Funeral effigies – how the dead appeared at their own burial

a brown wooden coffin

Visited Westminster Abbey today – where Wills and Kate just got married of course – and what held my morbid attention the most was the funeral effigies.  These strange objects are located in the 11th century vaulted undercroft of the abbey.

Basically, the abbey you know and love was built in the 13th century but below it are the remains of the earlier 11th century church of St Peter built by Edward the Confessor and completed by William the Conqueror.

Most of it was demolished to make way for the much bigger building you see today, constructed in the Gothic style.  However, when you go to the cloister, you can access several rooms built around the 1050s and 1060s.   The Templar era covers the existence of both churches.

The abbey museum is in a room in the undercroft and the main objects to view are these life size effigies of England’s previous monarchs.  Up to around 1300, the real king was dressed up after death and put on display at funerals.  In spite of some sterling efforts at preservation – nothing on a par with Egyptian mummification though – the bodies tended to putrefy and even explode.

This being rather disagreeable, an alternative was devised.  A wooden model of the corpse was made with real hair, finely painted and dressed in the dead monarch’s clothes.  This was then lain on top of the casket during the funeral procession.

The model was then frequently sat next to the gravestone for years – and in some cases, centuries.  They weren’t always treated with respect and the wax and wood effigy of Elizabeth I had to be completely remade in the 18th century – 200 years after her death.  What was left of the original effigy of 1603 is still on display – a headless wooden figure (the original wax head was long gone) in just its undergarments….not very dignified.

The 17th and 18th century models of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne and various aristocrats are in amazing condition but obviously fall way out of the historical zone of this blog.  But go see them.  Henry VII – father of Henry VIII – has only got his wooden head and shoulders on display.  Believe it or not, the rest of the body was destroyed by a bomb in World War II.  From the Middle Ages, we have Anne of Bohemia (queen of Richard II) and Katherine de Valois (queen of Henry V).

This practice of displaying models of the dead at their funerals goes back at least to Roman times.  The likeness of many of these models to the dead are said to have been eerily accurate.  And one must assume that pre-Christian ideas of communing with the ancestors through these figures had to be a common belief.  Whether you’re a student of funerary rites through the ages or just like to gawp at historical fashions – the clothes on the dummies are original and very sumptuous – then go down to the undercroft and feast your eyes.

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