Tuesday 12 July 2016


The last few days have been skeleton-heavy. Royal tombs and dinosaur bones have marked my over-enthusiastic start to the school holidays, which has left us all exhausted.

First was a trip to Windsor Castle, which, I am ashamed to admit, I have never visited. Fascinating, but so busy! I should be delighted that so many people are interested in our Royal story. But the visit was marred by the sense of being on an historical conveyor belt, with bored teens ticking off the Van Dycks and the codpieces. Besides, going with a hyperactive two year old was always going to take the sheen off things. I remember little about the State Rooms beyond my own plaintive shrieking: "Don't touch the armour! Don't sit on that chair! Don't go under rope. Do not go under..  Ok. Come back from under the rope. Please?"

One moment stands out. Traipsing through St George's Chapel, hemmed in like a disgruntled herring, I happened to look down at my feet.

And there was this:

In a Vault
Beneath this marble slab
Are deposited the remains 
Jane Seymour Queen of Henry V111
King Henry V11
King Charles 1
An Infant child of Queen Anne

I have blogged before about the shivering breath of history - those moments in modern life when we feel the past rising. I am reminded of The Subtle Knife - the Philip Pullman novel in which the knife of the title has the power to slice between worlds.

Bones are a powerful subtle knife. A plain marble slab, and beneath it, the bones of some of the greatest protagonists in our island story - and the tiny skeleton of a stillborn baby who could have been monarch. As my three healthy, beyond-exuberant kids skipped over the slab, I thought of Queen Anne and her 17 pregnancies and no surviving children.

Did she find comfort in the thought of her child's tiny bones lying with Henry and Charles the Martyr? 

As writers of historical fiction, we wield our own subtle knives. We put the flesh on bones. Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness, did a wonderful job of recreating Anne, in all her plump, pregnant vacuity. 

Jane Seymour is a bit of an enigma - a footnote in Tudor history, a successful Royal womb. Even Hilary Mantel can't quite capture her - she's eclipsed by her Boleyn nemesis in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

According to the sources, Henry V111 asked to be buried alongside Jane - the mother of his longed for son. She was in a temporary, plain tomb, Henry's will stipulated that they would both be rehomed in a magnificent new tomb - one he claimed as his own, but was actually started by Cardinal Wolsley. It was never completed, and Henry, that lover of pomp and magnificence, remains in his plain and unadorned tomb.

I cannot find any references to why Henry's will was never completed; does anyone know? Please comment if so. Was the failure to complete the tomb an accidental oversight during the political turmoil that followed? Or a deliberate snub by his unloved daughter Elizabeth, to her father and the wife who took her mother's crown? 

Charles 1 body presented a problem for the Commonwealth. The civil wars' victors understood religious symbolism. What could be more powerful to the King's Catholic-sympathising followers than a martyr's relics? And yet the regicides were not Republicans as we would later come to understand the term. Charles' bones deserved respect. He was shuffled quietly into Henry's temporary tomb - after the Commonwealth had sold off pieces of Henry's unfinished grand tomb to fill its depleted coffers. The thinking was that Windsor Castle's relative distance from London would limit the number of Royalist worshippers at Charles' bones.

(Incidentally, the date on the slab in the Chapel implies Charles died in 1648 - this is due to the old method of dating the turn of the numerical year on 25 March.)

Here's another question - why do we venerate the bones of dead protagonists in the history play? Why did my atheist self quiver in the presence of the remains? Why did I pause and feel a sense of awe at the resonating presence of Jane and Henry, Charles and the nameless progeny of Anne?

Is it the God gene, pushing me towards the mystical? Is there a catholicism bred in the bone from my Irish relic-worshipping ancestors?

My head believes that when we die, our self dies with us. Skeletons are empty of all the things that make up a life - love and blood and laughter. They are meaningless in themselves. So why does the thing that I cannot quite call a soul answer to the call of the bones?

Antonia Senior is the author of Treason's Daughter, a novel of the English Civil War and The Winter Isles, a novel of Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles. 

 "Passionate, wonderful, windswept writing," Manda Scott

 "Senior's fresh, forceful writing breathes new life and relevance into the most destructive dangerous era in English History," The Times

1 comment:

Ann Turnbull said...

This is a fascinating post. How strange that Queen Anne's stillborn child was put in that vault and not with its mother. I agree, there is something quite haunting about bones.