By Cathy T
It’s October and that means by the end of the month, Halloween or All Hallows Eve will be upon us again, that special time of year when we pay homage to the dead, and for one night only, their souls may cross over, some in the hope of snatching another soul. This is how the tradition of dressing up began—to hide from the soul-snatchers. * And since these dear departed souls are going to be leaving their graves for one night, I thought it was an excellent time to write about tombs, exhumed corpses, and other decaying delights.
*For more information on the original customs of Halloween, an earlier blog may be viewed here… Samhain – All Hallow’s Eve
Many medieval kings fought hard to stay on their thrones during their lifetime but how many thought it would be just as difficult to stay in their graves? ‘Rest in peace’ was a luxury denied to some, their eternal slumber interrupted as future reigning monarchs decided where their predecessors should be permanently interred. A few would be disturbed during restoration work, some because of morbid curiosity and, in one instance, to receive the homage that was denied during life.
Let’s begin with: – (the years given are for the king’s length of reign)
Edward the Confessor, 1042 to 1066 – the last Anglo-Saxon king.
Edward the Confessor commissioned Westminster Abbey to be built as a royal burial church. He met his death after a series of strokes and was laid to rest in the then uncompleted church. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), this church was demolished to make way for Henry III’s wonderful new abbey which still stands today.
His tomb was first disturbed in 1102 by King Henry I and his wife, Matilda of Scotland, and Edward’s body was found to be incorrupt, (a sign of a saint) his beard still long and white, a gold-embroidered mitre on his head and purple shoes on his feet.
His coffin was opened again in 1163 by Henry II, only this time his cloth-of-gold wrappings were removed, and the remains swathed in a silk cloth. Edward’s pilgrim’s ring was appropriated by Henry II as a relic and the cloth-of-gold was turned into “three splendid copes.” Edward was transferred to a new tomb in a ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
He was disturbed once more in 1685, when the removal of scaffolding after a coronation ceremony for James II caused a rafter to crash into Edward’s coffin. This time a gold chain and ornamented crucifix were discovered under the king’s shoulder bones and given to James II.
King John, 1199 to 1216 – Magna Carta John
The infamous king responsible for losing the duchy of Normandy as well as other holdings in France and thus, when he died he was unable to be buried in the Abbey de Fontevraud, alongside his father, Henry II; mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; brother, Richard the Lionheart and his second wife, Isabella d’Angouleme.
John contracted dysentery whilst on campaign in 1216 in East Anglia. He died at Newark Castle on October 18, 1216 and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. A new sarcophagus and effigy were made for him in 1232, and he was further disturbed in 1797 when this tomb was opened for “antiquarian study.” He was originally covered in a robe of crimson damask, but the embroidery had deteriorated. The remains of a sword and a scabbard were by his side.
Effigy on John’s tomb
King Edward I, 1272 to 1307 – Longshanks and ‘Hammer of the Scots’
Edward I (Longshanks) was on his way north to deal with Robert the Bruce when he developed dysentery, certainly a favourite way of dying for these medieval kings. On July 6, he camped at the village of Burgh by the Sands and when the servants came the next morning, he died in their arms as they raised him to give him food. His embalmed body was buried in Westminster Abbey.
In 1774 Edward’s tomb was opened by the Society of Antiquaries, permission having been given by the Dean of Westminster. The body was wrapped in a linen cloth which was waxed on the inside. The king’s head and face were covered with a cloth of crimson sarcenet, (a thin, soft silk with a slight sheen) and he was richly dressed in a red silk damask tunic with a stole of thick white tissue across his chest, set with filigree gilt and semi-precious stones. He wore a royal mantle of crimson satin (medieval version of satin – a twilled silk with a glossy, smooth surface with a dull back) and cloth-of-gold lay from the waist down. In his right hand there was a sceptre with a cross of copper gilt, and in his left, a 5 ft rod with a white enamel dove. He wore a gilt metal crown, but his skull was bare. His hands and feet were intact.
