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.
As part of the exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart
The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales, by William Hole, 1612, © The Trustees of the British Museum