vault

Henry’s coffin could have been broken in several ways. The trestle supporting it could have collapsed. It’s possible when they went into the vault to put Charles’ coffin, Henry’s was damaged. It could have collapsed due to pressure from within. Or it’s also possible the coffin fell along the way, causing it to split open.

Marble slab indicting the vault in the quire of St. George's Chapel where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried
Marble slab indicting the vault in the quire of St. George’s Chapel where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried

The Prince Regent requested a marble slab be inserted to mark the grave but this didn’t materialize until the reign of King William IV in 1837. The inscription on the slab reads: In a vault beneath this marble slab are deposited the remains of Jane Seymour Queen of King Henry VIII 1537, King Henry VIII 1547, King Charles I 1648 and an infant child of Queen Anne. This memorial was placed here by command of King William IV. 1837.

The Legend of the Licking Dogs

Because of the subject of this post, we have to address the legend of the dogs licking Henry’s blood as his body spent the night at Syon. The story starts with the sermon by a Franciscan friar named William Petow. He preached at the chapel at Greenwich on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1532. It was the time of the king’s “Great Matter”, the name for Henry’s effort to get a divorce or annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Not only did Petow challenge Henry about trying to put aside Katherine of Aragon, he objected to Anne Boleyn’s efforts to promote the New Religion. He made this very clear in the sermon as the king sat before him in the chapel. Instead of pontificating on the resurrection of Christ, he preached on the verse from the Bible, 1 Kings 22 regarding King Ahab. King Ahab dies from wounds he suffered in a battle. The verse reads: “So the King died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.”

Petow compared Henry to King Ahab and Anne Boleyn to Ahab’s wife Jezebel. Jezebel had replaced the prophets of God with pagans as Petow said Anne was endorsing and encouraging men of the New Religion. Petow said Henry would end up like Ahab with dogs licking his blood. Amazingly, Henry only imprisoned Petow for a short time and he escaped England and ended up on the Continent.

This story was taken up and repeated by Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715). He was an historian and the Bishop of Salisbury and he wrote the “History of the Reformation” in which he stated this actually happened to Henry’s body as it spent the night at Syon Abbey on the way to Windsor. Burnet himself admitted he was in a hurry when he wrote this book and did not research it sufficiently and that the volume was full of mistakes.

This didn’t stop Agnes Strickland from embellishing the story when she wrote her “Lives of the Queens of England” in the mid-19th century. She writes that the lead casing surrounding Henry’s body burst and oozed blood and other liquids. A plumber was called to fix the coffin and he witnessed a dog licking the blood. All of this is a unique exercise in historical fiction so we have to take the story as apocryphal.

Further reading: “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” by Alison Weir, “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty” by Lacey Baldwin Smith, entry on Gilbert Burnet in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Martin Greig, The Will of King Henry VIII, St. George’s Chapel website

43 thoughts on “Where is King Henry VIII Buried and Why Doesn’t He Have a Tomb?

  1. The Church of England was not started by Henry V111 but a continuation of the Catholic church of the apostles (but without the Roman bit). The same bishops and priests continued and therefore the apostolic succession. This is stated in all the C of E official formularies. The C of E holds fast to the Catholic creeds and the seven sacraments, two greater and two lesser.


      • I’ll believe sometime ago, researchers wanted to exhume Henry V111 and DNA test etc but the Queen would not give permission.

        I remember reading this but honestly do not know the full story.


  2. The only problem with this comment is that Henry was, probably the most evil English monarch. His Reformation imperilled the mortal souls of his people as well as those subjects who followed for more than the next 250 years’


    • I wonder whether the legends about all the wives have been romanticized. Henry VIII always had affairs. He was never loyal to any of his wives, even his supposed most-beloved Jane. He was married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly 24 years. Then five more wives in rapid succession over the next 14 years. I think it all had to do solely with his need for an heir, not love or lust. But that would make the story less interesting and less enduring.


  3. Given Henry VIII’s ruthless behavior, womanizing, and outrageous ego, I think that he indeed got the grave he deserved. In fact, I am curious (troubled too) that so many people here are upset at his final resting place. For what is he being rewarded and respected? (We just visited Windsor today which is why I found your site!)


      • You judge him by modern standards which is absurd. He was by no means ruthless and the whole nonsense with womanizing. That’s what EVERY man did back then and Henry wanted a son. If KoA would have produced a son I’m sure all would have been well. Its said you visited such an amazing place and came out with that conclusion


      • AStrong: Call it judging by modern standards if you will. If that’s a crime, then I’m guilty. I AM sensitive to the diverse mindsets of different time periods. That’s one reason I find history so fascinating–it’s a vehicle to understanding how other people saw life in their own time. In the end, however, after taking into account the person’s era and culture, I don’t think our personal–yes, modern–standards should be erased. In this particular case, given the evidence, I just don’t cut Henry as much slack as you do. I believe he abused his power to a greater degree than most other rulers, even of his own era. (cutting off wives’ heads for trumped up charges, breaking from the Church because it wouldn’t give him a a divorce, etc) That’s my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree completely. It always struck me as odd that those who admire Henry VIII (for whatever reasons) have do difficulty glossing over the fact that he had by some estimates, 80,000 people executed during his reign. These are the same folks of course who are horrified that Mary Tudor had some 250 people executed during her reign, for which they call her “bloody”.


