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Historical reenactments

The re-enactment of Prince Arthur’s 1502 obsequies directed by a V&A expert and the “Gladiator” props man

Pageantry reigns in the UK

The third British royal funeral this year took place last month in Worcester Cathedral: thousands lined the streets of the town and filled the church to mourn the death, that took place 500 years ago, of Prince Arthur, eldest son of and heir apparent to Henry VII.

The occasion was the brainchild of Canon Iain MacKenzie and was organised and sponsored by the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral and the Friends of the cathedral.

The ceremonies were spread over two days, the main event being a re-enactment on the evening of Friday, 3 May of the funeral procession and the Vespers of the Dead celebrated, in Latin, according to the medieval Sarum rite. Between 200 and 250 people acted in the pageant which had been meticulously researched by Julian Litten, a curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the leading authority on English funerary art and ceremonies. More than 2,500 people attended the service.

Prince Arthur (1486-1502) was the first born son of the Tudor King Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. To ensure the Tudor succession and to secure the nation politically, Prince Arthur, aged 15, was married in 1501 in St Paul’s Cathedral in a ceremony, the sumptuousness of which had never before been seen, to the 16-year-old, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) daughter of King Ferdinand of Spain and Queen Isabella of Castille, thus forging an alliance with the Spanish throne.

The newly weds took up residence in Ludlow Castle on the Welsh Borders, a move intended, no doubt, to cement the loyalty of the principality to the Tudors. However, the prince was taken ill with “the sweating sickness” and died on 2 April 1502. His funeral took 21 days to arrange and the procession from Ludlow to Worcester took a week. (His widow later married Prince Arthur’s brother, Henry, who succeeded their father as Henry VIII, and the rest, as they say, is history.)

The re-enactment of the funeral procession’s arrival at Worcester, its progress to the cathedral and the Vespers recalled the great 19th-century fashion for medieval pageants and “historical” fancy-dress impersonations of Gothic characters. It entailed a host of personnel, amateur actors in the roles of historical individuals and a large number of local people and other enthusiasts who acted as “spear-carriers”. To dress and equip all the participants was a major enterprise involving not only historians, but also craftsmen and -women with expertise in textiles, cabinet-making, carpentry, armoury, metalwork and candlemaking.

The procession consisted of the organisers themselves along with a large number of local enthusiasts. The cortege was led by 120 men in black mourning habits followed by two contingents of local schoolchildren posing as friars and secular clergy. The hearse was made by Steve Dent who had provided the chariots and vehicles in the recent Oscar-winning block-buster film, “Gladiator”. It was drawn by six Belgian black horses, supplied by an East-End London undertaker, T. Cribb and Son. Other riders were the younger polo team members of the Crombe Hunt.

The prince’s armour made by the Raven Armoury in Essex, was borne in procession to the officiating clergy (who were actual Anglican clergymen and women; no Roman Catholic clergy took part, a significant departure from the 1502 event) as part of the funeral rites. The shield was carried by an equestrian actor who, to a series of trumpet fanfares, rode a white charger up the nave of the cathedral.

The hearse and coffin, made to a medieval English design in oak with iron ring handles, were covered with a Genoese velvet pall made by the famous London ecclesiastical outfitters, Watts and Co. and the catafalque in the cathedral was designed by Charles Brown, the former surveyor of the fabric of York Cathedral and St George’s Windsor and was made at the Buildings Crafts College, Stratford, London, the students of which also acted as bearers of the six-foot tall torches.

One hundred and forty-four individuals carried unbleached beeswax tapers which provided light for the night-time service in the cathedral. Another 144 candles burned in four candelabra at each corner of the catafalque. The candles were made and supplied by Hayes and Finch, one of Britain’s leading church furnishers.

Banners, standards, pennants, and escutcheons were made to designs by Sharon Foley and Hubert Cheshire of the College of Arms and were made by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s workshop. The clergy wore 19th-century neo-Gothic vestments borrowed from parish churches in Worcester and London.

The first decade of the 16th century witnessed two other great royal funerals: that of Elizabeth of York, mother of Prince Arthur and Henry VIII (1503) and of Henry VII (1509). More pageants ahead?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Another royal funeral'