Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tomb raider

Did you know that Nelson is buried in Cardinal Wolsey's tomb? Despite Wolf Hall-inspired Tudor documentaries being all over the telly like a rash and me having visited St Paul's Cathedral within the last year or so, I'd managed to remain ignorant of this strange piece of trivia until it cropped up on a radio quiz show the other day.

Apparently, after Wolsey's fall from favour and death, the notoriously grabby Henry VIII took a fancy to the unfinished black stone* sarcophagus intended for the prelate's body and decided that he'd be like to buried in it himself, when his time came.

Not content with the base and bronze angels originally designed for Wolsey, Henry planned to pimp his ride to the Pearly Gates by modding his filched resting place with such kingly bling as bronze candlesticks, marble pillars and statues of himself, but his grand design was still unfinished when he died, so he ended up being buried beneath an engraved slab in  in Windsor Castle's St George's Chapel, next to Jane Seymour.

The plan was still to transfer the royal remains to Henry's dream tomb once it was finished but, somehow, nobody ever quite got round to finishing it.

During the Civil War, with the unfinished monument still in bits, the metalwork was sold off by Parliamentary forces to raise funds for garrisoning Windsor. The black sarcophagus stayed at Windsor until somebody had the bright idea of moving it to St Paul's, as a fitting resting place for the nation's greatest naval hero.

So it was that in 1806, two and three quarter centuries after Wolsey's death, in a cathedral that itself postdates his demise by more than a century and a half, His Eminence's tomb became the final resting place, not of a prince of the Church, but of a brandy-pickled, one-armed sailor and was finally topped off with a viscount's coronet in place of a cardinal's biretta.

Mostly just an unexpected historical curiosity, but it's also a small reminder that that messy, contingent history, like evolution, isn't the straightforward working out of a purposeful teleological narrative and that current use doesn't necessarily explain historical origin.

*Some sources say the sarcophagus is black marble, although I'm not entirely sure that real marble comes in black (I do know that other black rocks are colloquially called black marble). Others say it's made out of touchstone.