Opening the Tomb of King John

King John, who died in October of 1216, was laid to rest in Worcester Cathedral as per his wishes. This location holds significant historical importance as his remains are still present there today.  The current Tomb of King John, which includes an effigy of the king from the 1230s and a tomb chest from 1529, adds to the cathedral’s rich history.   

Opening the Tomb of King John in 1529

In 1529 when the monument was updated, the coffin of King John was opened, and the king’s remains were revealed. One eyewitness to this was the former Carmelite friar and bishop of Ossory, John Bale – who had written a historical play about the king.  In the margins of his copy of Trevet’s ‘Annals of the Kings of England’, Bale made a handwritten record of the opening in 1529.The king’s remains, Bale says, were dressed in state, with a crown on his head, a sword at his side, his right hand holding a rod, his left a sceptre, spurs on his feet, and a ring on his finger.  He was dressed as a king should be. 

Opening the Tomb of King John in 1797

The tomb was opened for a second time on the 17th of July 1797, and an account of what was found, including an engraving of the inside of the coffin, was published by London engraver and antiquary and former Worcester resident Valentine Green.

When the effigy and top black stone were removed, the king’s coffin was found to be within the tomb chest, although it was placed at the bottom of the chest, resting on the choir floor.  It was initially obscured by brick-and-mortar debris filling the upper part of the chest, and on top of it were the remains of timber planking that protected the king’s corpse from the rubble infill. 

The coffin itself was very clearly the original, and it differed entirely in material from the tomb chest and the effigy.  It was made of local Highley Sandstone – the same building material as the cathedral.

What was found at the Opening of the Tomb of King John in 1797

The remains were skeletal, but there was clear evidence that the body had been covered with a robe that reached from the neck to the feet.  The robe was seemingly of crimson damask, decorated with embroidery, but was discoloured.   A piece of this royal robe has been preserved in the cathedral library, and it seems to show a gold lion passant or a leopard, which was on the royal arms adopted by the Plantagenets.  

The only item from the grave goods seen in 1529 to survive was the king’s sword, which was in a leather scabbard by his left arm – the sword was badly decayed, the leather scabbard less so.  

Green says that the legs of the king had a sort of ‘ornamented covering’ tied around the ankles and over the feet. He wasn’t sure at the time if these were fabric or leather.  These are probably buskins – these were part of the traditional garb of the sovereign at coronations and the king is wearing them on his effigy. 

On the king’s head was found a sort of cap that was tied under his head – and his skull had rolled back from this to show the neck.  In 1797, this was assumed to be a monk’s cowl and that the king had been buried simply and with humility – they weren’t aware at the time of the 1529 evidence and that he had been buried in full funeral regalia. It isn’t a monk’s cowl but is rather an object of civilian dress in this period called a coif that covered the hair – such a coif was also part of the coronation regalia. Medieval English kings wore a coif after they’d been anointed, and they wore a crown on top of it.  As well as being a required part of the coronation regalia, a coif was also one of the items required for the burial of a king, according to the 14th century English royal funeral instructions:‘De Exequiis Regalibus.’

The king’s remains were found to be covered with a ‘vast quantity of the dry skins of maggots’ perhaps suggesting that the seal of the original coffin was not perfect.  When measured, Green concluded that the king was five foot six tall.  Now, the king’s lower jaw had become separated from the skull and was found further down in the coffin.  The lower jaw had no teeth; the upper only had four.

Learn more through my YouTube video

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