prince harry

Prince Harry

No, this is not an article about Prince Harry, although that English Royal has many hearts skipping a beat. And this is not an article about a once heinous royal choice of execution wherein a suspect would have heavier and heavier weight put upon him for several days until he was finally crushed to death (thereby saving his estate for his children). No, this is an article about a strange crushing involving Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of England.

While visiting Westminster Abbey it is impossible to miss the massive gravesite of Queen Elizabeth the First. Upon closer inspection you discover that this tomb is erected directly above the remains of her half sister, Queen Mary. It is not unusual in Westminster to find relatives sharing a sepulcher but knowing the history of these two, the placement is rather ironic.

Elizabeth tomb

Queen Elizabeth’s tomb

Their father, the infamous Henry VIII, had an extremely dysfunctional family life. His many wives were divorced, beheaded, or died in childbirth. So it should not be surprising that his children grew up with animosity for one another. As if their familial relations were not problem enough, religion also divided these two half sisters.

Queen Mary was the daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a devout Catholic. In order to divorce Catherine, Henry separated from the Catholic Church and established The Church of England. Elizabeth was then born to Henry’s next wife, Anne Boleyn.  Elizabeth was raised in the Protestant Church of England. This set the stage for a historic sibling rivalry. (It should be noted that while Mary’s mother was exiled, Elizabeth’s mother was executed by beheading.  Both girls were at one time declared illegitimate.)

When Mary became queen in 1553 she restored Roman Catholicism as the religion of the land. When a Protestant rebellion against Mary failed, Mary suspected her sister Elizabeth instigated the rebellion and had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower of London. During Mary’s reign at least 290 people were burned at the stake as heretics (chronicled in Fox’s Book of Martyrs). Under Mary’s reign, Westminster Abbey was restored as a Benedictine monastery.  The Abbey was Mary’s last resting place.

effigy QE1

Life sized likeness of Elizabeth at the shared tomb

In 1559, upon Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, England became a Protestant country once more. Parliament restored Westminster Abbey to the Crown, and Elizabeth had the monks removed. Elizabeth reigned for forty-four years.  Upon her death, Elizabeth’s remains were temporarily placed at Westminster in the vault of her grandfather, King Henry VII.

Queen Elizabeth’s remains were eventually placed on top of her sister Mary’s when the monument which now exists was built by her successor, King James the First. A large effigy of Elizabeth is part of the monument. No likeness of Mary is seen. A lengthy Latin inscription extols the many virtues of Elizabeth’s reign and character. Nothing is written about Mary.

However, an optimistic hope was etched on the base of the shared grave.  The engraving reads, “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of the Resurrection”.


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