Sketch illustration of the remains of Edward I when his tomb was opened in 1774
Memorial at ‘Burgh by the Sands’ at the spot Edward died in his servants’ arms
Richard II, 1377 to 1399 – Second son of the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock
One of the most tyrannical of the Plantagenet kings, Richard of Bordeaux was only ten years old when he came to the throne. Guided by his uncles, he threw off their advice when he became of age to rule. He went on to make many enemies, not the least of which was his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, who eventually usurped his throne. Richard was imprisoned at Pontefract castle, West Yorkshire, and perished from hunger—self-inflicted or deliberate? Most think deliberate after a plot to reinstate him was foiled, and that Henry was clever enough to not leave evidence of a struggle or wounds that would implicate him.
Richard was displayed at the ‘old’ Saint Paul’s church before being buried at King’s Langley Priory, Hertfordshire, adjacent to the palace, residence of the Plantagenet kings, even though Richard had a tomb prepared for himself at Westminster Abbey, next to his wife.
In 1413 Richard II’s body was moved to his own tomb at Westminster Abbey by order of Henry V in atonement for his father’s misdeed.
In 1871 the tomb was opened during restoration work. The skulls of Richard and Anne were visible with some teeth preserved and the skeletons were nearly perfect. There were no marks of violence upon Richard. A staff, sceptre, part of the ball, two pairs of gloves and fragments of their peaked shoes remained. There were no copper-gilt crowns although it had been thought they had been buried with one each. Possibly taken from an earlier opening. Some relics were taken from this opening and later found in a cigarette box (a cigarette box? Please. We are talking of kings here!) in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery. The contents included some fabric, a piece of leather and fragments of wood, possibly for the coffin itself. Cross-referencing confirmed the leather corresponds to a sketch by Scharf made of a glove on the day the tomb was opened.
*King Richard II will appear in upcoming books in the Lions and Lilies series. In our current work-in-progress, book 5, he has just been born. 😊 Although Richard was dedicated to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, he did marry again—a child bride, Isabella of France, older sister to Catherine of Valois (featured next). Isabella was Queen of England from 1396 to 1399, when she was 7 – 10 years old.
Catherine of Valois, 1420 to 1422 – Queen Consort of England, wife to Henry V
Catherine of Valois was the daughter of French king Charles VI * and was married to Henry V in 1420. She was crowned Queen in February 1421, and by June that year Henry left a pregnant wife in England to continue his military campaigns in France. Catherine gave birth to a son, and when Henry V died 31st August 1422 from dysentery (another one!), he had never even seen his son. The 9-month-old baby became King Henry VI of England.
*Charles VI was the son of Charles V, who was the ‘Dauphin’ in our books 1- 4 of Lions and Lilies, now king in the current work-in-progress, book 5. Charles VI will also appear in upcoming books in the series.
Catherine went on to live in the king’s household to care for her son but eventually married Owen Tudor, who had been in the service of Sir Walter Hungerford, steward to Henry V. Though no evidence was found to support the marriage took place, neither was the legitimacy of her children ever questioned, either by secular or cannon law and their grandson would claim England’s throne as Henry VII – the start of the Tudor dynasty.
Catherine died January 3, 1347, shortly after childbirth, but an equal number of records state it was not as a result of giving birth as first thought. She was interred in January 1357, in the Chapel of Our Lady, at the east end of Westminster Abbey but when that building was pulled down by her grandson, Henry VII, her coffin was found to be decayed, so her body was taken up, and placed in a chest within the railings near her first husband’s tomb.
“There,” says Dart, “it hath ever since continued to be seen, the bones being firmly united, and thinly clothed with flesh, like scrapings of tanned leather.”
In 1667 Catherine’s corpse was shown to visitors on payment to the staff at the abbey. Samuel Pepys who was made famous for the detailed diary he kept from 1660 to 1669 (published 19thC) recorded the day he took his wife and daughters to Westminster Abbey and was permitted to embrace the corpse.
‘I now took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone, there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday; and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Catherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.’
This awful spectacle of frail mortality was at length removed from the public gaze into St. Nicholas’s chapel, and placed under the monument of Sir George Villiers, where a vault had been made for the remains of Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, in December 1776.
Poor Catherine was finally laid to rest with her first husband, Henry V, a century later when Dean Stanley removed her remains for a permanent burial under the alter he erected in Henry V’s chantry. The inscription for her on the altar is translated thus:
Under this slab (once the altar of this chapel) for long cast down and broken up by fire, rest at last, after various vicissitudes, finally deposited here by command of Queen Victoria, the bones of Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, King of France, wife of Henry V, mother of Henry VI, grandmother of Henry VII, born 1400, crowned 1421, died 1437.
