Most of the outside walls of Westminster Abbey are not as old as they look. Practically all of the stonework has been replaced over the centuries. But not that of the building which peeps cautiously up above the Abbey shop near the western entrance. This is the Jerusalem Chamber where in real life – as well as in a Shakespeare play – Henry IV was taken, unconscious, to sit by the fire after he had fallen ill praying in the Abbey at the shrine of Edward the Confessor. He was en route to Jerusalem, where he was planning to atone for his sins.
Much of the original stonework inside the Chamber is still there, much as it was when Henry lay there dying. So is the ceiling above and the walls behind the added Victorian panelling. When he recovered consciousness, the king asked where he was and was told: “The Jerusalem Chamber.” He concluded then that his life was about to end. A prophecy in Holinshed’s Chronicles said that he would die in a place called Jerusalem, but it had become apparent that it wasn’t the Jerusalem Henry had assumed. As he says in Henry IV, Part I:
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem,
Which vainly I suppos’d the Holy Land.
But bear me to that chamber, there I’ll lie,
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.
Shakespeare took the story further. He allowed Prince Henry – the future Henry V – to slip into the Chamber and, believing his father to be dead, to try on the crown, only for his father to wake up in anger. They were, however, reconciled and history moved on.
The Jerusalem Chamber is also the place where the committee overlooking the creation of the beautifully written King James Bible – one of the most influential books ever written – met regularly and where many celebrated people, such as Isaac Newton, were laid out before being buried in the Abbey. Today, it is one of the private rooms of the Deanery and cannot be visited except on open days or when a public lecture is held there. Few such small rooms can boast such a wealth of living history.
Read more of Vic Keegan’s Lost London findings here.