Archive | May, 2012

On the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey

24 May

According to Shakespeare (Henry IV Part 2, IV.iii.361-3), on 20 March 1413, Henry IV, king of England, fulfilled a prophecy that he should die at Jerusalem: this wasn’t, however, Jerusalem in the Holy Land but a more domestic version: the ‘Jerusalem Chamber’ at Westminster Abbey, the seat of English government and monarchy. The Jerusalem Chamber, now rather inelegantly jostling for position with the Abbey’s gift shop, is closed to the public but is a fascinating building which tells us a lot about the mobility of Jerusalem in the fourteenth century.

The Jerusalem chamber was built in the fourteenth century, by Nicholas Litlyngton (d. 1386), the abbot of Westminster, who was responsible for much remodelling of Westminster Abbey (rebuilding the nave, completing the cloister, building a new infirmary, as well as the Jerusalem Chamber). The Jerusalem Chamber has Litlyngton’s device on the ceiling joists, showing how the individual puts his imprimatur onto sacred space. The room possibly once had wall-hangings or frescoes, depicting scenes of Jerusalem, the life of Christ or biblical verses about Jerusalem. Paul Binksi (in Archaeologia 109 (1991)) has written about the tapestries which may have once decorated the room. Photos of the interior as it now looks can be seen here. Next door are later chambers called Jericho and Samaria, so, in Westminster, one could progress through a holy ‘landscape’ (actually, a series of gothic rooms). As the photo above shows, the medieval architect of the Jerusalem Chamber including two of the most basic icons of ‘Jerusalem’ – the crenellation to suggest Jerusalem’s walls, and the tower, polygonal, to recall the Holy Sepulchre (the elements can be seen elsewhere in this blog, in the Bruges Jeruzalemkerk, at Edington, and the Lynn Red Mount).

Did Henry IV really die in this room? The story of royal death in ‘Jerusalem’ was current well before Shakespeare: the legend seems to start with the French chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet (d. 1453), who wrote that Henry planned to conquer Jerusalem after conquering France. Henry’s pride and ambition was corrected, and he was humbled by dying at his English Jerusalem, not the real one. The Cronycles of Robert Fabyan (d. 1513), one of the most widespread historical texts of sixteenth-century England, put a different spin on the story: Henry’s piety meant that, even though he couldn’t die in the real Jerusalem, he did manage to die in the Jerusalem of the heart, in the New Jerusalem, at Westminster.

But Henry wasn’t the only king who ‘died’ at Jerusalem: Robert ‘the Bruce’ of Scotland (d. 1329), on his deathbed, requested his heart to be buried at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Edward I (d. 1307) of England had foretold his own death in the ‘burgh’ of Jerusalem, but died at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle. A popular medieval preachers’ tale said that Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) had his death at Jerusalem foretold by the devil; he was then struck down in Rome’s church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. In lives of St Edmund King Offa is represented dying on his way back from Jerusalem. So to die well is to die at Jerusalem. But not, necessarily, the actual Jerusalem, but the Jerusalem of the heart, and of the mind.

This account of the Jerusalem Chamber is adapted from some ideas I’ve written about in my book Feeling Persecuted (Reaktion, 2010): I’d love to hear about other kings, princes and prelates who have sought to die at Jerusalem, or ‘Jerusalem’.