The wooden funeral effigy carried at her funeral still survives there.
The Chantry of Henry V Catherine’s funeral effigy still on display
At last, at peace.
During research for this project, I came across this tiny gem. The tomb of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to Henry V, was rediscovered in 1703 when a grave was being prepared for a former mayor of St Albans.
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
Workmen uncovered a flight of stone steps leading down to an underground vault where the Duke’s leaden coffin was found. His body was reported to be in a remarkable state of preservation. However, the skeleton is now incomplete, after over a century of being open to tourists, several of the bones having been taken. His tomb ‘was regularly visited by women who believed the embalming fluid used had ‘magical’ properties to cure wrinkles. The sexton made a small fortune selling thimbles of the potion and physicians even took away samples for experimentation. Eventually the liquid ran out and visitors took Humphrey’s nails and hair until only a few small bones remained.’ Eeeew!
But now for the pièce de résistance—and the award goes to Portugal!
I first heard this story on my ‘research’ holiday two years ago when our guide told us whilst in Portugal. Then again recently when I was researching online in Spain for book 5 (Roar of the Lion).
It’s a 14thC love story of a Castilian lady-in-waiting whose eyes were as blue as the sky and her skin was so white, you could see the wine flowing through her throat when she drank. Her name was Ines de Castro and she and Pedro, heir to the throne, fell deeply in love.
But King Alfonso IV was massively opposed to the relationship. For one thing, Pedro was married to Ines’s cousin, Constanza of Castile. When Constanza died in 1345, Pedro refused all other offers of marriage and fearing the Castilian influence over his son, King Alfonso banished Ines from his court. Pedro declared Ines his true love and after several attempts to keep the lovers apart, Alfonso ordered her death.
Innes de Castro at the feet of King Alfonso
Three of Alfonso’s henchmen went to Coimbra where Ines was detained and decapitated her in front of her own child.
When Pedro heard, he hunted and caught two of her killers in 1361. He executed them publicly, ripping out their hearts stating they didn’t have one after pulverising his own heart.
Pedro became king in 1357 and he announced that he and Ines had been secretly married since 1346. The story goes that he had Ines’ body exhumed, adorned in royal robes, and sat on the throne beside him. Then he forced his court to pay homage by kissing her hand in death as she had been denied in life.
Tomb of Pedro and Ines
There are many more examples that I could add to this list: – Edward IV, Edward V, Anne Boleyn, Edward VI, and Charles I, but I decided to keep it within the scope of Lions and Lilies era, from the ancestors to Henry V and Catherine of Valois.
Worth mentioning though are some oddities to which the dead themselves, may have objected had they but known!
Henry VII (Catherine of Valois’ grandson), and his wife, Elizabeth of York, lie in a vault beneath his magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey. They were the first monarchs to be buried in a vault under the floor rather than a tomb chest above ground. However, would Henry have been happy to know that in years to come he and his wife would be sharing their eternal resting place with their great, great, grandson, James I? Cosy or creepy?
Above ground – Westminster Abbey Below ground – James I (largest body) with Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York
(Photo exits in the Westminster Abbey Library)
And would Queen Elizabeth I have been smiling to learn she would be finally laid to rest, her coffin placed on top of that of her half-sister, Mary, whose reign saw the persecution and burning of hundreds of protestants? Opposing views in life but together in death.
A quick word on the medieval practice of the extraction of inner organs and the separate burial of the heart and body, and for the French, another for the entrails.
It was a practice of the English and French aristocracy from the 12thC onwards and arose in part during the Crusades, when high-ranking warriors died in ‘heathen’ lands. This wasn’t accepted as a suitable burial location, so corpses were stripped of the flesh and carried back to Europe as skeletons. The inner organs were buried where the Crusader had died.
Here are some of the notable cases in the middle medieval era.
