Henry Purcell, the eminent composer and organist, was buried in the north choir aisle at Westminster Abbey. He was probably born in Westminster in 1659, son of Henry and Elizabeth. His father was a leading musician in London, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and from 1661 was Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey.
Henry Purcell senior died on 11 August 1664 and was buried in the East Cloister (no marker remains) and his brother Thomas, also a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, was buried in the Cloisters on 2 August 1682. Elizabeth was buried in St Margaret’s Westminster on 26 August 1699. Katherine, sister of Henry junior, was baptised at the Abbey in 1662 and later married the Revd.William Sale.
Young Henry was admitted as a child of the Chapel Royal in 1677 and eventually became organist there. From 1678-80 he is recorded as being at Westminster School as a ‘Bishop’s boy’. John Blow, organist at the Abbey, recognised Henry’s talent and relinquished his post to the younger man in 1679. While organist here Purcell arranged or composed music for many State occasions, including the coronations of James II in 1685 and William and Mary in 1689 and also the funeral of Mary II. He married Frances Peters sometime before 1681. She was the daughter of John Baptist Peters, originally a Flemish immigrant. Several of their children were baptised at the Abbey: John Baptista 1682 (died the same year), Frances 1688, Edward 1689 (he later became organist at St Margaret’s Westminster), and Mary Peters 1693. Thomas, who was probably a son of theirs, was buried 1686 in the East Cloister and Harry or Henry was also buried there in 1687.
On 26 November 1695 Henry himself was buried in the north aisle of the choir. This was where the organ stood at this time and he is therefore often said to be buried “under the organ”. Dame Annabella Howard, a former pupil of Purcell’s, erected a memorial tablet for him, with an inscription in English and Latin. Translated it reads:
“Here lyes HENRY PURCELL, Esqr. who left this life and is gone to that blessed place [ie.Heaven] where only his harmony can be exceeded. Died 21 of November in the 37th year of his age, A.D. 1695”
Below is a coat of arms: “barry wavy of six, or and vert, on a bend sable three boars heads couped or” for Purcell, impaling “gules on a bend or between two escallops argent a Cornish chough between two cinquefoils of the field” for Peters.
The gravestone for Frances and Henry has been re-cut several times and is now inlaid with brass letters. The Latin inscription can be translated:
“Here rests Henry Purcell, Organist of this Collegiate Church. Died 21 November aged 37, A.D. 1695. Immortals, welcome an illustrious guest, your gain, our loss – yet would not earth reclaim the many-sided master of his art, the brief delight and glory of his age: great Purcell lives! his spirit haunts these aisles, while yet the neighbouring organ breathes its strains, and answering choirs worship God in song. Frances, wife of Henry Purcell, is buried near her husband 14 February 1706.”
Photographs of the gravestone and tablet can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
“Henry Purcell” by Robert King (1994)
“Henry Purcell. His life and times” Franklin Zimmerman (1967)
"Purcell Manuscripts. The principal musical sources" by Robert Shay and Robert Thompson, (2000)
Click on the images to enlarge