The Children of Westminster Abbey Part 2

David of Snowdon held out in the wilds of the mountains for a few months, and at last was arrested and sentenced to a traitor's death.

With Llewellyn's death Wales became and has remained ever since, part of the kingdom of England. English laws were established, and the barbarous Welsh laws abolished. The country was divided into shires and hundreds on the English model. Strong castles were built at Conway and Caernarvon; and at the latter in 1284, Queen Eleanor gave birth to "the Prince of Wales, who could not speak a word of English," as his father said when he presented the future Edward the Second to the Welsh chieftains. A tradition has existed that Edward completed the pacification of Wales by a ma.s.sacre of the Bards. In spite of that very familiar quotation from Gray's Ode,

Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!

one is thankful to know that modern historians have proved this terrible accusation to be a mere fable; besides it is a fact that from the time of Edward to that of Elizabeth, the productions of the bards were so numerous as to fill more than sixty volumes in quarto.

Meantime the Abbey had been yearly growing in beauty. Edward the First added to his father's building. On his return from the crusades he brought from France the slabs of porphyry, the precious marbles, which still help to make his father's tomb one of the most gorgeous monuments in the Abbey. He filled the Confessor's Chapel with trophies of his wars--the dagger with which he was wounded at Acre--the Black Rood of St. Margaret and the Stone of Fate from Scotland. But these were all given in later years. What we have to do with were certain trophies of the Conquest of Wales.

While the king was still engaged in quieting down his new princ.i.p.ality, his eldest son Prince Alfonzo, named after his grandfather Alfonzo of Castile, came journeying back to London. He brought with him Llewellyn's golden crown, said by tradition to have belonged to King Arthur, also jewels and ornaments, and possibly the precious Crocis Gneyth (or Cross of St. Neot) which certainly was brought to the Abbey from Wales during Edward the First's reign.

The little lad who was twelve years old, came with these treasures to Westminster; and he offered up Llewellyn's crown and the jewels in the Confessor's Chapel, where "they were all applied to adorn the tomb of the blessed King Edward."[18] We can fancy the boy, dressed after the fashion of those days in chain armour from head to foot with a long flowing cloak, accompanied by a great train of knights and n.o.bles, wending his way up the solemn Abbey with his offerings, and gravely hanging up the crown in the Sanctuary of the English Kings.

There is indeed something to touch one's imagination in this act--the hand of the innocent boy putting the finishing stroke to the great struggle between the British and Anglo-Saxon races. Henceforth they were to be one. The proudest t.i.tle of the heir to the English throne was to be "Prince of Wales." The Plantagenets were to reign over Arthur's mysterious realm, till two hundred years later Arthur and Llewellyn's descendants, the Tudors, should sit on the throne of England.

But Alfonzo's short life was nearly at an end. Matthew of Westminster goes on to say: "This Alfonzo died this year, being about twelve years of age--dying on the nineteenth of August, on the day of St. Magnus the king, and his body was honorably buried in the Church of Westminster, near the tomb of St. Edward, where it is placed between his brothers and sisters, who were buried before him in the same place."

The exact spot where Alfonzo lies is uncertain. Bur Mr. Burges, writing in Sir Gilbert Scott's _Gleanings from Westminster Abbey_, makes a happy suggestion, which I like to think is a correct one. When all England was mourning for Henry the Fifth, a chantry where daily were said for the repose of his soul, was built over his tomb at the extreme east end of the Confessor's Chapel. The heavy stone step on which his tomb rests was laid upon, and nearly covered, a flat monumental slab in the mosaic pavement. The part of the slab which projects beyond the step is worn down by hard usage into a mere ma.s.s of gray stone. But Sir Gilbert Scott thought that if a bit of the superinc.u.mbent stone was raised, some portion of the more ancient monument might exist beneath. He therefore cut a square block out of the step, and underneath it, sure enough, found the remains of a fine Purbeck slab. It was inlaid with a bra.s.s cross, bra.s.s letters ran around the edge, and what heralds call "the field" was filled with gla.s.s mosaic. Four letters of the inscription remain on each side--most likely part of the words "_pries pur l'ame_."[19] This monument is generally said to commemorate the infant son of William de Valence. Mr. Burges however suggests that it is just as likely to be the tomb of Alfonzo; and as it would exactly correspond with the position in which Matthew of Westminster says he was buried, I think we may safely conclude that the young prince lies there.

Near by in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist there is a very beautiful monument to a little nephew and niece of Prince Alfonzo--Hugh and Mary de Bohun. They were children of his sister Elizabeth and of the powerful and resolute Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, who more than once opposed Edward the First in measures which he thought hurtful to the kingdom.

