Henry was born at Winchester Castle on 1st October 1207, eldest son of King John and Isabella. He succeeded his father in 1216. His was one of the longest reigns in English history. It is to Henry that we owe the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey in the new Gothic style of architecture. In 1220 he had laid the foundation stone of the old Lady Chapel (later replaced by Henry VII's chapel) and he had a special devotion to St Edward the Confessor. He wanted to emulate the great churches then being built in France and to transfer Edward's body to a new shrine near which he himself could be buried. Demolition of Edward the Confessor's 11th century church began in 1245 and the king was recklessly extravagant in the money spent on the Abbey and its lavish decoration (the cost including the new Shrine was £45,000, about 15 million in today's money). The eastern section, including the intricate Cosmati pavement, and transepts of the Church as far as one bay of the nave west of the organ screen, dates from his reign. The bones of St Edward were translated to the new shrine in 1269 and the consecration of the Church took place on 13th October 1269. But building ceased when Henry died and it was completed at a much later date.
Marriage and children
Henry married Eleanor, daughter of Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence, in Canterbury cathedral on 4th January 1236 (she became a nun and died at Amesbury in 1291). They had five sons - Edward succeeded his father as Edward I, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster is also buried in the Abbey, as are Richard, John and Henry who all died young. Their three daughters were Margaret who married Alexander III of Scotland, Beatrice who married Jean de Dreux Earl of Richmond and Princess Katherine, who died young in 1257. Katherine was buried in a tomb with Cosmati work on the top which had been moved from its original site before 1600 and is now within an arched recess in the south ambulatory, without inscription. This also contains her three young brothers. (It also contains the remains of several young children of Edward I.)
He was hastily crowned king at Gloucester Abbey on 28th October 1216 due to the uncertain political situation at the time and then again with full ceremonial in Westminster Abbey on 17th May 1220. Eleanor was crowned on 20th January 1236.
Burial and tomb
Henry died at the Palace of Westminster on 16th November 1272. He had a magnificent funeral and his body was temporarily buried in the old grave of Edward the Confessor in front of the High Altar of the Abbey. He was the first monarch to be buried in a coffin (rather than the body being visible on a bier) with a wax effigy (this does not survive) used in the procession. Nineteen years later he was placed in the splendid tomb put up by his son Edward I to the north of the Shrine of St Edward, although his heart was delivered to the Abbey at Fontevrault in France as Henry had wished. Henry's large tomb is of Purbeck marble with slabs of purple and green antique porphyry set in the sides and inlaid with gilded "Cosmati" mosaic and coloured marble and glass. Much of this has been robbed but decoration still remains on the north side. The arched recesses on the chapel side may once have contained relics of saints.
High on the tomb lies the superb gilt bronze effigy, cast in one piece, made by London goldsmith William Torel. It is hollowed out at the back to reduce the weight. The metal plate on which the king lies, the pillows beneath his head and his shoes are decorated with the lions of England. The gabled canopy behind his head has gone as have the jewels from his crown and robe and the sceptres he held in his hands. The two lions at his feet have also disappeared.
When the effigy was removed from the plate it was seen that this has been cut to the shape of the figure and on the bare stone are etched figures of a queen and a nun praying before a larger uncompleted figure. There are also other scratchings of heads, a bird and a six pointed flower in a circle.
The Norman-French inscription remains around the edge. This can be translated as:
Here lies Henry formerly King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine, son of King John formerly King of England, to whom God grant mercy. Amen
The wooden tester or canopy of the tomb is 15th century and was once gilt and painted but the grille which protected the tomb has gone. On the lower edge of the tomb chest is the remains of a 16th century inscription, added by Abbot Feckenham, which can be translated
Henry the Third is the founder of this church 1273. War is sweet to those who have not experienced it
Tomb dimensions in metres: length 2.94. width 1.50. height 2.30. Length of effigy: 1.90 m.
The effigy was stored in the Chapter House crypt during the Great War and was evacuated to a country house during the 1939-45 war.
An early stained glass shield with his arms is now in St Edmund's chapel window and a 13th century carved shield remains in the choir aisle together with those of other benefactors to the building work (including the arms of Provence). The Chapter House contains tiles depicting the Royal arms.
The reign of Henry III by David Carpenter, 1996
Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets by Paul Binski, 1995
King Henry III and the Cosmati work at Westminster by D. Carpenter, in The Cloister and the World edited by J. Blair and B. Golding, 1996
On an examination of the tombs of Richard II and Henry III by A.P. Stanley in Archaeologia XLV, 1879
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
Calling the Tune? The involvement of Henry III in the design of the Abbey Church at Westminster by Christopher Wilson, JBAA vol.161, 2008
The royal bronze tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey by H. Plenderleith and H. Maryon, Antiquaries Journal XXXIX, 1959 (describing the casting of the effigy during cleaning after the last war).
A Genealogical History of the Kings of England.... by Francis Sandford 1677 (his engraving shows the two lions at the feet and gablet behind the head in place)
King Henry III and St Edward the Confessor: the origins of the cult by David Carpenter in English Historical Review vol. CXXII, 2007
Tombs of Royal Babies in Westminster Abbey by Joan Tanner, BAA, 1953 (for Princess Katherine's tomb)
On the funeral effigies of the King and Queens of England by W.H. St John Hope, Archaeologia 1907
Henry III's palace at Westminster by V. Jansen in 'Westminster, the art...of the royal abbey and palace', vol.2, BAA 2015
The Holy Blood: Henry III and the Westminster Blood relic by Nicholas Vincent, 2001
1st October 1207
16th November 1272
20th November 1272
17th May 1220