Funeral and wax effigies | Westminster Abbey

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There are twenty wooden and wax effigies on display in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in Westminster Abbey, as well as the armor of the now lost funerary effigy of General George Monck.

History of effigies

From the end of the 13th century, funeral effigies of monarchs and other royals were carried in a funeral procession over the coffin under a canopy. The effigy was generally close to the physical dimensions of the person it represented, and kings and queens were dressed in coronation insignia. On arrival at the Abbey, the coffin was removed from the funeral car and placed with the effigy in a hearse decorated with candles at the foot of the steps leading to the high altar. After the burial, the effigy continues to be exhibited in the church and becomes the property of the abbey authorities. Several of these effigies have disappeared over the centuries and for some, only the wooden frame remains. The medieval ones are carved in wood, with plaster or gesso features. The later effigies have wax heads and hands with bodies of wood or soft materials.

The first wooden effigies were collected in the upper part of Abbot Islip’s chapel from 1606 and were exhibited in the new abbey museum in 1908. Unfortunately, during a bombing in 1941, the The water used to put out the fires in the building above affected many of the effigies whose bodies were only of straw or plaster, such as Henry VII and his queen. They were restored after the war by RP Howgrave Graham. Wax figures had been displayed in display cases near the burial place of the deceased, but by the mid-19th century they were also in the Chapel of Islip. They joined the Museum’s older effigies after World War II.

The effigies

Edward III

This is the oldest existing effigy. He was buried in the abbey in 1377 and the face is a death mask.

Anne of Bohemia

The face of the Queen of Richard II is also carved into a death mask.

Catherine of Valois

The effigy of Queen Henry V is a full-length effigy with a painted red robe and a groove on the head for a crown.

Elisabeth of York

Only Elizabeth’s pearwood head and arm have survived.

Henry VII

The plaster head of Elizabeth of York’s husband is a death mask.

Mary I

Mary I’s wooden body and head were brought together for the new display, but her face doesn’t look very much like her.

Elisabeth i

The original effigy was redone in 1760, but during restoration in 1995 it was found that the original 1603 corset and drawers have still survived. The corset is now displayed next to the wax effigy.

Jacques I and his son Henri

The effigy of Jacques I and that of his son Henry Prince of Wales have been beheaded for several centuries.

Anne of Denmark

The effigy of the queen of James I was taken from a death mask.

Charles II

By the time of Charles II’s death in 1685, the custom of wearing an effigy at a royal funeral had ceased. Instead, a wreath on a purple cushion was placed over the coffin. But a wax effigy was made to stand near his grave as it has no monument. It even has silk underwear.

Queen anne

His effigy is the only seated figure.

Françoise, Duchess of Richmond

The earliest surviving effigy of the nobility is that of Frances and she requested in her will that her effigy be dressed in her coronation robes.

Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham and her sons

The last effigy known to have been worn during a burial at the abbey is that of Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham who died in 1743.

His son Robert Sheffield, Marquess of Normanby is the only effigy of a child in the collection. His other son, Edmund, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, has the only recumbent figure and it is in its original case.

Effigies purchased for the show

The abbey choirs increased their salaries by showing the wax effigies to the public. They purchased the effigies of William III and Mary II in 1724. The effigy of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, by American sculptor Patience Wright, was also acquired by them. The last effigy in the collection is that of a person who is not buried at the abbey. This is Horatio, Viscount Nelson, who died in 1805, and the choristers bought him as a counter-attraction for his tomb in Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Further reading

Westminster Abbey funeral effigies edited by Anthony Harvey and Richard Mortimer, revised edition 2003.

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