|King John's effigy|
"First then, I desire that my body be buried in the church
of the Blessed Virgin and St. Wulfstan
We all know the story. Good King Richard is away on Crusade and his evil brother John tries to usurp the throne. From Elizabethan times onwards King John has been cast as the villain in countless theatrical productions and films about Robin Hood. My regular readers will know that seeing those movies and television shows left a lasting impression on me and I have spent many years researching the lives of those two feuding Plantagenet brothers. Unfortunately John does not appear in any of the surviving early medieval ballads about the outlaw, but his treacherous reputation eventually introduced him into the legend.
One recent book I would highly recommend is King John by Marc Morris (2015). Not only did I find it informative and well-written, but I was intrigued to read Morris's account about the discovery of King John's remains in Worcester Cathedral. In fact they were discovered twice. Recently I visited Worcester and had the opportinity to gaze upon the tomb of King John. I had to find out more.
King John (1166-1216) was a frequent visitor to Worcester. Nearby were his two favourite hunting grounds, the Royal Forests of Kinver and Feckingham. He also seems to have had a special affection for Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester (1062-1095), who was canonized during his reign.
In October 1216, John contracted dysentery at King's Lynn during his campaign to recover East Anglia from the barons. He gradually became weaker and to make matters worse, he misjudged the tide when crossing the Wash in Lincolnshire and lost a significant part of his baggage train in the marsh.
By the middle of the month he became so ill, he had to be carried on a litter to Newark. When his party reached the castle, he was attended by Thomas de Wodestoke, abbot of Croxton, who was said to have been a skilful physician. But John knew he was dying and dictated a very brief will. Probably an indication of how weak he now was. In the last paragraph he expressed his desire to be buried at Worcester. Wodestocke then heard John's confession and performed the last rites.
King John died at Newark Castle in the early hours of 19th October 1216. A strong gale howled outside. The abbot of Croxton took away the kings heart and intestines and had the body hastily embalmed. A monk named John of Savigny, who came to Newark at daybreak to mount vigil over the body and say Mass for the king's soul, encountered members of John's household scurrying out of the castle with as much loot as they could, before some official arrived to seal the royal chambers. John's corpse was then draped with rich cloth and a company of mercenaries in full armour solemnly escorted it on the long journey from Newark to Worcester.
He was interred four days later between the shrines of St. Oswald and St.Wulfstan at Worcester abbey church by Bishop Sylvester. But unlike his brother and earlier kings, John was not buried wearing his crown. This was probably due to many of the royal treasures previously being lost in the Wash. Instead, John's head was covered in the linen coif that was used to hold in place the Holy Oil used to anoint him.
John's memory would be kept fresh at Worcester by the observance of an annual fast and John's heart and intestines were preserved at Croxton Abbey in Stafford - a macabre reward to the abbot for his services.
Ten days after John's death, his eldest son Henry III (1207-1272) was crowned at Gloucester Cathedral. King Henry later helped raise the funds for his father's effigy and tomb and the considerable rebuilding of the east end of Worcester cathedral which had been badly damaged during the great fire of 1202. The church was reconstructed and the location of John's tomb would become the Lady Chapel.
|How King John's original tomb might have looked|
His tomb at this time, appears to have been a stone coffin 'of a dark colour with his figure upon it, raised a little above the surface of the earth', beneath the Great East Window. William Stukeley described King John's tomb in 1776 originally being :
Before the altar of the eastern most wall of the church, on each side of him, upon the ground are the effigies of the two Holy bishops, and his chief saints, Wulfstan and Oswald, from whose vicinity he hoped to be safe from harm.This is the oldest royal effigy in England, dated from between 1228 to 1232, and made from Purbeck Marble, brought in from Dorset. It shows John in the prime of his life (thought to be a likeness) and was originally painted in bright colours and encrusted with precious jewels from Germany, Africa and eastern Europe. The pitted holes in his crown, sleeves and the collar of his gown are where the jewels would have been embedded. His head lies upon a pillow supported by the small figures of the Bishops' Oswald and Wulfstan, and his feet rest upon a lion.
|A reconstruction of King John's coloured tomb|
The king's right hand is holding a vial that might have contained a bone or relic of his favourite saint. His left hand grips the hilt of his unsheathed sword, which is unusual considering the convention of the time forbidding anyone to be battle ready in God's house.
After the death of his eldest son, Arthur Prince of Wales, in 1502, Henry VII had an elaborate tomb and chantry dedicated to him to the right of the altar at Worcester Cathedral. During this period of renovation and reconstruction a decision was made to remove King John's marble effigy from its small base in the Lady Chapel eastward onto a raised tomb chest in the centre of the choir.
|The raised tomb|
While this reconstruction was taking place, the workman 'discovered' the monarch's skeletal remains - including his head covered by what they described as a monk's cowl. So, under the auspices of the sacrist, Robert Alchurch, the bones were carefully put inside the new sarcophagus and the original 13th century stone effigy was lowered in place.
There seems to have been some confusion over exactly where King John's remains were lying during this period (The dean apparently had no knowledge of the Tudor discoveries). So when restoration work was planned in this year it was decided to 'satisfy every doubt' and open the tomb by the altar steps.
|King John's tomb by the altar steps|
Fortunately we have several detailed accounts. This appears in An Historical on the Magna Charta by Richard Thompson (1829) :
...on Monday 17th July 1797 the tomb was opened, and a stone coffin was found within containing a skeleton, whose scull was detached and lying in a different position to the body. Some of the teeth and anatomical details were in good preservation, but, notwithstanding the remains had been embalmed by Thomas de Wodestock, Abbot of Croxton, there were evident marks of putrefaction.
The dress discovered upon his body, was similar to that upon the effigy on the exterior, except that there were no gloves upon the hands and that instead of a crown, a monks cowl, used by the king's desire as a preservative against evil spirits, was found upon his head. This fitted very exactly, but the buckles or clasps of the straps were gone, having probably been of some precious metals, and were most likely removed during the Civil Wars.
The body was clothed in a long robe, which seemed to be a crimson damask of a peculiarly strong texture, and some of its embroidery remained near to the right knee; the whole object was then however a dusky brown. The legs were covered with an ornamental close dress tied at the ankles, whilst the bones of the feet were visible through the decayed parts of the drapery, of whom no account could state the material with certainty. The left hand, as in the stone effigy once held a sword, but it was then greatly mutilated and scattered down the same side of the body. The whole length of these remains measured five feet six and a half inches.
The coffin found within the tomb was of the plain white Higley stone of Worcestershire, and was broken by a considerable fracture which appeared to cross it obliquely.
The tomb remained open but a very short period, for so great was the impatience of the multitude to view its contents that it was thought prudent to close them up on the following day.
|The open tomb|
Unfortunately it seems that closing the tomb (after two days) in 1797 did not prevent some of John's remains being removed. After 160 years, King John's reputed thumb bone was finally returned to the cathedral: And stored in Worcester Cathedral Art Gallery and Museum are two molars boxed together with a handwritten note stating: 'These are two teeth taken from the head of King John by William Wood, a stationers apprentice, in 1797'.
|King John's two molars and thumb bone|
|A remnant of King John's shroud showing a heraldic beast|
The teeth and thumb bone together with pieces of textile and a portion of his leather shoe (all allegedly removed from King John's tomb) are now currently on display at the British Library's Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. My pictures of King John's reconstructed effigy are taken from the fascinating display at Worcester Cathedral.
Sources: Marc Morris, King John (2015)
W.L. Warenne, King John (1961)
Richard Thompson, An Historical on the Magna Charta (1829)
Maurice Ashley, King John (1972)