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England - Royalty In Wax

( Originally Published 1910 )

EXCEEDINGLY few of the innumerable thousands who visit Westminster Abbey every year are aware that the venerable roof of that building shelters a wholly unique collection of wax figures. No doubt the discovery that such is the case will be somewhat distressing to those who think of the structure as " a temple marked with the hand of antiquity, solemn as religious awe." Waxworks have so little in common with the associations that cluster around a building of so many exalted memories.

Yet that feeling of incongruity may be a modern growth. Partly, perhaps, it is due to Dickens, and partly to another cause. That the idea of wax effigies appeals to the risible faculties is no doubt owing somewhat to the creation of Mrs. Jarley, the loquacious owner of that exhibition which was " the delight of the nobility and gentry, and the peculiar pet of the royal family." But there is a still earlier cause, from which Dickens is likely to have derived his inspiration. More than a century has gone by since Madame Tussaud, who had learned modelling in Paris and suffered imprisonment under the Revolution, settled in London and established her world-renowned collection of waxworks. For so many years, then, has the exhibition of wax figures been regarded from the standpoint of money making and amusement, that the bare suggestion of the existence of similar effigies in Westminster Abbey may savour of sacrilege.

Such is the case nevertheless. And in the late seventeenth century the waxworks of the Abbey were held in higher repute than the most eloquent pulpit orator. A pertinent proof of that fact is recorded by Dr. Pope in his " Life of Seth Ward " in the following passage : " An-other time Dr. Barrow preached at the Abbey on a holiday. Here I must inform the reader that it is a custom for the servants of the church upon all holidays, Sundays excepted, betwixt the sermon and evening prayers, to show the Tombs and Effigies of the Kings and Queens in Wax, to the meaner sort of people, who then flock thither from all the corners of the town, and pay their twopence to see ` The Play of the Dead Volks,' as I have heard a Devonshire clown most improperly call it. These perceiving Dr. Barrow in the pulpit after the hour was past, and fearing to lose that time in hearing which they thought they could more profitably employ in receiving — these, I say, became impatient, and caused the organ to be struck up against him, and would not give over playing till they had blow'd him down."

How did these wax effigies gain entrance to the Abbey ? Well, briefly, most of them are relics of funerals. But there are several which owe their existence to the enterprise with which, once the idea was conceived, the Abbey officials carried on the waxworks business.

First, then, a word or two of explanation. In the distant centuries, no funeral of royalty or of any noble person was deemed complete unless the procession included a " herse." Naturally, the reader will remark, for how else would the body be carried to the grave ? But the " hearse " of the twentieth century and the " herse " of the seventeenth century have nothing in common. The former certainly is used to carry the coffin ; the latter was not. In the seventeenth century, and earlier and later, the coffin was carried to burial on a car ; the " herse " was used for quite a different purpose. Instead of being a vehicle of the type now in use under that name, the " herse " was a wooden platform or small stage, draped with black hangings, in the centre of which there reposed a waxen image of the person who was being carried to his grave. This " herse " usually occupied a place in the procession immediately in front of the car bearing the coffin and body.

What may have been the origin of this curious custom is not definitely known. Perhaps it owed its origin to the Roman occupation of Britain, for among the Romans it was the special privilege of a nobleman, and of no other, to have a waxen image of his person carried at his funeral. If the Romans followed this custom in Britain, it was a long time ere the natives copied it, for the practice does not seem to date further back than the fourteenth century in England.

After the " herse " and its waxen figure had been escorted in the funeral procession, its mission was by no means completed. It was carried into the Abbey itself, and, when the coffin had been buried, was placed over or by the side of the grave. In those olden days, funeral wreaths were not in vogue, but little tributes of affection, which sometimes took the form of poems, were pinned to the black hangings of the " herse," or attached with paste or wax. If no adverse fate overtook it, the wax effigy was usually allowed to remain for a month beside the grave of the person it depicted ; but this period was greatly exceeded in the case of royalty. Sometimes, however, the figure was so roughly handled that it had to be removed in a few days. This was the case with the effigy of the Earl of Essex, the Parliamentary general. On the night after his funeral, some Cavaliers broke into the Abbey, and, after defacing the head of the image, helped themselves to most of the garments in which it had been dressed. As a consequence, the remains, which were literally " remains," had to be gathered up and removed the following day.

