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The Westminster Effigies

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The story of the effigies in Westminster Abbey goes back some six hundred years to the days when a "lively image" of the dead person was first carried in his funeral procession. Before the fourteenth century, whenever a sovereign or some great lord died, his actual embalmed body was dressed in magnificent robes and carried to the grave on an open bier. But as years went on the inconvenience of such a practice became more and more obvious, and from the time of Edward II's death it became the custom for the king's body to be laid in a coffin, and its place in the procession to be taken by a "personage lyke to the symilitude of the Kinge, in habit Royall crowned with a crown of his heed, with a sceptre in one hand and a ball of sylver and gylt in the other." After the funeral this image was set up in the Abbey on a "herse," a wooden platform draped in black hangings and covered with a canopy, and there it remained over the grave, sometimes for months, sometimes for years, until a stone tomb eventually took its place.

The earliest funeral effigies were made either of wood, or boiled leather moulded into shape, and some were given hands and faces of plaster. But later on, although the actual figure was still founded on a rough wooden block, the hands and face were skilfully modelled in wax and painted to the life, and from that time the effigies took on fresh importance as authentic royal portraits. Dressed as they were in sumptuous clothes, their gold-embroidered robes and glistening regalia set off by the black hangings of their hearses, these royal effigies were among the most popular and picturesque attractions of the Abbey. Almost up till the reign of Queen Victoria crowds flocked from all parts of London to gaze in open-mouthed wonder at "The Play of Dead Volks" as they were called, and to drop their twopences into the cap of General Monk, which was handed round by the guide and is still shown to the inquiring sightseer of to-day.

Of the eleven effigies which are now to be seen in the Upper Chapel of Abbot Islip, the first in interest is that of Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately the original effigy which was carried at her funeral fell to pieces during the century after her death, and the one shown in the Abbey to-day is only a restoration of it, made in 1760. But since the face of the present figure is a careful copy of the original one, which was almost certainly modelled from a death-mask, it may be considered as a true portrait of the queen. It is a weird face, still handsome in spite of its seventy years, and the powerful beak-like nose, the determined lines of mouth and chin, and the haughty poise of the head, framed in its lace ruff, give one a vivid idea of her strong and dominating personality. The more feminine side of her character is revealed in hei clothes, which betray the vanity of the woman with a thousand dresses. Her rich velvet dress is embroidered with gold and supported on panniers, her pointed high-heeled shoes are trimmed with gay rosettes, and jewels in bewildering profusion deck her long stomacher and gleam in the crown which hides her hair.

After Queen Elizabeth come the four effigies of the Stuart sovereigns, Charles II, William and Mary, and Anne, which are of particular interest not only as portraits, but because they represent the only memorials to these sovereigns in the Abbey. It must be remembered, however, that they were not carried in the royal funeral processions. Charles II, in fact, was not given a funeral procession at all, for, owing to the disturbed state of the kingdom, "he was very obscurely buried at night without any manner of pomp." The last king whose effigy was carried at his funeral was James I. After him the custom began slowly to die out, though continued for a time by dukes and duchesses, and the funeral effigies of the later Stuarts were made not to be carried in procession, but to mark the spot in Henry VI Fs Chapel beneath which was the vault where their bodies lay buried. Here they stood for many years, fragile images of kings and queens un-remembered in stone, until they were finally removed to Abbot Islip's Chapel during the nineteenth century.

These four effigies are striking contrasts. First comes Charles II, the oldest contemporary effigy in the collection, dressed in the robes of the Order of the Garter, with a lace collar and ruffles. On his head is a black velvet hat with a huge feather in it, his long hair falls over his shoulders, and on his cynical upper lip he wears a small moustache.

Very different is the tall and dignified figure of his niece Queen Mary, who stands in a press beside her husband, William III. Mary died of smallpox at the early age of thirty-two, and her effigy stood for many years upon an elaborate hearse designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the last of the traditional funeral hearses made for an English sovereign. She and her husband are both dressed in their coronation robes, trimmed with ermine and real lace, and as joint sovereigns they each hold a sceptre and an orb, the crown being set between them on a pedestal. William wears the full-bottomed wig of the period, and being somewhat touchy about the queen's height - she was only a little short of six feet - he is perched on a footstool to make the difference between them less noticeable.

