Country church monuments

The hidden treasures of English churches

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This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Country Church Monuments by C.B. Newham (Particular Books, £40)

One of the joys of visiting parish churches in England and Wales is discovering the monuments they contain. Unlike the other items that one regularly encounters inside churches, such as fonts, stained glass and furnishings, monuments come in all shapes, sizes and ages; everything from humble wall tablets with just a name and date of death to huge vainglorious piles of marble with lengthy inscriptions extolling the virtues of those commemorated. 

Monuments can tell us a great deal about the past and the lives of the people who lived in those times. Tombs with effigies can show us the clothes or armour of particular eras for which real examples no longer exist. Just about every type of material has been used in creating these memorials, ranging from the basics such as wood and stone through to alabaster, various marbles (both local and imported), bronze, brass (including latten, an alloy used for monumental brasses), copper, ceramics and glass. 

The range of types and materials is simply extraordinary and has afforded artists through the ages superb opportunities to show off their skills. With such a diverse range of subjects, there is likewise a great opportunity for the photographer to capture remarkable images. In my book Country Church Monuments, I have set out to do just that for a selection of 365 of what I consider the best examples of monuments in rural parish churches — the best in terms of innovative design, sculptural skill, singularity, or sheer over-the-top exuberance. Here I present some of my favourites.

Alice de la Pole’s monument at St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, Oxfordshire, (above) is one of the finest medieval tombs outside the metropolis. It stands between the chancel and chapel of the church, the latter retaining its fine late-fifteenth- century angel ceiling, wall paintings, carvings, and much of its medieval stained glass. The survival of both the tomb and much of its original context is extraordinary enough, but the monument itself is something special. 

On top of a tomb chest lies the Duchess of Suffolk as in life, her heavy-jawed face possibly an attempt at portraiture — rare for such an early period. Beneath, behind a stone grille, is another effigy; this time of Alice as a decaying cadaver partly covered by a shroud. In life she was the most powerful woman in the country bar the queen, but here she is reduced to a rotting corpse: What you are, I was; what I am, you will be. 

The cadaver’s heavy-lidded eyes rest upon painted images of the Annunciation and her favourite saints, St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene. It is a scene of private devotion, and only the viewer who is willing to crouch low on the floor may glimpse it.

An elaborate wooden monument at St Marnack and St Dunstan, Lanreath, Cornwall (right) commemorates Charles and Agnes Grylls. He died in 1611/12 and she in 1607, but the monument was not erected until 1623. Small effigies of Charles and Agnes kneel in prayer on a black-and-white chequered floor beneath a canopy. They look like puppets that have just popped into view. Originally they were mounted facing one another. 

The whole monument is brightly-coloured and much of it is painted to look like marble — one of the couple’s sons, John, who erected the monument, clearly wanted to economise. At the rear is an inscription panel flanked by two figures who most likely represent the Grylls’s steward, Henry Michell, and the rector of the church, Ezekiel Helliar. The couple’s children kneel along the base and, unusually for this period, have been portrayed as individuals.

The military effigy at All Saints, Clehonger, Herefordshire (right) probably represents Sir Richard de Pembrugge, briefly a Member of Parliament who resided at Clehonger Manor in the first half of the 14th century. This well-preserved effigy shows a man in armour, his ridged bascinet resting on a pillow supported by angels. His feet lie against a dog which bites the end of his sword. The figure has a restless attitude; the body sways to the right while his head is turned to the left. It effectively conveys motion, as if Sir Richard is ready to spring from the tomb chest on which he lies. It is a lovely piece of carving and well worth seeking out.

Frances Dirdoe is flanked by two of her sisters, Rebecca and Rachel, in a lovely relief carving on her monument at St Mary, Gillingham, Dorset (below). Frances was the youngest of 15 children and at the time of her death in 1734 only her sisters Rebecca and Rachel had not married. She set aside £100 in her will for the erection of a monument featuring her effigy and also specified that her two sisters were to erect statues of themselves to be placed either side of hers. It is not known who carved the beautiful relief, but the monument was most likely designed by Nathaniel Ireson, a local architect and master builder from Wincanton. Francis also established a trust for the yearly placing of a poor child of the parish as an apprentice to a trade. The trust operated until its closure in 1994.

The oak effigy of Sir Robert du Bois at St Andrew, Fersfield, Norfolk, (below) retains most of its mid- fourteenth-century painted decoration. It is a rare survival and a national treasure. The effigy’s excellent preservation is due to its original location in a low tomb recess in the church’s south aisle, where it later became hidden by pews and its surface covered with a layer of dirt. In the eighteenth century, the historian and rector of the church, Francis Blomefield, had the effigy cleaned and repainted. When this paint was removed in the 1960s, the original medieval paint was revealed. The effigy is now displayed in a protective glass case in the south aisle of the church.

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