Today (March 20) in London History – the Jerusalem Chamber

Back to 1413 we go. The death of King Henry IV. This podcast tells the tale.


It’s a matter of hours now. The ballot for the 2022 Tourism Superstar Award closes at midnight on March 22nd. So, yes, once more unto the breach dear friends, please vote for the London Walks team. Please have one more go at it – help us rustle up a few more votes if you can. The electorate need to go to – there, prominently displayed right at the top of the homepage is a link that will take one and all to the polling station. Wait a second or two for the blue ballot to come up, put a tick in the circle by our name: London Walks Guide team and hit the Vote Now button. And just like that you’ve got us a vote closer to the Winner’s Circle. Many thanks indeed.

Ok, shall we get the show on the road. Today in London. Easy enough, this one. Sign yourself up for the Westminster Abbey Tour. The not-to-be-missed old building where sleep the great of Britain’s history. With a not-to-be-missed London Walks guide. Tom, the barrister, for example, Or award-winning Mary (she won the guiding equivalent of baseball’s Triple Crown). Or Black Belt and star guide Brian. Well, you get the idea. It’s an all-star team. And whatever you do be sure to budget enough time – and budget the fiver – to go up into the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries up in the rafters. You’ll be glad you did. Not just glad for the rest of the day or the rest of the trip. Glad for the rest of your life. 

Moving on. Today in London History.

Why see it with a guide? Because you see so much more, that’s why.

Here’s an example. 

You’re outside the great west front of Westminster Abbey. What do you see? Well, you see the storied entrance of course. And if you know where to look, you might see the statue of Martin Luther King. And the one of Archbishop Romero, murdered in his cathedral by those fascist thugs in San Salvador. You’ll see the bookshop of course. You’ll see – but not see well – the Crimea and Indian Mutiny Memorial. Almost certainly miss the four monarchs just above the column’s capital. Similarly, the Sanctuary’s architectural niceties won’t come into focus. That extraordinary building will just be a blur. The big one, though, is the Jerusalem Chamber. The guide sees it, you won’t. Well, you won’t until the guide takes over the controls, directs your gaze, tells. you what you’re looking at and why it’s important. 

It’s why we’re there today – March 20th. Today’s the anniversary of the death of King Henry IV. March 20th, 1413. 

But let’s see it properly, let’s see it with a guide.

I say to them something like, “ok, look at the Abbey bookstore. Now look at that old wall behind it. That’s the west wall of the Jerusalem Chamber. That’s where Henry IV. In front of the great fireplace in that room. He’d been praying at St Edward’s shrine in the Abbey. And while we’re at it, there he is, there’s Edward the Confessor, do you see him? Turn and look up at Crimean War and Indian Mutiny memorial, that king up there looking down at us, looking down at the Abbey is Edward the Confessor.

Anyway, Henry IV had been praying at St Edward’s shrine. He was suddenly taken ill. It’s believed he suffered a stroke. He was carried into the Jerusalem Chamber and laid by the fire. When he came round he said, “where am I?” They said, “you’re in the Jerusalem Chamber you’re Majesty.’ Henry IV said, “in that case, I’m a dead man.”

Ok, I’m of course paraphrasing. But that was the gist of it. It had been prophesied that Henry would die in Jerusalem. And indeed he did die in Jerusalem – died there, in the Jerusalem Chamber. 

Three quick takeaways. 

First, The Jerusalem Chamber has been there for a fair share of this country’s illustrious dead.  It was, for example, the final waystation for the coffins of Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Addison and William Congreve before their funeral in the Abbey.

Second takeaway. Henry IV died in the Jerusalem Chamber in the Abbott’s house there at the Abbey – but he wasn’t buried in the Abbey. 

Henry had usurped the throne. Burial in the mausoleum of kings whose line of succession Henry had sundered would have eternally marked him out as the usurper.

Instead, Henry chose to ally himself in death – as he had done in life –with Thomas Beckett, that high-profile, political, sainted martyr and symbol of justice who, like Henry, had also been at odds with a monarch. Accordingly, Henry’s body was taken by water to Gravesend and then on Trinity Sunday – June 18th – he was laid to rest in Trinity Chapel near Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. 

Henry’s reign had begun with him

being anointed, at his coronation, with holy oil said to have been given to Thomas Beckett by the blessed Virgin. And now in death, eternally at close quarters with the saint – indeed he had a portrayal of Thomas Beckett’s martyrdom painted on his tomb – Henry would be forever linked with him. Henry’s ending Richard II’s tyranny and thereby bringing salvation to England would be cut from the same cloth 

as the life and death of that son of London and England’s first man for all seasons.

Final takeaway. 

A rumour got about that Henry’s body had been thrown into the Thames. Some four centuries later – in 1832 – his leaden coffin was opened in order to lay that rumour to rest once and for all. 

For an instant – and I’m quoting now – before the air took effect, the face of the deceased King was seen in complete preservation.”

It’s an astonishing thought – there were people in railway age – people in the era of photography and the electric telegraph and refrigeration and the first mechanical calculator – who looked upon the perfectly preserved face of a mediaeval king, a man who knew people for whom the greatest catastrophe in European history – the Black Death – was a living memory.

And on that note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow.

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