      • Henry’s three children reigned after him. None of them got around to providing a better resting place .

        The long desired son lived so few years and apparently could not afford it.

        His two queen daughters? One, whose mother he cast away. The other, whose mother he beheaded.

        Judging began far earlier than 400 years…


  4. AS I have read, there are a number of questions regarding Henry VIII’s health and towards the end of his lie his various health problems and cause of death. I wonder if the current gov’t would consider investigating his coffin to find answers to those questions with modern medical knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As with all mortality, there isn’t a “him”: died 1547! The Spirit surrounds us and is Forever; the ‘remains’ are some broken bones and teeth, and a broken container for them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s not too surprising that Henry VIII’s grandiose plans for this tomb didn’t work out. His son only reigned for six years and died suddenly as a teenager; he hardly had time to concentrate on tomb building. I don’t blame Mary I at all for not wishing to construct a monument to one of her mother’s usurpers, Jane Seymour. And I don’t blame Elizabeth I either for not getting around to constructing a monument to the man who had her mother killed. Frankly I think one could argue Henry VIII had a better resting place than he deserved. 🙂


  6. The chapel was closed on the day we went to Windsor and we were unable to go inside. We were very disappointed as Henry has always fascinated us. Interesting that Queen Jane is listed before the two kings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Henry VIII remained a Roman Catholic all his life (His only change was to make himself Head of the Catholic Church in England). He was therefore NOT a protestant because he did no protesting about Catholic theology, only that he did not agree with the pope’s decision not grant an annulment of his marriage.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Henry’s only change as to make himself head of the church in England? Not true.

        1. With Henry’s blessing, the ancient Christian tradition of monasticism was attacked; monasteries and convents were sacked, their wealth carried off to fill his coffers, their buildings pulled down or given to Henry’s cronies. The prayers that monks and nuns said daily for the good of the whole church went silent, and the social services that they provided for the common people (schools, hospices, orphanages, etc.) ceased to exist.

        2. The Ten Articles were adopted by the English church. They stressed, among other things, Luther’s “justification by faith”. The seven sacraments of the Church, defined as being seven for centuries, were reduced to three.

        3. The use of religious art in devotions was permitted, but Cromwell, on Henry’s behalf, issued orders at one point mandating the destruction of certain religious statues and artwork and forbidding the lighting of candles, or kneeling before images of the Virgin Mary and the saints. Statues at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and other Marian images were burned.

        4. Minor feast days were changed to normal work days. including the feast days of church patrons and religious days during harvest time. Clergy were instructed to discourage pilgrimages and to preach against the veneration of relics and images, which were religious practices going back to the time of the early Church.

        Henry considered himself to be “catholic” and his son Edward took reforms even further of course, but it can hardly be said that the Church of England during Henry’s lifetime was the “Roman Catholic Church minus the pope”. Henry’s views, however traditional in some ways, were not the views of Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and others. He unleashed a wind that eventually destroyed some 3/4 of the English people’s collective, centuries old inheritance of religious art, books, music, customs, and traditions, an this began while he lived.

        Liked by 1 person

      • mrsrowe1 – completely correct! There is so much misunderstanding and misinformation about Henry’s mindset towards his religious views and faith. Henry didn’t just “consider” himself Catholic – he WAS by baptism Catholic (as was everyone else who was English- whether they liked it on not – as at that point there was no other Church. It was THE Church. The 22,000 versions of Protestantism that have since splintered away from it were never officially recognised in England until the formation of the Anglican Church in Edward VI’s reign under his “reforming” ministers.


  7. I didn’t know any of this, Susan! How very interesting. It seems he was almost too great a man for his descendants to be able to cope with, and that goes for his visions for his tomb as well. The dog licking story is fascinating! 🙂


  8. King William IV’s inscription is the height of disrespect! In addition, the condition of the cemetery (that is what it is) has become miasmic and is in a state of de-secration! This is absolutely deplorable. I am considering writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury myself about this. How in the world can this be even tolerated!!!!


    • The Archbishop of Canterbury had no authority over St. George’s Chapel. It is a Royal Peculiar as is Westminster Abbey. It answers to the Queen only. She appoints the Deans and chapter so the archbishop could not help you.


    • Nothing came up in the research about this. As far as I know, the coffin was left as it is depicted in AY Nutt’s drawing.


  9. I just attended Evensong in the chapel a month ago–highly recommended! I think Henry was lucky to end up in this magnificent place of worship that is still used daily. My husband sat in the actual seat used by Prince William during the service of the Knights of the Garter (all the Knights that have ever been have plaques with their names and devices). It seems like a very cheerful (and exclusive) resting place for Henry.

    Liked by 4 people

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