One of the star sites in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the tomb of Horatio, Lord Nelson, is certainly grand.

Located in what is known as the Nelson Chamber, it centres on a polished back sarcophagus which sits on a stone plinth surrounded by columns with a mosaic floor featuring nautical motifs underneath.

But what makes this tomb unusual is that the sarcophagus actually predates the cathedral itself – and it wasn’t originally made for Nelson.

The sarcophagus was initially commissioned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII, and made by Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano in about 1524. But when Wolsey fell out of favour – and eventually died in disgrace – the then unfinished sarcophagus was seized by King Henry VIII.

King Henry intended to use it for himself and commissioned Benedetto to rework it but it wasn’t complete when he died and while his children – King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I – had intended to complete it after his death, none did so.

It was Queen Elizabeth I who moved the unfinished work out of Westminster to Windsor but during the Commonwealth various pieces designed to accompany the completed tomb were dispersed.

They included four large bronze angels that Benedetto had completed in 1529 which were intended to stand on the tomb’s four corners – for many years these were used as decorative features on gate pillars at Harrowden Hall in Northampshire but were finally recovered by the V&A in 2015 after a national appeal and can now be seen there.

The sarcophagus itself remained at Windsor until King George III presented it to the Admiralty in tribute to Lord Nelson.

Suitably fitted out, his remains were enclosed within when he was buried in St Paul’s crypt on 9th January, 1806.

Nelson’s body, which had been preserved in a keg of brandy on its journey aboard the HMS Victory back from the Battle of Trafalgar where he was killed in 1805, is actually held inside a wooden coffin which sits inside the sarcophagus. This coffin was made from the mainmast of the French ship L’Orient which was presented to Nelson following victory at the Battle of the Nile.

Meanwhile, the sarcophagus itself, which would have been topped with Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat had it fulfilled its original intention, is now topped with a coronet – a symbol of Nelson’s title of viscount.

A monument to Nelson, the work of John Flaxman, can also be seen inside the cathedral.

WHERE: Nelson Chamber, The Crypt, St Paul’s Cathedral (nearest Tube stations are St Paul’s, Mansion House and Blackfriars); WHEN: 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Saturday; COST: £20 adults/£17.50 concessions/£8.50 children (online and group discounts; family tickets available); WEBSITE: www.stpauls.co.uk.

PICTURE: Above – Michael Broad  (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Below – reverendlukewarm (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0).

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A highlight of any journey through subterranean London is spending some time in the St Paul’s Cathedral crypt, famously the resting place of, among others, Admiral Lord Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

Built as an integral part of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the crypt is said to be the largest in Europe and runs the complete length of the building above. It features some 200 memorials.

Nelson’s resting place is under the centre of the dome – his remains, brought back from the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar in a keg of naval brandy, are entombed inside a wooden coffin made from one of the French ships he defeated at the Battle of the Nile which is then contained in a black sarcophagus. Originally made for Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s but left unused when the Cardinal fell from favour, it’s now topped with Nelson’s viscount coronet in place of where the cardinal’s hat would have stood.

The Duke of Wellington, meanwhile, lies just to the east in a tomb of Cornish porphyritic granite set atop a block of Peterhead granite carved with four sleeping lions at its four corners. The coffin was lowered through a specially created hole in the cathedral floor above Nelson’s tomb and then moved into the sarcophagus.

Other memorials – not all of which commemorate people actually buried here – include one to the architect, Sir Christopher Wren, which features the words, written in Latin, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you’.

There’s also memorials to everyone from artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Blake to Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, Lawrence of Arabia and, more recently, one for Gordon Hamilton Fairley, killed by a terrorist bomb in 1975. There’s even a bust of the first US President, George Washington.

The crypt also contains a number of war memorials and is the location of the OBE Chapel, dedicated at a service attended by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960, honouring those who have given distinguished service to the nation.

Other features of the crypt include the Treasury where more than 200 items are on display including some of the cathedral’s plate and vestments (much of which has been lost over the years including when a major robbery took place in 1810), liturgical plate from other churches in the diocese and some Wren memorabilia including his penknife, measuring rod and death mask.

The crypt is also home to the cathedral’s gift shop and cafe where you can stop for a refreshment before heading back out into the streets above.

WHERE: The Crypt, St Paul’s Cathedral, City of London (nearest Tube stations are St Paul’s and Mansion House); WHEN: 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Saturday; COST: £18 adults (18+)/£8 children (aged 6 to 17)/£16 concessions/£44 family ticket; WEBSITE: www.stpauls.co.uk.

PICTURE: Admiral Lord Nelson’s tomb (Marcus Holland-Moritz/ licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.o)