Worcester Cathedral Tombs

Worcester was our choice for a day out this week for some mid January therapy, and I thought, for a change, it was time I wrote about stone again. Memory was an important concept in the Middle Ages for church decoration and Worcester Cathedral is full of commemorative art. The architecture of the Cathedral is stunning, but we concentrated our visit on two particular memorials which commemorate interesting figures of Plantagenet blood.

King John’s tomb (mid 13th century) in the choir at Worcester Cathedral

King John’s tomb dominates the choir. The stone base conceals the tomb and is decorated with Plantagenet heraldry (the original three lions anticipated by Geoffrey De Plantagenet) and is topped with a life size effigy of John in purbeck marble. The effigy from the mid thirteenth century was one of the earliest to reflect the actual likeness rather than the more normal baronial type of representation. By his side is an unsheathed sword and on his shoulders are his two saints, the patron saints of Worcester; Wulfstan and Oswald. At his feet is a richly carved lion representing regal power.

Tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII (16th century) in Worcester Cathedral

Just a view yards away on the north side of the high altar is the tomb and chantry chapel of Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, the first born of the new Tudor dynasty. The tomb holding the fifteen year old heir is highly decorated stone with the heraldry of the English Sovereign with lions and fleur de lys, still revealing aspirations in French territory. The chantry chapel with it’s altar were adorned with numerous statues before a later iconoclasm (Edward VI) caused much damage. The richness of the decoration, however, clearly befits such an important heir and the fan vaulted roof is exquisite. Decorating the north exterior wall of the chapel is an array of significant emblems ranging from the white and red roses of the warring cousins, the combined Tudor rose, the portcullis emblem, adopted by parliament, the Yorkist fetterlock and the pomegranate representing Catherine of Aragon, Arthur’s wife.

North front of Prince Arthur’s chantry chapel at Worcester Cathedral showing emblems of the Yorkist, Lancastrian, Tudor and Aragon dynasties.

“What might have been?” There are many times throughout English history when that question may have been asked and these two tombs in Worcester Cathedral show how unlikely events can swing the history of a nation. It is enthralling to sit in spaces like the great gothic choir of Worcester Cathedral and ponder on these events. 

View towards choir and altar looking east, Worcester Cathedral

King John was the youngest of five sons of the first Plantagenet, Henry II. But for the rebellious nature of his elder brothers, all meeting premature deaths, he would have probably led a quiet life in some backwater in Ireland or France. Instead his own treacherous nature led to his taking the crown of England and nearly losing it disastrously, very nearly losing England as well. The subsequent reigns of Henry III, crowned at the age of nine at Gloucester, and Edward I probably led to the nation becoming more English than at any time since the legendary King Arthur.

And Prince Arthur? Following the final demise of the Plantagenets at Bosworth, the new dynasty depended on the legitimacy of the royal blood through Elizabeth of York, to support the usurper, Henry Tudor. Arthur was the first born, whose task was to finally bring a close years (maybe centuries) of Plantagenet wars and a herald a new glorious age. He died unexpectedly at fifteen, his younger brother ,Henry, married the widowed Catherine and the rest, as they say, is history…

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