I believe it was the historian David Carpenter who suggested that the lion at the base of the tomb effigy of King John at Worcester Cathedral represents the people of England. The lion has grabbed King John’s sword and is biting and bending it. The lion is turning on the King of England. My previous post on King John looks at why he was an unpopular king
The effigy was commissioned by John’s son, Henry III in 1232. It is positioned in a sacred place – centred in front of the sanctuary steps facing what would have been the shrine of St. Wulfstan. The effigy is a curious representation of King John, the only monument of a monarch grasping an unsheathed sword. The chest tomb, upon which the effigy lies was placed there in the early-Tudor period.
King John’s armoured feet, complete with spurs seem to not just rest but push to resist the lion. The claws of the lion are large and talon-like, clasping hard onto the base to push back at the king’s sword. Notice also the holes in the marble – the fixings for an original canopy.
His sword’s pommel is clenched by his left hand. His right hand holds what appears to be a pommel of a dagger. The blade has broken off, probably through later damage. The sword is not in a scabbard and his left hand is holding it to resist the biting lion. It does not necessarily imply he was left-handed as a sword would be on the left side to be drawn by the right hand. It is, however, curious how he is holding his weaponry. Notice also the ring on his middle finger of his right hand. Whilst he is wearing a belt, it appears the sword is free from being fixed to a sword belt.
The effigy is full of niches where presumably precious or semi-precious stones were positioned. The effigy would have probably glinted with coloured stone in candlelight.
He is flanked by his favourite saints of St. Oswald and St. Wulfstan. They were Anglo-Saxon saints whose shrines were at Worcester. The saints both hold censers in an act of purifying the monarch. Their eyes are closed in prayer.
King John’s eyes are open, he is alert and there is tension in his neck.
His right forearm holds up the folds of his tunic.
FINAL DAYS AND BURIAL
King John died in 1216. He had contracted dysentery in King’s Lynn in September 1216. With Alexander II invading England from the north and rebellious barons allied with Prince Louis (later Louis VIII of France) in the south, it was an increasing tense situation for John. England was in the grips of a civil war.
From King’s Lynn he travelled across the Wash. According to the contemporary English chronicler, Roger of Wendover, the ill king was reported to be travelling with the treasury of England. The crossing of this tidal estuary was poorly judged. It is said a significant part of the treasury on pack horses was lost as they were sucked into whirlpools and quicksand. This treasury supposedly included the Crown Jewels.
King John died of his illness at Newark Castle on the 19th October 1216. There were rumours of him being poisoned. Chroniclers are interesting in what they put forward in Medieval England as facts. One condition that is written about is a ‘surfeit’. When a person is weak, they can die of a surfeit. Henry 1st of England had succumbed to of a surfeit of lampreys (an eel-like creature with a sucking mouth) and John was reported to have died of a surfeit of peaches.
John’s body was buried at Worcester in accordance with his will.
“I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester”.
His intestines were taken and buried at Croxden Abbey in Staffordshire. It was founded as a Cistercian abbey in 1179.
THE EFFIGY’S PATRON
It wasn’t King John who had commissioned the effigy for his tomb, it was his son Henry. He had been 9 when his father died, and the boy-king inherited an uneasy kingdom. In 1232 the Purbeck-Marble effigy was placed in Worcester.
Henry III became the first king to reign with limitations to his rule due to Magna Carta and his own unpopular decisions and appointments. He gave away too much power to his European relatives and focused on collecting taxes and debts rather than ruling a kingdom.
This, however, meant that revolution could run ahead of evolution. Henry was at times an anxious monarch and indecisive. This king wanted debate, expert witnesses and public forums before he made decisions. He was in an insecure position in Europe as his overlord was the Pope, unlike his French counterpart, King Louis IX. It was in Henry III’s time we get the development of Parliament.
King Henry’s 56-year rule saw England changed through conflict and adjustment. Henry’s reign also did see times of prosperity and peace. When he died in 1272 the kingdom was in good order for his son Edward I to inherit. In 1290 Edward I commissioned a grand tomb for his father’s body to be moved to in Westminster Abbey. In 1292 Henry’s heart was re-buried at Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley, alongside his mother, Isabella of Angouleme and his Angevin relatives – Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart.
Henry III’s time is a fascinating period for architectural and art history as he was an interesting patron. This tomb effigy raises questions as to how Henry was presenting his father to the people of England in 1232.
Bartlett, Robert, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000)
Given-Wilson, Chris, An Illustrated history of Late Medieval England (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 87
‘King John’, Worcester Cathedral, http://worcestercathedral.co.uk/King_John.php [accessed 19 November 2019]
Warren, W. L., King John (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997)