Robert the Bruce
His body lies in Dunfermline Abbey, but heart is at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire. He wished his heart to rest at Jerusalem in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and on his deathbed entrusted the fulfilment of his wish to Sir James Douglas. The latter broke his journey to join the Spaniards in their war with the Moorish kings of Granada and was killed in battle. He had kept the heart of Bruce enclosed in a silver casket hanging round his neck. The heart was subsequently recovered and buried in the Abbey.
His heart, preserved in a casket, was placed in the Cathedral in Rouen, Normandy. His body is buried at Fontevraud Abbey.
His body was buried in Reading Abbey, but his heart, along with his bowels, brains, eyes & tongue, are interred at the Cathedral in Rouen, Normandy.
Rouen Cathedral – home to both hearts of Richard I and Henry I
Eleanor of Castile – Queen of Edward I
Her body is interred in Westminster Abbey, but her heart is buried at Blackfriars and her other viscera in Lincoln Cathedral.
Joan of Arc
And worthy of note, though a little-known fact, is that Joan of Arc’s body was burned three times. She died at the stake of smoke inhalation on May 30, 1431 but the Cardinal of Winchester is recorded as having ordered her burned a second time to be sure. Her organs still survived this fire and terrified, Winchester ordered a third burning.
Her cinders and debris were to be thrown into the Seine however, it is believed that they were found in an apothecary’s loft in Paris. The find was transferred to a museum in Chinon. French scientists who have been studying the ashes confirmed a piece of cloth among the remains may be a fragment of Joan’s gown. Some bones and tissue were also found among the ashes and DNA tests expect to confirm they belong to a female. Carbon-dating of the piece of cloth found it to be ‘linen of high quality and we can confirm that it dates from the 15th century.’
Rouen, France Orleans, France
And lastly, a very quick word on those cross-legged effigies of knights. What did the crossed-legs really mean?
Opinions still vary, and it was first thought to mean that the knight had been on crusade; legs crossed at the ankles meant he’d been once; legs crossed at the knees, twice; and legs crossed at the thighs meant three times. Sounds plausible but scholars have negated the idea saying it was a romantic notion applied by the studies of the 16th and 17th centuries. Current theory is, it was simply the style of the times and not forgetting that while some went to the Holy Land, they were on pilgrimages, not crusades. It is stated by historian Matthew Holbeche Bloxam in 1834 that these depictions continued for more than half a century after the crusades ended. Not having read the afore-mentioned gentleman, I cannot say whether there was proof in his findings that it was just the trend during the 12th/13th centuries, so pose this question. What if the designers of effigies after the Crusades liked what they saw and used it anyway? I’m not sure I agree that it was just the style of the times for most things held meaning in medieval times. They weren’t just random. I suppose without solid evidence, we’ll never really know. Perhaps I like the romantic notion better!
What I did find were some very interesting facts or concepts. Firstly, the animals lying at the feet of many of the effigies. The Basilica St Denis, Paris, states ‘the 12th century, animal statues were placed at the feet of the recumbent statues. They were the protector of the deceased in the afterlife. Some even considered that they were placed there to prevent the deceased from coming back thus protecting the living. This tradition came from the statues tailored on the portals of churches on which the characters were associated with the representation of a real or mythical animal that represented a quality or a vice.
The dog is often found at the feet of the recumbent statues of women and symbolises loyalty to the soverain and to the kingdom but especially of faith.’ (Other sources say it means fidelity.)
‘It is quite natural that the lion be associated with the king. The “king of beasts” is a symbol of strength, power, and justice.’ But it was not just for the king. Many male effigies use lions.
Edward of Woodstock – the Black Prince at Canterbury Cathedral. Both head and feet
lying on a lion. (That’s a lion? From the top view, it almost looks like a lion and a lamb!)
UK Expedition Sept, 2008
A dragon was the symbol of evil but placed under the feet, it would mean victory over evil.
Bishop Fleming (d. 1431) Lincoln Cathedral
And sometimes a male effigy would have their favourite hunting dog.
Next is the pose of the effigy. It can be horizontal or vertical, and this is not necessarily known by the placement of the figure i.e. a ‘vertical’ effigy can be lying down. What denotes it, is the fall of the cloth or gown worn by the figure. Take this example below: –
Even though both figures are lying flat on the floor, from the fall of the cloth, it suggests that the far knight (top-side) is a horizontal figure; his robes are falling ‘down’ and away but the near knight’s clothes (bottom-side) are straight as they would hang if he was standing upright so he’s a ‘vertical’ figure. Whether this had any particular meaning or was simply the work of a more creative designer, I could not find out. Inscriptions and heraldry would identify the deceased as the carving itself, was not always a ‘lifelike’ depiction.
