King Henry I of England reigned 1100-1135. He died on 1 December 1135 having fallen ill after having consumed too many lampreys. His body was taken to Rouen where it was embalmed and his entrails buried there, while the rest of his body was returned to England and buried in Reading Abbey in January 1136 within an institution which he had founded in 1121.
My home town of Reading has a wonderful museum, and around a year ago I had the opportunity to visit after way too long. See my earlier post for an introduction to that visit and a reflection on the way the small but significant display of early medieval artefacts are displayed. This time I want to reflect on the one section of the recently renovated Reading Abbey exhibition which focuses on Henry I’s death and burial. This is compact but dense and framed as if within a cloister of the abbey. Of course, one can view the exhibition and also walk a short distance to peruse the abbey ruins.
First up, it is great that a royal burial is given this prominent attention in the display: as a founder and patron, his burial secured the prestige and importance of the abbey and it was an integral part of the abbey’s subsequent fortunes.
Second, as well as a standard information panel, with a 19th-century painting of Henry I’s funeral. Yet to support this simple-phased static ‘event’ and articulate the key process of translating and disposing of a kingly cadaver, the museum has chosen to display the death and treatment of Henry I upon death via a comic sequence upon a flipchart, with one scene per side.
Third, given the presence of the Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on display on the first floor of the museum, they chose to give the cartoon an unequivocal ‘Norman’ feel by showing it in the style of the embroidery familiar to everyone from the Tapestry itself. Here is the result: a cartoon funeral in Bayeux Tapestry style.
In short, a great simple, clear and memorable aspect of the story of Reading Abbey foregrounding the mortuary and commemorative aspects of medieval religious houses. This responds well to my repeated critique of museum displays about mortuary practices offering a static vista onto the remains of the dead without context and without a sense of funerary process. This remedies such a critique in a durable, simple and straightforward way. For while the tomb of Henry I remains undisturbed somewhere in the abbey ruins, images convey the story of his funeral far better than human remains in this instance.