Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Chaucer's Tomb: The Politics of Reburial

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Chaucer's Tomb: The Politics of Reburial

Article excerpt

The place where someone is buried may or may not be important, but the place where someone is reburied is always important, not of course in this latter case to the person reburied, but to the reburier. The movement of someone's remains constitutes a significant political statement, or is a form of propaganda, or a way of shaping public opinion; the disinterment and abuse of a corpse is a similarly significant political act. In the case of the movement of a saint's or saintly person's remains, reburiai sanctifies a new site and makes it a worthy place of pilgrimage: the body, or the body-part, is the star attraction. Where a number of appropriate sites are available, or are competing for attention, a body of course can be divided up and bits sent to different places - the heart here, the head there, other vital organs elsewhere, though there are fortunately limits, even in the Middle Ages, to what can be done in this direction.

The example of two famous royal reburials will demonstrate the general point I am making, and the great significance attached to such symbolic acts.' After his murder at Berkeley Castle in 1327, the body of Edward II was exposed to view to show that he had died of natural causes (he is actually reputed to have died, as we are always being gruesomely reminded in the modern theatre, of very unnatural causes) and then buried in the abbey church at Gloucester, what is now Gloucester Cathedral. There the body lay until Edward III, soon after 1330, had it reburied in a splendid canopied tomb, decorated in the latest fashion by London court sculptors, and in after years transformed the east end of the abbey church, where his father's body lay, into the great early glory of perpendicular architecture. All this was to demonstrate not only that his father was well and truly dead (often an important motive with these royal reburials), but that he had a proper filial respect for him as a father and as a former king of England (through whom, it must be remembered, he claimed his own right to the throne). The unfortunate events surrounding his father's demise were somehow all someone else's fault.

Somewhat later, in 1400, another deposed king, Richard II, was murdered. His body was brought from Pontefract Castle to be displayed in London and thence taken to King's Langley in Hertfordshire, one of Edward Ill's royal palaces, where it lay in decent obscurity throughout the reign of Henry IV. On 15 April 1413, three weeks after his accession to the throne, Henry V visited Langley and arranged for the transfer of Richard's body to Westminster Abbey, where it was brought in December to fill at last the magnificent empty tomb that Richard had had constructed beside that of his beloved queen, Anne. It has often been suggested that Henry was performing a kind of act of expiation for his father's sin in usurping the throne or in conniving at the murder of Archbishop Scrope of York, but this seems to me mistaken. Such an act of expiation would undermine Henry's own title to the throne and would nearly constitute an apology, even though on someone else's behalf - and one of the things Henry learned early about royal policy was that apologizing was not part of it. The reburial was, as Hoccleve conveniently explains in a poem on the subject, a noble and kingly act of piety by a benign and loving Christian king.2 It was also, of course, though Hoccleve does not mention this, a way of putting paid to the persistent rumours that Richard was still alive, somewhere in the north or in Scotland, and was about to lead an army to remove the Lancastrian usurper; Richard was now both dead and monumentally buried.

Chaucer was also buried in Westminster Abbey, as we first hear from Caxton, and the circumstances of his interment there are not without their own interest and importance. His remains were not revisited quite as promptly as those of Edward and Richard, but it is my contention in this paper that they were eventually translated in a manner just as significant in its own way. …

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