Mastodon The Writing Desk: The Disturbing Story of Queen Catherine Parr's Tomb

27 February 2022

The Disturbing Story of Queen Catherine Parr's Tomb

Detail of the Catherine Parr Mausoleum in St. Mary's Chapel,
Sudeley Castle (Wikimndia Commons)

Queen Catherine Parr’s impressive tomb at Sudeley Castle is not original, and the story of how her remains were treated over the centuries is literally disturbing.

After Catherine died on the 5th of September, 1548, most likely from a post-partum fever, aged thirty-six. Her funeral took place in St Mary's Chapel at Sudeley Castle two days later. Lady Jane Grey was the chief mourner, and it was recorded as the first Protestant funeral held in English. Her lead coffin was inscribed, ‘KP. Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge Henry the VIII and The wife of Thomas Lord of Sudely high Adm of Englond And ynkle to Kyng Edward VI.’

In January, 1643, Sudeley Castle was used as a headquarters by King Charles I, and the castle and chapel were destroyed by the parliamentarians in 1649. It is noted that they dug up the graves, and the location of Queen Catherine’s tomb was lost.

A search was carried out in the ruined chapel in 1782, and the daughter of a Mr Brooks, who was present at the discovery, noted the actions of Joseph Lucas, who lived in the outer castle::

“In the summer of the year 1782 the earth in which Qu. K. Par lay interned was removed, and at the depth of about two feet (or very little more) her leaden coffin or coffin was found quite whole. Mr Lucas had the curiosity to rip up the top of the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the deceased, but to his great surprise found the whole body wrapped in seer cloth linen, entire and uncorrupted. His unwarranted curiosity led him to make an incision through the seer cloth which covered one of the arms of the corpse, the flesh of which wat the time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Mr Lucas, who of his own hand opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it; and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.”

In 1783 Catherine Parr’s coffin was opened again, and it was noted that. ‘Shoes were on the feet, which were very small, while all the Queen’s proportions were “extremely delicate". Traces of beauty were still perceptible in her features and her long hair was of burnished gold’. 

Illustration of the opening of Catherine Parr's coffin in 1782. 
From the Annals of Winchcombe & Sudeley, 1877
(Wikimedia Commons)

Her coffin was subsequently reopened by curious visitors many times, and in 1792, vandals broke into the coffin. It is said they were drunk and abused the corpse, pulled off its hair, knocking out the teeth, and stabbing an iron bar several times through the torso. Joseph Lucas reinterred her coffin in a hidden, walled grave. 

The last time the coffin was opened was in 1817, when the local rector decided to move it to the crypt under the chapel. When (unnecessarily) opening the coffin this final time it was found the queen’s body had become a skeleton, and much of the coffin was filled with ivy.

During these various openings of the coffin, fragments of Catherine’s dress and locks of her hair were collected Some of these items are on display at Sudeley Castle, but one lock of hair, purporting to have been taken from the queen's body, was sold by public auction in 2008.

In 1861, the chapel was fully restored, and Catherine Parr’s coffin was moved to its final resting place, in a spacious vault to the left of the chancel window., under a canopied neo-Gothic tomb designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The magnificent, full-sized marble figure sculpted by John Birnie Philip bears little resemblance to any of the surviving portraits of the queen, but I think she would have been pleased with it..

Tony Riches

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