Pride Goeth Before the Fall…The Story of the Nelson Sarcophagus

The title of the post comes from Proverbs 16:18. It is usually shortened as I’ve done, but the actual verse from the King James Version is as follows: ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.’ In a way, it seems appropriate in telling a bit of the story of the sarcophagus in which Nelson was laid to rest, because it also tells of two of the most prideful men in English history (they’d have to get in line no doubt behind a slew of others, but we’re concentrating on these two).  

But we return to Nelson for a little, since this is the commemoration of his state funeral.

 The tomb of Lord Admiral Nelson at St. Paul’s Cathedral

If you’re visiting London, St. Paul’s Cathedral is well worth several hours of your time, and your friendly neighborhood Keeper has toured Christopher Wren’s great creation on three occasions.

To locate the crypt where you can find not only Nelson’s tomb, but the Duke of Wellington’s resting place and Wren’s as well, go to for more information.

Nelson’s tomb in the crypt of St Paul’s.
© National Maritime Museum, London: Repro ID: PU3922
Description: Nelson’s final resting place was in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. He had become a national hero at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and his continued success, until his death in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, gave him an almost mythical status. After his death he was immortalised as a national hero and is still revered today almost 200 years after his death at Trafalgar. In this image, a couple with children and two sailors are visiting the crypt to pay homage to the fallen hero.
Creator: T. H. Shepherd
Date: 1830
Credit line: National Maritime Museum, London

An admission ticket to the Funeral of Lord Nelson – issued to maintain some type of organization. At one point, it was feared there could be rioting.

Now back to the pride and the fall.

In the previous essay, it was noted that the sarcophagus was originally intended for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Councillor to King Henry VIII.

There may have been times Wolsey considered himself more powerful than his King, in particular during the time when the young Renaissance man was still ‘feeling his oats’ and not yet fully aware of the complete authority an anointed King possessed. However, because he was unable to settle what was called ‘The King’s Great Matter,’ which would have involved dissolving (annulling) Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, Wolsey fell out of favor. By late 1530, he was ordered back to London to face charges of treason. En-route, he fell ill, dying at Leicester Abbey, possibly age 57. Like some Pharaoh of old, intent on leaving behind a magnificent monument to his own glory, Wolsey’s dream was to use the new black sarcophagus (designed by Benedetto da Rovezzano and Giovanni da Maiano) as part of his extravagant tomb at Windsor. Of course that didn’t happen, and the former cardinal was buried where he died, an abbey later razed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries a few years later.

View of the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s Final Resting Place_Leicester Abbey, Added by Eman Bonnici 5-04-2008 for Find A Grave. The sarcophagus in which Nelson was buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral was originally designed for Wolsey, prior to his fall from grace with Henry VIII.

Henry VIII (I think we all know Henry, so no need going into further detail here) then planned to be buried in that same sarcophagus. When Wolsey was declared a traitor, it meant the Crown seized everything lock, stock and proverbial barrel. Part of the inventory was the sarcophagus, and somewhere in-between establishing a new church, trying to get a male heir, and whatever else was in Henry’s mind at the time, he made plans for his own ostentatious tomb. How ostentatious? There are likely bigger and better, but here’s what Henry wanted among other things: bronze statues of him and Jane Seymour (wife number 3 who gave him his legitimate son), marble pillars, bronze angels, bronze apostles, and what else? A life-sized bronze of Henry riding his steed, and I’m guessing considering himself victorious in both life and death! Instead, due to lack of funds, religious reformations, government troubles, rebellions, assassination attempts, the Spanish Armada, or even a general lack of interest, Henry never got his grand tomb either (Henry died in 1547 and his three successors stayed fairly busy, no matter the length of their reigns).

Henry and Jane are buried in St. George’s Chapel. They’re not alone either, which is something Henry never had in mind.

Charles I also had dreams of using the sarcophagus. Fate didn’t care. A firm believer in the Divine Rights of Kings, his battles with Parliament led to a Civil War. Charles was overthrown and beheaded. He now shares the same burial site with Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, and a Stuart baby.

If you are visiting St. George’s Chapel, located at Windsor Castle, be careful you don’t miss it like I almost did on my first visit there. While some might not be completely familiar with Charles I, thanks to books, movies and TV shows, most everyone knows Henry. This isn’t where you would expect him to be! In fact, I’m pretty certain this is not how Henry intended to spend eternity!

The marble slab in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle – VERY easy to miss! The wording says it all. So much for Henry, his grand plans for the sarcophagus and plans for an even grander monument to himself.

                         Another View of the Marble Slab

A drawing of the vault beneath St. George’s Chapel, showing the coffins of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Charles I, and an infant of Queen Anne. Definitely not what Henry had in mind!
Courtesy of The Tudor Tattler. In 1813, the tomb was opened with the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) present. 

So the sarcophagus was not used for a prideful man who once hoped to be Pope, and who allegedly declared on his deathbed ‘But if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.’ We all know Wolsey would have been executed. He cheated Henry of that.

The sarcophagus was not used for a prideful King who became supreme head of his own Church, married six women, and was the father of the great Elizabeth I. 

It was used instead for the hero of Trafalgar. This monument might not be what Wolsey or Henry or possibly even Charles had in mind, but for me, this is a magnificent tribute to the man of whom Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey said in the movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World.

“The second time he told me a story… about how someone offered him a boat cloak on a cold night. And he said no, he didn’t need it. That he was quite warm. His zeal for his king and country kept him warm…I know it sounds absurd, and were it from another man, you’d cry out ‘Oh, what pitiful stuff’ and dismiss it as mere enthusiasm. But with Nelson… you felt your heart glow.”

   Another angle of Nelson’s Tomb at St. Paul’s Cathedral



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