From the time of Queen Elizabeth, it became customary, after the " herse " had remained beside the grave for some months, to remove the waxen figure and preserve that for a still longer period. In that practice will probably be found the origin of the unique exhibition which remains in the Abbey to this day but is so little known to most visitors. As the years went by, the officials realized that they had quite an interesting collection of figures on their hands, and the next step was to provide a suitable apartment in which to keep them, and for admission to which a fee could be exacted. Such an apartment was found in the oratory over Islip's Chapel, and in that chamber the effigies are still carefully preserved in glass-door cases.

Islip's Chapel is well worthy the attention of the visitor for its own sake. It is situated to the left of the usual entrance at Solomon's Porch, at the beginning of the north ambulatory. Abbot Islip, the " great builder," laid the foundation stone of this exquisite little chapel in 1502, and thirty years later he was laid to rest within its walls. That long-dead churchman becomes almost a living figure under the loving touch of Dean Stanley's pen. " In the elaborate representation which has been preserved of his obsequies, we seem to be following to their end the funeral of the Middle Ages. We see him standing amidst the ` slips ' or branches of the bower of moral virtues, which, according to the fashion of the fifteenth century, indicated his name ; with the words, significant of his character, ` Seek peace and pursue it.' We see him, as he last appeared in state at the coronation of Henry VIII., assisting Wareham in the act, so fraught with consequences for all the future history of the English Church — amidst all the works of the Abbey, which he is carrying on with all the energy of his individual character and with the strange exorcisms of the age which was drawing to its close. We see him on his death-bed, in the old manor house of Neate surrounded by the priests and saints of the ancient church ; the Virgin standing at his feet, and imploring her Son's assistance to John Islip -'Islip, O Fili vencius, succurre Johanni ! ' the Abbot of Bury administering the last sacraments. We see his splendid hearse, amidst a forest of candles, filled with images, and surmounted by the crucifix with its attendant saints. We see him, as his effigy lay under the tomb in the little chapel which he built, like a king, for himself, recumbent in solitary state — the only Abbot who achieved that honour."

But another invisible presence also pervades this little chapel. When, nearly seventy years ago, the kindly generosity of America freely acceded to England's request for the remains of Major André, and the coffin of that heroic and ill-fated soldier was taken up from its resting-place by the banks of the Hudson and removed to England, it was deposited first in Islip's Chapel, still covered with the garlands and flowers of transatlantic forgiveness. The chest, too, in which the remains were enclosed, is preserved in the Abbey to this day, and may be seen in a corner of the oratory upstairs keeping company with the effigies of royalty in wax.

Two centuries ago, a writer who described a " Walk Through London " gave the total of these wax images as half a score. " And so we went on," he wrote, " to see the ruins of majesty in the waxen figures placed there by authority. As soon as we had ascended half a score stone steps in a dirty cobweb hole, and in old worm-eaten presses, whose doors flew open at our approach, here stood Edward the Third, as they told us ; which was a broken piece of wax-work, a battered head, and a straw-stuffed body, not one quarter covered with rags ; his beautiful Queen stood by ; not in better repair ; and so to the number of half a score Kings and Queens, not near so good figures as the King of the Beggars make, and all the begging crew would be ashamed of the company. Their rear was brought up with good Queen Bess, with the remnants of an old dirty ruff, and nothing else to cover her."

Half a score is still the figure at which the effigies stand, but in the interval several which were to be seen two hundred years since have been replaced by more recent creations. Some years subsequent to the visit described above the officials of the Abbey appear to have realized that an " old dirty ruff " was a rather scanty wardrobe for a Queen, and the action they took to remedy matters resulted in the modelling and fully robing of the figure now in the collection. The face is thought to have been copied from the effigy on the Queen's tomb, and is no doubt a faithful likeness of the virgin monarch as she appeared in her old age.

So far as actual likeness is concerned, there can be no doubt about the authenticity of that of Charles II. This is the oldest of all the figures, and the face was undoubtedly modelled at the time of the monarch's death. For two hundred years the effigy is said to have stood above the grave of the King and was his only monument. If the " merry monarch " was speedily forgotten by his own contemporaries, he has certainly had his full share of attention since, for it will be observed that while the glass-door of Queen Elizabeth's cupboard does not bear a single inscription, that which protects the effigy of Charles is scored with countless signatures. The figure is richly garbed in the blue and red velvet robes of the Order of the Garter, and, by reason of its faithful likeness to a King who is interesting alike in his weakness and strength, it must always prove the chief attraction in this unique collection.

