Above, the voices of the choir resonate into the highest arches of the domed ceiling of the chapel, and below lie the remains of King Henry VIII. I am in awe of both.
A side effects of studying history is a skepticism of organized religion, but still, I am awed by cathedrals, charmed by small town churches, and can appreciate a truly heartfelt service on occasion. So when the opportunity arose to attend a choral service with King Henry VIII at St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle, I eagerly bowed my head.
Cathedrals and chapels have been a part of England’s history for a thousand years, and they are awesome to behold. St. George’s Chapel dates to the 1400’s, and is home to the Order of the Garter (which is the highest order of chivalry) as well as the remains of numerous well-known kings, queens, and nobles dating back to King Edward IV buried in 1483. To know that beneath the effigies lie the remains of men and woman who shaped history, that they walked under the same domed ceilings and arches, sat in the same wooden stalls in the nave, and watched the way the sunlight lit the alter windows makes these people more real, more than just characters in a novel or movie. Their places in history make them immortal as their lives are relived on pages and on screen again and again; yet the stark reality of their mortality is as cold and hard as the monuments that mark their graves.
So, sitting in the nave, with King Henry VIII at my feet, I cannot help but to compare his legend to the plain, flat stone covering the vault that serves as the final resting place for his decayed body. For such a vain man, his last mark on earth is surprisingly simple, and he shares it with one of his six wives, a beheaded king, and the stillborn child of a queen who died more than a century after Henry.
The wooden seat is ornate and covered in a tapestry, but it is also hard and makes my back sore. The wind can be heard rushing along the vaulted ceiling, yet sweat trickles between my shoulder blades and I wonder how many queens and ladies sat in these same seats with their heavy gowns, feeling the droplets of sweat running down their backs. Did they marvel at the way the light shines through the tall windows? Or the way the incantations of the choir resonate off the stone walls?
As overwhelming as it is to walk the same floors and sit in the same seats as kings, queens, lords and ladies who shaped history during the 600 years that St. George’s Chapel has stood on the grounds of Windsor Castle, it’s also a reminder that the world keeps moving forward. This chapel, the castle, and generations of people have survived conquering armies, plagues, fires, famines, droughts, and every other curse upon the land, and even thrived in the aftermath.
The choir progresses down the aisle and exits the nave at the end of the service. Everyone sits quietly, caught between the awe of the moment and not wanting to be the first to disturb the tranquility. As we all stay glued to our uncomfortable wooden seats, one of the clergy return to extinguish the candles in what feels like a message as clear as Ferris Bueller reappearing to say “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.”