"This gentleman and his sister," as one of the Abbey historians calls the children, died about 1300; and their tomb stood at first in the Confessor's Chapel. It was removed from thence by Richard the Second to make room for his own monument, and placed in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, where it is half buried in the wall.

Young Alfonzo, the bearer of the trophies of the conquest, sleeps peacefully enough here at our feet, while we tell his part in the growth of England. But what memorial remains in the nineteenth century of the last hero of the Britons--the "Eagle of men"--the "Devastator of England." The Golden Crown that Alfonzo hung up disappeared from the Abbey at the Reformation, when sacrilegious robbers broke in and carried off the silver head from Henry the Fifth's monument, and many another treasure. At Builth a modern house is built over the "Lord of Snowdon's"

grave. While at the "Llewellyn Arms," a little inn close to the spot where he fell, some local artist has made a rough copy of the well-known picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps do duty on the signboard as a portrait of Llewellyn ap Gruffyd.


[15] Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots, is here. Keep the Pact.

[16] "Green's Short History of the English People," p. 155.

[17] Green, p. 162.

[18] "Matthew of Westminster."

[19] Gleanings. p. 138.



Just within the gate of St. Edmund's Chapel lies the figure of a young knight in full armor. His hands, in their jointed gloves, are folded in prayer. His head, with the front of his helmet open to show the face, is gracefully turned to one side. His feet are crossed against a lion--a creature full of life, who looks round watching his young lord's placid face.

Who is this fair young knight, deemed worthy of a place in what Dean Stanley loved to call "the half-royal chapel, full of kings' wives and brothers"?

He is Prince John of Eltham, son of Edward the Second, created Earl of Cornwall by his brother, Edward the Third, who lies in state on the other side of the ambulatory.

Prince John was born on Ascension Day, 1315, at Eltham in Kent, "where our English kings had sometime a seat." The second son of Edward the Second and his wicked wife Isabella of France, the poor baby came into the world in sorely troubled times. The year before his birth his weak and worthless father had been hopelessly defeated by the Scots under Robert Bruce at Bannockburn. And during the young prince's short life England was a prey to war without, intrigue and revolution within. The whole of Edward the Second's reign is a confused record of public and private strife. A horrible succession of famines laid waste the land. A fresh campaign against Scotland ended in a humiliating truce for thirteen years. The Queen, Prince John's mother, on pretence of concluding a treaty between her husband and her brother, King Charles the Fourth, carried off Prince Edward, a child twelve years of age, to France. There she was joined by her vile favorite Mortimer; and neither threats nor entreaties could persuade her to return until she landed at Orwell in 1326 with a great following of exiled n.o.bles, and proclaimed her son Edward "guardian of the realm." Deserted by all, her wretched husband was at last captured in Wales and carried to Kenilworth, where he was deposed by the Queen and Parliament in 1327. He died a few months later, murdered by Mortimer's orders at Berkeley Castle.

[Ill.u.s.tration: EFFIGY OF JOHN OF ELTHAM.]

His downfall was the sign for a new outbreak in Scotland. Bruce broke the thirteen years' truce; and the boy-king, Edward the Third, marched against him only to meet with fresh disaster. The tide of fortune however was turning. Isabella and her favorite were fast becoming odious to the nation; and in 1330 Edward, the future conqueror of Cressy, with his own hands arrested Mortimer at Nottingham, whence he was hurried to execution. The Queen-mother went into lifelong seclusion at Castle Rising in Norfolk; and the young king a.s.sumed the control of the affairs of the kingdom.

In 1328, the year after his brother Edward's accession to the crown, John of Eltham was created Earl of Cornwall in a parliament at Salisbury. The next year Edward journeyed to France to do homage for his lands there; and Prince John was made "Custos of the kingdom and King's Lieutenant while he went beyond the seas." It seems an extraordinary responsibility for a boy of fourteen. But those Plantagenets were a strong and precocious race. Edward the Third was only eighteen when he took the reins of government into his own hands in 1330--the year that his eldest son, the famous Black Prince, was born. And the Black Prince won his spurs in the glorious fight of Cressy when he was barely sixteen. So there was nothing very unusual in the young Earl of Cornwall administering the government of the kingdom during his brother's absence in France, and again later on while the king was in Scotland.