And third is the liminal ‘state’ in which they lie which means ‘on the threshold.’ This was an era where increasing significance was placed on the concept of purgatory and the prayers of the living could decrease the time spent in purgatory and assist the departed to their final state in Heaven. It became popular that the hands of the effigies were shown in a praying position, a reminder to those living and looking on, to pray for them and help them on their way.
In the 15th century, ‘transi’ tombs became the fashion among the elite to show the contrast between the idealised figure of the deceased lying atop the monument with a sculpture of their decaying corpse enclosed within the tomb chest. This one was opened in 1857 to reveal the actual skeleton was missing one leg.
Arundel Chapel – John FitzAlan (d.1435)
And our Bishop Fleming from before (with the dragon at his feet), also had a cadaver tomb.
Although the idea of decomposition was not avoided in the 14th century. The Will of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, included the striking stipulation that his body was to remain unburied for forty days after his death:
‘And wherever I die I will and devise that after my passing my body remain above ground uninterred for forty days, and I charge my executors that within those forty days no interment [Lincoln MS: embalming] of my body shall be done nor feigned, privately nor publicly.’
So Gaunt wanted his corpse to be in an advanced state of decomposition by the time it reached the choir of Old St Paul’s.
A similar emphasis on bodily decay is found in the verses inscribed on the tomb of the Duke’s older brother, Edward the Black Prince, at Canterbury Cathedral, in which his rotting corpse addresses the viewer:
”Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone.”
In his will Gaunt urged his executors to invite his friends and relatives to the obsequies in order that they might pray for his soul.
When Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, returned to claim Richard II’s throne, his exile by Richard having prevented him from attending his father’s funeral, he visited the tomb. Chronicler, Jean Creton, wrote ‘Henry approached the high altar to pray and afterwards passed by the monument to his parents, Gaunt and Blanche. The sight of the tomb, (which Creton terms ‘une très riche sépulture’—a very rich monument), provoked an emotional response from the soon-to-be King: ‘there he wept very much, for he had never seen it’ in all of the nineteen years of its creation.
And the finale to this macabre blog? A poem, of course! A fifteenth-century poem called
‘A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms.’
In true medieval fashion, a poem in the dream-vison framework in which a narrator falls asleep or into a trance and overhears a discussion between the disputing parties. In this case, an unidentified person, who has departed on a pilgrimage in order to flee the plague, stops at a church to pray but is distracted by the newly built tomb of a lady.
As he looks at the epitaph, he falls into a dreamlike vision in which he hears a debate between the recently buried body and the worms that are eating it.
This carefully constructed conversation leads the body from a disgust at the worms, a resistance to their ministrations, and a futile attempt at calling living knights to her defence to a realization that worldly beauty is vain, a reliance on God’s grace, and a reconciliation with the worms as she waits for Judgment Day and resurrection.
The dream-vision framework resumes with the waking of the dreamer, who explains that the holy man to whom he related his experience told him to write it down for the edification of others, and the poem ends with an exhortation for all to trust in God.
Yes, the poem looks long, as was a lot of medieval writings, but this one is truly enjoyable and worth a read!
(Note from the translator)
In translating the poem, I have tried to stick closely to the literal meaning of the text, while maintaining the rhyme scheme and reflecting the distinct voices of the Body and of the Worms. Often I have been able to use the same vocabulary—sometimes even the same rimes—as the Middle English original. Occasionally I have switched the order of two lines or slightly altered the sense of a half-line for poetic purposes, but only when such a change does not affect the meaning of the stanza as a whole.
Department of English Arizona State University
P. O. Box 870302 Tempe, AZ 85287-0302
A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms
During a season of great mortality,
With pestilence reigning, and other disease,
I felt a great urge to change my locality—
To go as a pilgrim, my conscience to ease—
And left for the country as quick as you please.
I saw there a church on a holy day
And, having made ready, I went there to pray.
