The Tomb of Edward II

The tomb of Edward II is spectacular. Edward’s burial site at St Peter’s Abbey, refounded as Gloucester Cathedral during the Reformation in the sixteenth century, sits under an arch on the north side of the Presbytery adjacent to the Ambulatory, up near the high altar. Other than occupying the central position directly in front of the altar which was taken by his ancestor Robert Curthose in 1134, the positioning of his tomb remains a highly symbolic resting place. Whether Edward II was murdered at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327, or he in fact survived and lived out the remainder of his life in Italy, dying around 1341, one thing is certain. All agree, with the exception of one modern writer, that Edward II’s mortal remains do in fact lie underneath his magnificent tomb.(1) The funeral held at St Peter’s on 20 December 1327, and subsequent interment of the king’s mortal remains or not as has been suggested, resulted in a simple fact. A space was created in which there was room for a coffin to be placed two feet under the floor and was initially covered by a plain Purbeck marble slab which remained in place unadorned until the mid 1340’s.(2)

img_4953Construction of the tomb we see today did not commence until the mid 1340’s, which rather interesting is after the 1341 date which is given by writers who hold that Edward survived beyond his alleged murder and died in this year. This is my view also and so it is highly likely as evidence seems to suggest, that Edward III had his father’s body brought back from Italy to England after his real death, and interred there before major works commenced and the tomb was set in situ. In short, Edward III knew his father had survived.

The style of tomb remains culturally important. Medieval architecture had developed since 1066, beginning with Romanesque in the Norman period, followed by Gothic which is best seen in buildings like Henry III’s greatly remodelled Westminster Abbey in the thirteenth century. During the second quarter of the fourteenth century, the style had become what we now term Perpendicular. As the outbreak of the Hundred Years War dominated English and French foreign policy, English architectural style became just that, English. Previously, building styles had been imported from the continent, most notably from France, but war altered that as English nationalism took on a new meaning. Edward’s tomb is the one of the earliest examples in the country of this growing confidence with this newly emerging English style. It is also a first in the west country. The work was carried out by a master mason from London whose name sadly appears to be lost, but of course his work in the main survives in tact to tell its tale. The result of his labour is truly breathtaking.

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The detailing is exceptional. The ornate and delicate canopy is carved from Cotswold limestone with some later well worked plaster repairs. The base or ‘chest tomb’ is made from Painswick stone and is faced with Purbeck marble from Dorset, which when cut and polished, takes on a much darker appearance as you can see in the image above.(3) The effigy is made from the finest alabaster from the Nottingham area.(4) The care and attention in creating something so detailed was of course deliberate, as Edward III sought to rehabilitate the reputation of his deceased father. The side of the tomb under the ornate arches would have contained eight carved figures known as ‘weepers’ whom were representations of characters associated with the king during his life, and may have included his own son John of Eltham, later earl of Cornwall. Edward conversely in a similar manner appears as a weeper on the tomb of his son John who died aged 20 in 1336 and is buried at Westminster Abbey. Edward’s tomb also had twelve further carvings which are thought to have been depictions of the twelve Apostles.(5) All have since been lost but the iron rods used to secure them in place can still in part be seen.

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The use of alabaster to carve the life like image of the king even today, almost seven hundred years after the master mason set to his work, retains an almost translucent appearance. As pilgrims flocked to make devotions at the side of Edward’s tomb, the choice of pose presented the king in a saintly as well as magisterial light. Two angels support the king’s head on either flank as his wavy hair falls down either side of his crown. His beard is shown with three defined points. Looking at early manuscript depictions of Edward II, he is always shown clean shaven or with a little facial hair, but as he aged he began to grow a beard and the image represented in the form of his effigy is most certainly an attempt at a life like representation; most likely remembered by those who knew him. Quite possibly they included Edward III’s memories which were captured as part of the commission. The image is finished off with the king holding a sceptre in his right hand, an orb in his left with his feet resting on a sleeping lion. The graffiti, some scrawled in Greek and others in Latin, which you can see etched into the king’s head and upper body, were the result of over zealous or terribly bored King’s School boys in the eighteenth century.(6)

The tomb we see today is rather remarkably a shadow of its former self. Medieval England was a riot of colour, no more so than in monastic buildings. Royal and noble mausoleums were richly decorated and so to was Edward’s tomb. The king’s canopy was coloured with a mix of gilding and yellow ochre, as was his rather magnificently fine beard, his wavy hair, the lion at his feet and the weepers on the side of the chest tomb.(7)The gilding would have caught the candle light and sunlight entering the window to the north side of the ambulatory. This along with the almost translucent looking ‘skin’ of the effigy’s face, created an effect that would have awed pilgrims as the image not only looked almost positively lifelike, but rather more saintly. The king’s effigy robes were painted in a rich red ochre and his crown was filled with paste jewels, again designed to look the part and included the colour cinnabar which is a bright red, around where the jewels were placed. There are also traces of blue azurite on the lower half or chest part of the tomb, along the plinth which sits on the north side and also the carved cushion on which the king’s head rests. These surviving colour traces are so small they were only identified by conservation work in the last two decades, and are barely visible to the naked eye.

Edward III, his wife Queen Philippa and other members of the royal family often sent rich clothes, jewellery and, in the case of the Edward III ,a golden ship which were placed on the plinth or on the effigy itself in devotion. This was a wide spread tradition in the medieval age and remains just as evident today with people leaving flowers and personal items at the graves of recently deceased relatives.These items in the case of Edward II have long since been lost.

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In 2008, the tomb underwent a conservation project where much of its fine details were recorded and repairs made to the various and diverse carvings. Repairs had been made on numerous occasions throughout it’s near seven hundred year history, most notably in the eighteenth century when Oriel College Oxford, which Edward II himself founded in 1326 in the year Queen Isabella’s invaded, funded the works.(8) The care taken by the latest conservation effort will ensure that the monument continues to stand the test of time for future generations of pilgrims and tourists who still flock to Gloucester. I for one am certainly pleased to have been able to visit it on numerous occasions.

 

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Twitter: @SpinksStephen

 

Notes

(1) Doherty, Paul. ‘Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II’ (London, 2003). Doherty believes Edward may have survived and wandered into obscurity in 1330 and therefore is not buried at Gloucester at all, claiming instead that a guard killed during his escape from Berkeley in September 1327 in fact lies entombed there.

(2) Gloucester, 27. Smith, 57

(3) Smith, 57

(4) Gloucester, 27

(5) Smith, 69

(6) Smith, 91-92

(7) Gloucester, 27

(8) Smith, 51-52

 

Further Reading

Gloucester: Faith, Art and Architecture – 1,000 Years. (London, 2011)

Smith, David et al. Edward II: His Last Months and his Monument (Bristol & Gloucester, 2015)

Images

Author’s collection who exerts strict copyright over each of them.


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