In 1333, when he was seventeen, proposals of marriage were made between John of Eltham and Joan daughter of Ralph the Count of Eu; and in the next year with Mary daughter of the Count of Blois: but both negotiations fell through. Perhaps Prince John, full of the fighting instinct of his race, preferred to follow his brother to Scotland, where a fresh war had broken out. In 1334 a third proposal of marriage was made between the Prince and Mary, daughter of Ferdinand, King of Spain.

The agreement was drawn up and all was settled. The wedding however was not to be. "For in the month following being in Scotland in St. John's Town (now Perth) he died in October, 1334, at his nineteenth year of age."

Prince John's body was brought from Scotland to Westminster, where he was solemnly interred in the Abbey. The funeral was one of extreme magnificence; the Westminster monks receiving as much as one hundred pounds for horses and armor offered as gifts at it. This practice of offering at funerals armor and horses which sometimes were afterwards redeemed for money, was by no means unusual in the Middle Ages. At Henry the Fifth's burial, his three chargers marched up the nave to the altar steps behind his funeral car. And every one who has been in the Abbey must remember how the saddle, the shield, and "the very casque that did affright the air at Agincourt--"[20] the helmet "which twice saved his life on that eventful day," and still shows the dents of the Duke of Alencon's ponderous sword--hang in the dusky light above his chantry.

King Edward seems to have been dissatisfied with the first place chosen for his young brother's tomb. There is a very interesting warrant written in curious old French among the archives of the Abbey, dated "Brussels, the twenty-third day of August, in the thirteenth year of our reign," while Edward was beseiging Tournay in 1340. In it he directs the abbot and monks to order and suffer, _"que le corps de nostre trescher frere Johan jadis Counte de Cornewaill peusse estre remuez et translatez du lieu ou il gist jusques a autre plus covenable place entre les Roials. Faisant toutesfoitz reserver et garder les places plus honourables illoeques pour le gisir et la sepulture de nous et de noz heirs, selonc ce que reson le voudra droitement demander."_[21]

St. Edmund's Chapel was therefore chosen as meeting all requirements. It lies on the south side of the Abbey, and is only separated from the Confessor's Shrine and the tombs of the kings by the ambulatory. Of all the tombs of that period in the Abbey, John of Eltham's is considered one of the most remarkable. He must have been the very pattern of a gallant young knight. His effigy of white alabaster impresses you at first with a sense of profound repose. Then when you look more closely you begin to see what a striking figure it is; and you picture to yourself the young Earl of Cornwall riding with his young brother, the king, at the head of their troops through the bleak north-country, over the wild wastes of the Border, up to fair Perth lying on the Tay, where the fishermen draw in nets full of silvery salmon, and the moors--covered with pink and brown heather and swarming with plump grouse--roll up to the mountains of the Highlands. We can see the very clothes he wore, for his effigy as a specimen of military costume is most interesting and valuable. He is clad in plate armor, and wears the _cyclas_, a curious garment cut much shorter in front than behind; "beneath it, the _gambeson_; then the coat of mail; and lastly the _haqueton_." The Prince's sword-handle, ornamented with lion's heads, is beautifully sculptured; and the shield has three splendid lions on it--the English royal arms--bordered with the French fleur-de-lis. Round his helmet is a coronet, which is remarkable as the first of the kind known. It is of the ducal form with greater and lesser trefoil leaves alternately, instead of the usual circlet.

The tomb is surrounded by small, finely executed alabaster statues representing mourning kings, queens, and relations of the dead prince.

Terribly broken though they now are--some are destroyed altogether, and all are headless--enough of them remain to show that they were sculptured with wonderful grace and spirit.


But the worst loss that the monument has sustained is in the exquisite Gothic canopy of carved stone which once surmounted it. It was highly colored and gilded, with an angel on a small spire crowning the centre.

In 1776 Elizabeth Percy, first d.u.c.h.ess of Northumberland, whose name will always be remembered as the patroness of literature to whom we owe the _Percy Reliques_, was buried in the family vault of the Percys in the Chapel of St. Nicholas. In spite of her repeated desire that the funeral should be "as private as her rank would permit" a vast crowd collected, so

that the officiating clergy and choir could scarcely make their way from the west door to the chapel. Just as the procession had pa.s.sed St. Edmund's Chapel, the whole of the screen, including the canopy of John of Eltham's tomb, came down with a crash, which brought with it the men and boys who had clambered to the top of it to see the spectacle, and severely wounded many of those below. The uproar and confusion put a stop to the ceremony for two hours. The body was left in the ruined Chapel, and the Dean did not return till after midnight, when the funeral was completed, but still amidst cries of murder, raised by such of the sufferers as had not been removed.[22]

The broken canopy was never restored. The Dean of that day seems to have thought it not worth while to take the trouble of mending it; and by his order it was swept away. The fragments, it is said, found their way to Strawberry Hill, Walpole's famous villa, where, at some time in the end of the last century, they were put up for sale, having been used as a chimney piece. Their subsequent fate I have not been able to ascertain.