The church stood in a field alone.
To hear a mass was my full intent.
‘Ere I came the mass was said and done,
But the church-door was open, and in I went.
I knelt to pray and humbly bent
My knees, making deep obeisance
Before an image, with great reverence.
Beside me I saw a tomb or sepulchre
That seemed to be freshly adorned and raised—
Just newly made, by my conjecture—
With sundry arms thereon emblazed.
Upon the epitaph I boldly gazed.
Gilt gold on copper gleamed each line,
With a woman’s figure, fresh and fine.
She was well attired in the newest array.
Her long locks had a golden gleam.
As I slept I was taken in such a way
I was rapt from myself into a dream.
I heard, strange to say, all manner of jawing
Between this fair corpse and the worms on her gnawing.
In the manner of a dialogue it went.
Take heed, therefore, from this event:
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“Worms, O worms,” this body mourned.
“Why do you thus? What makes you eat?
By you my flesh is foully adorned,
Which once was a figure fresh and sweet,
Right amiable, fragrant, and always neat.
Of all creatures I was loved the best,
Called lady and sovereign, I do attest.
As to beauty, I was a lady of worth,
From gentle blood descending in right line
From Eve, and of true noble birth.
All hearts were glad my presence to divine;
Men of honour and worship to me did incline;
And now here in earth death has come to me.
Among worms I lie naked—behold and see!
Most unnatural neighbours that ever were known!
You have me for lunch and for supper at night,
Now gnawing and eating me right to the bone
With a greedy, insatiable appetite.
There’s no rest, for always you suck and bite.
You won’t abstain for a single hour
But are always ready to cruelly devour!
When first you worms my body found
It seems you’d been fed but meagerly.
Now you’ve grown fat and ugly and round.
Leave me alone, out of courtesy,
And dwell with someone else besides me,
Who may reward you with better pay,
For I’m almost gone—almost eaten away!”
The Worms speak to the Body:
“No, no, we won’t depart from you
While one of your bones with another’s connected,
Till we have scoured and polished ‘em, too,
Made ‘em clean as can be, not a joint neglected.
And for our work, there’s no pay expected.
For gold, silver, or riches we have no need.
We only ask your flesh on which to feed.
For we have no way of tasting or smelling
Your horrible, rotting, stinking waste.
All creatures find you extremely repelling
Except for us worms; we’re already disgraced.
If we, as beasts, could smell or taste,
Do you think that we your corpse would touch?
Nope, we’d surely avoid it, thank you very much!”
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“My word, you are discourteous to me
To threaten me so, and my body deface,
And thus leave me only bare bones to see.
Now where are my knights? Come forth to this place!
And you worshipful squires, both high and base—
Who once offered me your whole devotion
And life-long service, with heart-felt emotion,
Committing your lives into my charge—
To do me service, now come and defend me
From these nasty worms, so ugly and large,
That are gnawing my flesh with such cruelty,
Devouring and eating now as you see.
You who once said you loved me dear
Now save and succour my body here!”
The Worms answer the Body:
“What should they do? We want to hear.
We dread them not, nor fear their moans,
For we’ve to the uttermost made good cheer
With all that were mighty, who’ve left their thrones
Before this time, having received their bones.
All of them: conquerors, emperors, kings,
Lords both over temporal and spiritual things.
All the nine worthy: Alexander the Great,
Judas Maccabeus, and David of old,
Caesar and Hector and Guinevere’s mate,
Godfrey and Joshua and Charlemagne bold,
With all Trojan knights, each with honour untold,
And beautiful Helen, so fair of visage,
Polyxena, Lucrece, and Dido of Carthage.
These—and more—were your equals in looks
Yet dared they not to stir or move
Once we possession of them took.
For all venomous worms it does behoove
To do this labour, as soon they’ll prove.
With us to stay they’re fully set:
They’ll waste and devour you utterly yet.
The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon,
The toad and the tortoise with his shell on his back,
The newt, the mole, and the scorpion,
The crab and the ants, both red and black,
The viper, the adder, all prepped to attack,
The maggots, the leeches, the spiders (all kinds),
And the lizard—and others are not far behind.”
