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The Resting Place of Westminster's Royal Builder

If you're ever in London and find yourself in the Abbey, have a look over to the side of the choir - chances are you'll see an impressive tomb with a recumbent effigy of a king. That's the tomb of Henry III, one of England's most prolific builders during the Middle Ages. If you look carefully, you'll spot something unusual about it – there are no less than four different types of stone used in its construction. This is because Henry was a builder who liked to experiment with new materials and techniques. In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at this remarkable king and his impressive achievements as a builder…Find out more.

Henry III’s tomb lies at the eastern end of Westminster Abbey on the northern side of the eastern end of his church. Four other kings are buried in the building, along with four queens and it may well have been an ambition of Henry to create a royal mausoleum. Before him, royal burials had been undertaken on a rather haphazard basis, though two of his Plantagenet forebears, Henry II and Richard I had been placed in the abbey of Fontrevaud in Anjou. Henry III made a nod to the importance of this resting place by having his heart interred there. Henry’s father John, was however buried at Winchester.

Henry’s desire to be buried at Westminster followed naturally from his great designs for the site. He began the rebuilding of the abbey in 1245 and by 1272 had spent the prodigious sum of £41,000 on its construction. 

The new abbey served to illustrate Henry’s veneration for Edward the Confessor, who had been canonised and whose tomb was an important site of pilgrimage. Henry made a new tomb for the saint, covered in gold and jewels. 

Henry III Tomb at Westminster Abbey. Credit: Ian McDiarmid

Henry died in 1272 and was initially buried in the spot vacated by the saint, before being moved in 1290 into a new tomb. This was based on papal models. It consists of marble sarcophagus decorated with panels of purple and green porphyry. It is also decorated with Cosmati mosaics and with glass and coloured marble. On top of the sarcophagus is a bronze effigy of the king and above that a wooden canopy. It is the work of Roman craftsmen. The Cosmati inlays on the tomb pick up the style of the great Cosmati (mosaics of geometric patterns made of marble) pavement in front of the high altar, a work of enormous expense and one which was unprecedented in England.

Visitors today to the abbey do not have access to the inside of the east end whose central space is dominated by the tomb of the Confessor. However, on this inside there are niches in the tomb of Henry III which resemble those found in the tombs of medieval saints to allow pilgrims to get physically closer to the body of the saint. These niches hint at ambitions for a cult of devotion to the king, which never took off.

Henry III’s reign was marked by struggles with his barons. Politically weak, he nevertheless had an exalted view of kingship, which was reflected in his new abbey and his association with the Confessor. His Italian-looking tomb with its porphyry panelling is a fitting monument to his and his son Edward’s (who had the tomb made) concern with their magnificence.

He was finally buried in Westminster Abbey, next to his wife Eleanor. His tomb can still be seen today. His tomb lies at the eastern end of Westminster Abbey on the northern side of the eastern end of his church. Four other kings are buried in the building, along with four queens and it may well have been an ambition of Henry to create a royal mausoleum. Before him, royal burials had been undertaken on a rather haphazard basis, though two of his Plantagenet forebears, Henry II and Richard I had been placed in the abbey of Fontrevaud in Anjou. Henry III made a nod to the importance of this resting place by having his heart interred there. Henry’s father John was, however, buried at Winchester.

Henry’s desire to be buried at Westminster followed naturally from his great designs for the site. He began the rebuilding of the abbey in 1245 and by 1272 had spent the prodigious sum of £41,000 on its construction. The inscription on his tomb reads: HENRICUS REX III DEI GRACIA (Henry III, by the grace of God, king).

The new abbey served to illustrate Henry’s veneration for Edward the Confessor, who had been canonised and whose tomb was an important site of pilgrimage. Henry made a new tomb for the saint, covered in gold and jewels. 

When Henry died he was initially buried in the spot vacated by the saint, before being moved in 1290 into a new tomb. This was based on papal models. It consists of marble sarcophagus decorated with panels of purple and green porphyry. It is also decorated with Cosmati mosaics and with glass and coloured marble. On top of the sarcophagus is a bronze effigy of the king and above that a wooden canopy. It is the work of Roman craftsmen. The Cosmati inlays on the tomb pick up the style of the great Cosmati (mosaics of geometric patterns made of marble) pavement in front of the high altar, a work of enormous expense and one which was unprecedented in England.

Visitors today to the abbey do not have access to the inside of the east end whose central space is dominated by the tomb of the Confessor. However, on this inside there are niches in the tomb of Henry III which resemble those found in the tombs of medieval saints to allow pilgrims to get physically closer to the body of the saint. These niches hint at ambitions for a cult of devotion to the king, which never took off.

Henry III’s reign was marked by struggles with his barons. Politically weak, he nevertheless had an exalted view of kingship, which was reflected in his new abbey and his association with the Confessor. His Italian-looking tomb with its porphyry panelling is a fitting monument to his and his son Edward’s (who had the tomb made) concern with their magnificence.

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