The 16th-century historian John Leland called the Henry VII Lady Chapel ‘the wonder of the world’ and it continues to inspire wonder amongst those who visit it today. It’s a glorious example of late medieval architecture with a spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling and high stained glass windows.
It is the burial place of fifteen kings and queens including Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots and what is thought to be the remains of Edward V and Richard Duke of York, the Princes in the Tower.
Henry VII lavished huge sums on a new Lady Chapel, which was begun in 1503 but not completed until 1516, nearly six years after his death. Henry’s imposing tomb at the east end of the chapel has magnificent gilt bronze effigies of the king and his wife, Elizabeth of York made by the brilliant Florentine Renaissance sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano.
Since 1725, it has been used for installations of Knights of the Order of the Bath, and their colourful heraldic banners hang here. The Sovereign and the Great Master of the Order continue to install new knights in the chapel, usually every four years. A Lady Chapel is a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and is common to most cathedrals and large churches.
The outstanding feature of the chapel is the spectacular fan-vaulted roof with its carved pendants. Around the walls are 95 statues of saints (PDF). Behind the altar is the tomb of Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth of York. The bronze screen around it is by Thomas Ducheman and the gilt bronze effigies and Renaissance tomb were designed by Italian Pietro Torrigiano. James I is also buried in the vault beneath the monument.
Beneath the hinged seats of the stalls are beautifully carved misericords.
At the east end is the Royal Air Force chapel. The stained glass window by Hugh Easton depicts the badges of the fighter squadrons that took part in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Above, in the main east window, is stained glass designed by Alan Younger, installed in 2000. In May 2013 two new windows designed by Hughie O'Donoghue were installed either side of the central east window. Predominantly blue in colour they incorporate emblems related to the Blessed Virgin Mary including lilies and stars. All three eastern windows were presented by Lord and Lady Harris of Peckham.
Henry VII's Lady Chapel by James Wilkinson
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.