Another astonishing document that reached me the same year was an account by the Abbey’s Dean, one Dean Stanley, of his search for the tomb of King James i. It transpired that the records of the burial place of the King were numerous and contradictory and so, after receiving Royal Assent, Dean Stanley commissioned the search in 1869.
A year later, Stanley took advantage of existing excavations in the process of laying ‘warming apparatus’ in the Chapel of Henry vii. His exploration there led to the discovery of several known Royal coffins with their Latin inscriptions on the coffin plates, for example: ‘Depositum, Augustissimi et Serenissimi Principis Carolis Secondi, Angliae, Scotiae, Franciae et Hiberniae Regis, Fidei Defonsoris ….’ etc.
By deduction, it might have been assumed that King James would wish to be buried with his Mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and so her vault was opened. On descending an ‘ample flight of steps under the Queen of Scots’ tomb a large vault appeared … with a startling, it may almost be said, an awful scene presented itself. A vast pile of leaden coffins … confusedly heaped upon the others.’ These were the children and infants of various members of the family and was the first of several surprises.
Other vaults were explored, but in order to avoid extending this account I’ll leave them unreported and move on.
However, another suggestion as to King James’s actual burial place was that he may have wished to be with his daughters at the east end of the tomb of Queen Elizabeth. The record states, ‘The excavation almost laid bare the wall into Elizabeth’s vault and through a small aperture below her tomb two coffins were visible’ – those of Elizabeth and her half sister, Mary i. ‘There was no disorder or decay … the wood case had crumbled away but visible was the Tudor Badge, a full double rose and on each side the initials E.R. and below, the memorial date 1603.’
Several other vaults were examined and after an almost ‘last resort’ reaction, it was decided to explore the vault of Henry vii at the east end of the church. Through an aperture the vault was entered and the quest was complete. Three coffins were observed, from right to left, Henry vii, his Queen Elizabeth of York, and on her left, King James i with the unambiguous copper coffin plate which read ‘Depositum, Augustissimi Principis Jacobus Primus …’ etc.
Quite dramatically, the wooden coffin had completely disintegrated and the inner leaden coffins, softened with age, had collapsed around the royal corpses, encasing their shapes.
Interior of Henry vii’s vault depicting the three corpses.