One visitor to this little exhibition, and he a dweller in New York, seems to have fallen in love with the effigy of Queen Mary, the wife of William of Orange. And who can blame him ? In her character she was undoubtedly one of the most amiable of English Queens, sweet in temper and of unbounded generosity ; and in her person she was fully as majestic and hand-some as she appears in her waxen counterpart. Her funeral is said to have been the " saddest and most august " ever seen in Westminster Abbey, and while Macaulay tells how the black plumes of the funeral car were relieved with flakes of snow, we learn from another source that a robin redbreast was constantly seen perched on her herse in the Abbey. The face of the Queen was modelled from a cast taken after her death. Close by, but in a much darker corner, is the richly dressed effigy of Queen Anne, that obstinate but sorely-tried sovereign of whom the record stands that " sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her."

In the centre of this tiny chamber lies the recumbent figure of the last Duke of Buckingham, who, dying in Rome at the age of nineteen, was brought back to the Abbey for interment.

This youth, who had for his mother Catherine, the natural daughter of James II., and for his father John Sheffield, who wrote the name of Buckingham in English literature, was epitaphed by Pope in these lines : " If modest youth, with cool reflection crown'd,
And ev'ry op'ning virtue blooming round,
Could save a parent's justest pride from fate,
Or add one patriot to a sinking state;
This weeping marble had not ask'd thy tear,
Or sadly told, how many hopes lie here !
The living virtue now had shone approv'd,
The senate heard him, and his country lov'd.
Yet softer honours, and less noisy fame
Attend the shade of gentle Buckingham :
In whom a race, for courage fam'd and art,
Ends in the milder merit of the heart;
And chiefs or sages long to Britain giv'n,
Pays the last tribute of a saint to heav'n.

Buckingham's effigy was the last to be actually carried in a funeral procession, and the ceremonies of that occasion gave rise to a delightful exhibition of feminine sarcasm. on the part of the young duke's mother. Anxious that the obsequies of her son should be conducted with the maximum of outward embellishment, she asked the Duchess of Marlborough for the use of the funeral car which had borne the remains of her famous husband to his grave. " It carried my Lord Marlborough," rejoined the haughty duchess, " and shall never be profaned by any other corpse." To which the equally high-spirited Catherine retorted, " I have consulted the undertaker, and he tells me that I may have a finer one for twenty pounds."

That Nelson has a place among these effigies is due to the unseemly wrangle which took place over his body. The officials of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey were keenly alive to the monetary importance of the great admiral's remains ; they knew that wherever they were buried thither the crowds would congregate, and the greater the crowd the richer the harvest of admission fees. When St. Paul's won the day, and the hero was buried within its precincts, the expected happened. That is, Westminster Abbey, for all its waxen images and other attractions, was deserted by the crowd, and the minor canons realized that they must devise some novelty if they did not wish their salaries to dwindle to the vanishing point. At this crisis, order was given for the modelling of an effigy of Nelson, which was copied by the artist from a statue for which the admiral had given sittings. To add to the allurement of the figure, great pains were taken to secure for it such garments as had actually been worn by the hero of Trafalgar, with such success that all the clothes on the effigy, with the exception of the coat, had really clothed the living body of Nelson. The poorly-paid canons of the Abbey reaped the reward they desired, for the crowds, by their speedy return to Westminster, showed that a life-like image of their dead hero was much more to their taste than the sombre tomb which was all St. Paul's could show.

Time was when the fee for admission to this unique exhibition was collected in an old cap, said to have belonged to General Monk. That receptacle was thrust under the nose of Oliver Goldsmith, who, however, only asked, " Pray, friend, what might this cap have cost originally ?" But the guide was not to be baulked of his prey. " That, sir, I don't know ; but this cap is all the wages I have for my trouble." Though the cap has disappeared, a charge of sixpence for admission is still enforced ; but who can pretend that sixpence is an exorbitant sum for a realistic interview with good Queen Bess, the patron of Nell Gwynn, and the victor of Trafalgar, to say nothing of their companions ?

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