A fortunate few last weekend had the chance to have a look inside King Henry V’s elaborately carved chantry chapel in Westminster Abbey as part of commemorations marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.
The chapel, which is located on a sort of mezzanine level above the king’s tomb at the east end of the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, is one of the smallest of the abbey’s chapels. It was constructed on the orders of the king – who died Vincennes in August, 1422, and was buried in the abbey on 7th November that year – so prayers could be said in perpetuity for his soul.
The tomb was completed in 1431 and the chantry chapel was built above between 1437 and 1450. The latter is entered via narrow stairways of worn steps hidden inside a pair of stone turrets which flank the tomb.
For centuries the Henry V’s funeral ‘achievements’ – the king’s saddle, helm and shield – were displayed on a wooden beam above the chantry chapel but these were restored and moved to the abbey museum in 1972.
Henry V’s wife, Catherine de Valois, who survived her husband by 15 years was eventually – in the Victorian age – buried under the chantry chapel altar (originally buried in the old Lady Chapel, King Henry VII had her removed and placed in an open coffin in the open air next to the tomb of King Henry V, when building his new chapel – among visitors to her mummified body was diarist Samuel Pepys who even kissed her. In 1778 she was buried in a vault before being relocated to her current position in 1878).
An inscription on the altar in the chantry chapel reads: “Under this slab (once the altar of this chapel) for long cast down and broken up by fire, rest at last, after various vicissitudes, finally deposited here by command of Queen Victoria, the bones of Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, King of France, wife of Henry V, mother of Henry VI, grandmother of Henry VII, born 1400, crowned 1421, died 1438”.
The chantry chapel is still occasionally used for services but, measuring just seven by three metres, is not usually open to the public because of size and access issues.
Westminster Abbey will hold a special service of commemoration on 29th October in partnership with charity Agincourt600. The day before, 28th October, it will host a one day conference for Henry V enthusiasts entitled ‘Beyond Agincourt: The Funerary Achievements of Henry V’. For more, see www.westminster-abbey.org/events/agincourt.
Above – King Henry V’s chantry chapel; Below – King Henry V’s tomb which sits below the chantry chapel. PICTURE: Jim Dyson/Dean & Chapter of Westminster