Alison Weir returns to Historia as this month’s guest author, telling the strange – and sometimes gruesome – story of what happened to Queen Katharine Parr’s body after it was buried. Alison’s new novel, Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife, is the final book in her Six Tudor Queens series.
After Katharine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, died in childbed in 1548, a beautiful tomb was raised to her memory on the north side of the chapel at Sudeley Castle.
It bore an alabaster effigy of the Queen, and around the base was chiselled a Latin epitaph composed by her chaplain, John Parkhurst.
Within a hundred years of Katharine’s death, the chapel fell into decay. When, in 1642, during the Civil War, Sudeley Castle was besieged, Roundhead soldiers desecrated the chapel, digging up graves and smashing monuments, including Katharine’s, whose body was probably interred in the earth beneath where it had stood.
After the Civil War, Parliament ordered that Sudeley Castle be slighted, rendering it uninhabitable. The chapel roof was demolished, and the building was left to the mercies of nature. For the next two centuries, Sudeley lay derelict and Katharine’s burial place was forgotten.
With the flowering of the romantic movement, the ruins attracted visitors. In 1782, some ladies travelled to Sudeley in search of the tomb of Katharine Parr. Surmising that a large block of alabaster in the north wall of the chapel was part of a monument, they enlisted local men to dig below it. At a depth of two feet, Katharine’s leaden coffin was found, identifiable by its inscription.
The coffin was opened. When the cerecloths covering the face were cut away, the Queen’s features, particularly the open eyes, remained in a perfect state of preservation for a few moments until exposure to the air brought on the process of decay. The corpse began to turn colour and the eyes dimmed. Alarmed, the ladies ordered that earth be thrown over the coffin.
That same year, a curious tenant farmer pulled up the top of the coffin and saw the body wrapped in cerecloth. He made an incision and uncovered one of the arms, the flesh of which was white and moist. He also cut off a few locks of hair.
In 1783, Mr Brookes, steward to Lord Rivers, then owner of Sudeley, directed that the grave be opened again, to satisfy his curiosity, but found that the body had grown foetid. It was uncovered again in 1784, when an old woman recorded that it was wearing, not a shroud, but costly burial clothes. Shoes were on the feet, which were very small, while all the Queen’s proportions were “extremely delicate”. Traces of beauty were still perceptible in her features and her long hair was of burnished gold.
But, through exposure to the air and “injurious treatment”, the process of decay was rapid. The vicar insisted that the body be reinterred, but the coffin was not sealed properly.
In 1786, the Rev Treadway Nash examined the chapel with two antiquarians. Having opened the ground and torn away the lead, they found Katharine’s face totally decayed and her teeth fallen from their sockets. They thought it indecent to uncover the body, so unwrapped only one “brownish” hand. Nash made a sketch of the remains. He lamented that more respect had not been paid to the remains of the Queen and noted that the chapel was used for the keeping of rabbits, who scratched “very irreverently about the royal corpse”.
Six years later, some “rude persons” again opened the grave, took out the body and played and – allegedly – danced with it, before leaving it exposed on a heap of rubbish, where it remained until the vicar had it reburied.
But someone was seen snooping around the grave, so the tenant farmer had a deeper one dug in the chapel. Then he invited his neighbours to a dinner, after which the body was to be reinterred.
Unfortunately, the men were drunk and abused the corpse, pulled off its hair, knocking out the teeth, cutting off the head with a spade, wrenching off the arms and stabbing an iron bar several times through the torso. They were so inebriated that they buried the coffin upside down.
When, in 1817, the chapel was repaired, Katharine’s coffin was found bottom-upwards in a wall and filled with ivy roots. By now, the body had been reduced to a confused heap of bones and a small quantity of hair; they were placed in the newly discovered stone vault that contained the remains of Lord Chandos, who had died in 1654. But, in 1828, a Mr Lawson visited the chapel and reported that Queen Katharine’s remains had not been reburied with the honour and historical respect due to her, for the vault lay in a lean-to building outside the north wall of the chapel.
When wealthy Worcester glovemakers John and William Dent purchased Sudeley in 1837, they discovered the church to be ruinous and overgrown with ivy, with trees sprouting from its walls. They proceeded forthwith to carry out an extensive restoration programme. In 1854–63, the chapel was restored under the direction of Sir George Gilbert Scott. In 1861, the remains of Queen Katharine were collected “with pious care”, although, by then, they had been reduced to just “a little brown dust”.
The coffin was moved into the church and laid in a spacious vault to the left of the chancel window. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed a fine new gothic-canopied tomb in the medieval style, on which were carved the arms of Katharine’s four husbands.
The tomb was based on a woodcut of the original monument preserved in an old book, The Seven Lamps of Virginity, and on a pattern on a fragment of masonry found in the wall near the Queen’s grave.
John Birnie Philip (who worked on the Albert Memorial) made a life-size marble effigy designed by Scott and supposedly based on portraits, although it bears no resemblance to those that have since been authenticated. It was laid on the finished monument in 1863. On a pillar next to the tomb a plate is now affixed, on which there is an engraved facsimile of the inscription upon the leaden coffin in which the remains of Queen Katharine Parr were originally found.
This is the tomb we see today, along with some vivid Victorian stained-glass windows, depicting Katharine Parr with her last two husbands, Henry VIII and Thomas Seymour. It is a fitting memorial to this most charming of queens.
Alison has written for Historia before, most recently asking Did Henry VIII really want Katheryn Howard to be executed? and before that talking about Tardiness and tempest: Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn. She’s also been interviewed for the magazine, in 2016 and in 2019.
Effigy of Katharine Parr, Sudeley Castle: MikPeach via Wikimedia
The South West View of Sewdley Castle in the County of Gloucester, 1732, by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck: via Wikimedia
Illustration of the opening of Katherine Parr’s coffin in 1782 from the Annals of Winchcombe and Sudeley by Emma Dent, 1877: via Wikimedia
Waxwork Queen Katherine Parr lying in state at Sudeley Chapel: Ann Longmore-Etheridge via Flickr
Katharine Parr’s tomb in St Mary’s Chapel, Sudeley Castle: Nilfanion via Wikimedia