It is difficult to believe that such an act of vandalism took place little more than a hundred years ago. The Deans of Westminster now are a very different race to the one who swept away John of Eltham's beautiful canopy. With the beginning of this century a spirit of love and veneration for Westminster Abbey seemed to revive. Dean Vincent appealed to Parliament and persuaded the nation to repair Henry the Seventh's chapel which was falling into decay. Under Dean Ireland free admission was given to the greater part of the Abbey. And Dean Buckland, the well-known geologist, carried on the good work by taking down some hideous screens which shut off the transepts from the choir. He was succeeded by Dean Trench, the present learned Archbishop of Dublin, who inaugurated the special services on Sunday evening in the nave--a grand movement in the right direction. And all this time public interest was growing more and more keen about the Abbey. New discoveries were being made by architects and antiquarians each year. But it was not until Dean Stanley succeeded the Archbishop of Dublin that the Abbey came quite to life. No one who has ever accompanied the late Dean in those memorable excursions which he delighted to make over the building can forget the enthusiasm with which his vivid descriptions inspired his listeners.

Whether he was talking to the Emperor of Brazil, or a score of poor factory lads from some northern town, the brilliancy and humor of his speech held them spellbound. To him Westminster owes among many other things that unrivalled volume of _Memorials_--from which I have so often had occasion to quote--the most perfect handbook to any cathedral that I know, save his yet more perfect _Memorials of Canterbury_, written when he was canon of that cathedral. Dean Stanley's memory which must always be present in the minds of those who have known him at Westminster, is specially bound up with my recollections of St. Edmund's Chapel; it was one of his most favorite spots in the Abbey, and John of Eltham's tomb one of those he most delighted to show to all his visitors. And this brings us back from nineteenth century deans to fourteenth century princes, and to the old tombs in whose histories we can find such inexhaustible mines of interest.

In 1340, two more young "royals" were buried beside John of Eltham in St. Edmund's Chapel. These were his nephew and niece who died quite young--William of Windsor and Blanche de la Tour--children of Edward the Third. The boy was born at Windsor, which was fast becoming a rival to Westminster as a royal residence; and little Blanche was born at the Tower of London. The effigies in white alabaster are very small, only about twenty inches long: but they are in full costume of the time. The boy wears the short close-fitting jerkin, with a wide jewelled belt round the hips, and a flowing cloak fastened with a jewelled clasp falls to his feet. The little girl has on a full long petticoat with a tightly fitting bodice, to the square neck of which her mantle is fastened by a cordon with a rose and two studs. The hideous m.u.f.fled chins of the last century had given place to a horned headdress (the horns are broken in little Blanche's effigy) and a close net of gold, each wide mesh, through which the hair shows, being fastened at the crossing with pearls or precious stones. Blanche's feet rest against a little lion: but her brother's have been broken off obliquely. The tomb altogether has been cruelly used, and no trace of the children's faces remain. Yet who can wonder, when we see the way in which John of Eltham's splendid monument has been mutilated.


When these two little children were laid to rest in the Abbey, their father was just beginning his great wars with France--the wars that lasted for a hundred years and only ended in Henry the Sixth's reign with England's final loss of her French possessions. And six years after, in 1346, Cressy was fought and won by their brother, the Black Prince. With the battle of Cressy, England entered upon a career of military glory, which, though for a time it proved fatal to her higher interests, gave her a life and energy she had never known before, and laid the foundation of the Englishman's dogged love of fighting that is not quite dead yet, if we may judge by the way British soldiers and sailors fought at El Teb.

At Cressy, too, Feudalism received its death blow, when the English churl struck down the French n.o.ble, and the despised yeoman "proved more than a match in sheer hard fighting for the knight." Though the n.o.bles rode into battle as of old at the head of their va.s.sals and retainers, the body of the army consisted no longer of baronial levies, but of stout Englishmen serving willingly for pay, and armed like Chaucer's Yeoman on the pilgrimage to Canterbury:--

A sheaf of peac.o.c.k arrows bright and keen Under his belt he bare full thriftily.

Well could he dress his tackle yeomanly: His arrows drooped not with feathers low, And in his hand he bare a mighty bow.

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