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“Of cure or of remedy I can find none,
Release or succour can’t be found,
I must do their bidding,
when all’s said and done,
With chewed-up flesh, here underground,
For towards all the living their hate does abound.
What shall I do but let them enjoy me?
My fate awaits, although they destroy me!”
The Worms answer the Body:
“The day you were born our heralds we sent,
And charged them straitly not to fail.
We gave them a strict commandment
Not to leave you till death made you pale,
Intending them to fret and gnaw and ail,
And then to come to this region with you
To have your flesh here as their due.
They have obeyed and done as we said—
To this you certainly cannot say nay.
You’ve had worms in your hands and fleas in your bed
Or lice or nits in your hair each day,
Also stomach-worms to plague you in every way,
And venomous creatures, night and morning,
To make you ready and give you warning.
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“Now to you I can those vermin impute,
Which with me in life kept residence.
I will no longer keep up this dispute
Nor debate but suffer your violence.
Do your will with me at your benevolence.
But yet David’s Psalter says that all
Shall be obedient unto Man’s call.”
The Worms answer the Body:
“That power lasts only while Man is alive;
Here in the grave, we have the last say.
Since your life is gone, you may no longer strive
Against us worms, for you’re nothing but clay,
As you’ll recall from that holy day
When the priest, to mark the start of Lent,
Makes a cross of ash on each penitent.
And with ash blesses you to have in mind
What you are, and to what you’ll turn again,
For ashes you were before this time,
And ashes you’ll be hereafter for certain.
Be you lord, lady, or high sovereign,
To powder and dust in time you will come,
Of your worldly sojourn such is the sum.”
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“Alas, alas, now I know full well,
That all my life I was a fool.
With a reigning pride too much to tell,
I thought of myself as a beautiful jewel
And was wanton and frivolous, as a rule,
Having great delight in worldly pleasure,
Thinking none to be my equal measure.
As for these worms who now address me,
I bore their messengers each day—
Those fleas and lice that sore oppressed me—
Not knowing how they came my way.
More truly than this I cannot say,
But I must myself with patience provide,
In all circumstances God’s will to abide.”
The Worms answer the Body:
“You get no thanks from us for this admission:
If you had your will, to life you’d hold.
But if you by your heart’s volition
Look in holy scripture, you may behold
That the fairness of women, as therein told,
Is but a vain thing, and transitory.
But God-fearing women shall be praised as holy.”
The Body speaks to the Worms:
“Yes, now it’s far too late to call
At this point in time, but put me there—
Which to do is truly the best of all—
In the mercy of our Lord’s constant care.
And that those in life may have space to prepare,
To consider in the same wise also,
They should think, in the time before they go,
Of their future states and their origins.
Whether man or woman, no matter how fair,
Beware of pride and his fellow sins
Which often bring mortals into care,
As scripture makes mention, the truth to declare.
It is good to shun temptations of flesh,
By the fiend our foe made to enmesh.
For all that I’ve said, and you worms reviled,
Be not displeased, I humbly implore.
Let us be friends for a little while
And love each other as we did before.
Let us dwell together forevermore—
Till I rise again at God’s command
On Judgment Day, and before him stand.
With this body to be glorified.
And of that number may I be one
With heaven’s bliss to be supplied
Through the mercy and mediation
Of our blessed Lord, our very patron,
There to dwell forever for his delight:
Amen, Amen, for his love and might.”
Now speaks he who saw the vision:
With this I from my dream awoke—
Or from my slumbering meditation.
Of this dream, this vision, then I spoke
To a holy man of high reputation.
To write it down was his exhortation,
As nearly as I could remember it,
In fair language, according to my wit,
To be to the reader a great delight,
And an admonition to all who believe—
Both men and women—to live upright
Before God and all their lusts to leave
For worldly things which their spirits grieve,
And rather the more to call to mind
Our Savior and to him us bind.
By Catherine T Wilson, co-author of Lions and Lilies
The Lily and the Lion – 1st Place Chanticleer Chatelaine Award – 2014
The Order of the Lily – 1st Place Chanticleer Chatelaine Award – 2015
The Gilded Crown – 1st Place Chanticleer Chaucer Award – 2016
The Traitor’s Noose – Grand Prize WINNER Chanticleer Chaucer Award – 2017