There is a strong family likeness between Queen Mary and her sister Anne, the last sovereign of whom a waxen effigy was made Queen Anne, however is shorter and fatter, and her good-natured face has rather a pathetic expression, as though she were still sorrowing for the loss of all her children in their infancy. Like her sister, she is dressed in a rich brocaded robe. Both orb and sceptre are in her hands, and on her head is a crown, from which her long, brown ringlets fall upon her shoulders.

Next in interest to the royal effigies are those of two famous duchesses, one renowned for beauty, the other for pride of birth, and both inordinately vain. The first is Frances Teresa, Duchess of Richmond, known as La Belle Stuart, who died in 1702. So famous was her beauty in the days of Charles II that she was chosen as a model for Britannia on the coins, and to make doubly sure that the memory of her charms was perpetuated, she left minute directions in her will about her effigy. This was set up, in fulfilment of her last wishes, under clear crown glass, and placed over her grave in Henry VII's Chapel, "as well done in wax as can bee," dressed in the robes and coronet which she had worn only a few months before at Queen Anne's Coronation. By her side is her favourite parrot, grown grey with age, or can it be dust t At any rate, it is said to have been Her Grace's faithful companion for forty years and, as a final proof of his devotion, to have died only a few days after she did.

Catherine, Duchess of Buckinghamshire, lavished even greater care on the arrangements for her own funeral. This historic event took place in 1743, and in preparation for it she even went so far as to inspect the canopy over the hearse, and to quarrel with Pope about her epitaph. She was the widow of John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire and, what was far more important in her eyes, an illegitimate daughter of James II, and so inordinately proud of her royal descent that she made her ladies promise not to sit down in her room after she was dead. She stands in a press, dressed in the magnificent robes she wore at George II's coronation, and beside her is the pathetic little figure of her son, the Marquis of Normanby, who died when he was three years old. The effigy of her last surviving son, Edmund, which was long kept in Edward the Confessor's Chapel, is perhaps the most beautiful in the collection. Edmund succeeded his father as Duke of Buckinghamshire, and when he died in 1735 his mother tried to borrow the funeral car on which the great Duke of Marlborough had been carried to the grave. Her request, however, was haughtily refused by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Whereupon the sorrowing mother retorted that she had consulted the undertaker, and that he had promised her a far liner car for 20 pounds. Unlike the others, the effigy of the young duke is a recumbent one and shows him lying upon a bier dressed in his ducal robes and coronet.

The two remaining waxen figures were added after the custom of making them for funerals had died out, and though they stand among the rest, they are not really funeral effigies at all. Medieval ritualism had at last yielded to the new commercialism, and when the effigy of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, was set up after his death in 1778, it was not to mark his grave in the Abbey, but to add a fresh attraction to the waxworks. So well did the plan succeed, and so great was the popular enthusiasm over Lord Chatham, that the authorities of the Abbey were able to raise the fee for seeing the exhibition from threepence to sixpence. The effigy is certainly striking and realistic.

The success attending the Chatham effigy was partly responsible for the making of Lord Nelson's effigy in 1805. The burial of the Hero of Trafalgar in St. Paul's Cathedral sent thousands upon a pilgrimage to his grave, and to their dismay the officials of the Abbey saw their usual crowd of sightseers visibly dwindling. They therefore hit upon the disgraceful plan of setting up an effigy of Lord Nelson as a counter-attraction to his grave, and to make it as realistic as possible they had it dressed, except for his coat, in the uniform and hat which Lord Nelson had actually worn, with the empty coat-sleeve pinned to his breast and a slight film over his blind eye. The ruse was successful. The throng of sightseers surged back once more to the Abbey, to gaze with eager curiosity upon the wonderfully life-like effigy of their national hero, one of the finest in the collection.

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Pictures for The Westminster Effigies

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