The Abbey Treasures
Westminster Abbey, SW1
The most haunting and human portraits of some of Britain's best known Kings and Queens are not to be found in an art gallery, but behind an ancient oak door set into the wall of the East Cloister in Westminster Abbey.
There, in the Norman Undercroft, stand waxen images of Elizabeth I, Charles II, Queen Anne and William and Mary that are not only life-sized but true to life.
For these are no ordinary waxworks; they are effigies either modelled while the monarchs were still alive or very shortly after death. And as such, they represent the most faithful likeness to these people that it's possible to find.
But the physical resemblance does not stop there. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that the models still appear as they did originally, dressed in the type of clothes they were known to wear by the people who attended them every day.
This curious collection, now part of Westminster Abbey Museum, is what remains of what was once a large exhibition of funeral effigies. They were made for every monarch from the time of Henry V until around 1700 and were carried on top of their coffins as they made their last journey through the streets of London.
The figures, which were usually displayed in the Abbey as a memorial until the sovereign's tomb was complete, were kept by the minor cannons as a kind of side show. For a fee, the inquisitive could view the 'Ragged Regiment' or 'Play of Dead Folks', as it was known, and this provided the monks with a much-needed income. So popular was this entertainment that commemorative effigies of monarchs pre-dating Henry V were added to the collection.
Royalty were not the only ones to be represented here, though. Famous figures who could afford the conceit of a funeral effigy also had them made. One of the most interesting to survive the centuries is that of Frances, Duchess of Richmond. The Duchess, whose looks earned her the title 'La Belle Stuart', is believed to have posed as Britannia when Charles II decided to reintroduce the image on coins of the realm. Britannia is still the seal of the The Bank of England and she appears on every one of its notes.
* Click here for in-depth historical detail
The Westminster Abbey museum is open daily from 9.30 a.m - 5 p.m between April 1 & September 30; 10.am - 5 pm October 1 to 31 and 10am - 4pm November 1 to March 31. Entrance charge includes tickets to view the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber.
Current Charges are : Adult £5; Student/UK OAP: £3; Children (11-16): £2; Children under 11 free if accompanied by and adult. Family ( 2 adults, 2 children) £10.00
Westminster & St. James's Park (District & Circle Lines)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.