The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales by William Hole, 1612 © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most memorable visits I made during research for the exhibition was to see a distinctly dilapidated object at Westminster Abbey.  Shortly after his death – probably from typhoid fever, at the age of 18 – an effigy of the prince was made to be carried on his coffin in his funeral procession in December 1612. It had originally consisted of a carved wooden body, padded out probably with straw inside a fabric ‘skin’, which was dressed in the robes he had worn when he was created Prince of Wales. The face and hands were probably made of wax, and the whole thing was regarded as so life-like that its first arrival at the Abbey elicited a huge outbreak of weeping among the mourners.

I knew from old photographs that over the centuries it had suffered terribly; the clothing had been stolen, the head and hands had been lost, the fabric and straw had decayed and what I was expecting to see was an undisplayable assemblage of pieces of wood. I visited the Abbey with a colleague, in the week after the royal wedding in spring 2011. It was full of tourists but also of the decorative trees and, by then, rather wilting flowers. In this atmosphere of decaying splendour we gently unwrapped the long, sausage-like parcel containing the effigy. The sight of it left us speechless for a moment. It was exactly as it had appeared in old photographs, an assemblage of jointed pieces of wood, some crudely hewn, but the legs finely shaped from the knees down. It was surprisingly moving. In a way it felt almost like opening Henry’s coffin. From the most eligible prince in the Protestant world, whose body was accompanied by two thousand official mourners and countless ordinary people through the streets of London, he had come to this – a forlorn remnant in a dusty corner of Westminster Abbey. We decided that we would, after all, include it in the exhibition, so that visitors to the show could experience in their own way this relic of a short but glorious life.

The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales by William Hole, 1612 © The Trustees of the British Museum

As part of the exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart

Image Credit

The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales, by William Hole, 1612, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Comments

Got something to say?

Thomas Vye

4 January 2013, 21:32

I wish you allowed photography of the effigy as you display it; the only image I can find is that soulless blue background image, but it was one of the most moving memento mori I have ever seen.

David Elias

10 November 2012, 19:22

I'm a Canadian author keenly interested in the life and death of Prince Henry Stuart. I visited the Abbey in May of 2011 on a research grant and had to enlist the help of the staff there to locate Henry's tomb. We finally found it hidden under a fire blanket and I was struck that he and his sister Elizabeth should have been put to rest there in such obscurity. I think this exhibition is a wonderful idea and wish I could be there to view it.

Best Wishes,
David Elias

Tim

9 November 2012, 09:30

I found it moving to see this crude effigy stripped of its finery, after all the exquisite miniatures and portraits in the exhibition; for all its damage, somehow as vivid a representatation of the Prince as the more lifelike images.

David

29 October 2012, 22:09

Were royal funeral effigies created specifically for the purpose of mourning on the processions? Would they have remained on display in the Abbey?

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