parish churchyard of Sherston, Wiltshire has over 40 pre-Victorian
chest tombs of interest and beauty, many of them listed.
Churchyards in this
country provide a rich treasure of public monuments and sculpture, many
dating from the Middle Ages. No other space in the public domain can rival
these landscapes. Their value is priceless, their importance incalculable.
‘God’s acre’ as the churchyard has been called, is also often a safe haven
for nature, with wild flowers, lichens and wildlife rarely exposed to
modern pesticides. All this is set against the backdrop of the church
itself, and provides the setting for the church, a building which is often
by far the most important and spectacular in the area.
In addition to their
aesthetic value and interest, churchyard monuments and memorials give
a tangible connection with our history in a manner which history books
can never achieve, bringing people physically in touch with their ancestors
and their history, and providing clues to important (local or national)
historical events which shaped our country and our landscape. Some are
well visited by people from all over the country, particularly if they
include memorials to famous people or if they are in areas renowned for
their churches and churchyards.
This article examines
one particular feature of the churchyard, the chest tomb, a type of memorial
which has been used in this country for the past 600-700 years at least,
and is now under threat not only from the weather, ivy, accidental damage
and vandalism, but also from a lack of maintenance. Too few churches have
the resources to maintain their own building, let alone their churchyard
Essentially, a chest
tomb is a memorial shaped like a stone box or cist, the whole of which
is above ground. The body of its subject was usually buried beneath the
memorial, not in the chest itself. The chief advantage of this type of
memorial is that it is more obvious than a headstone, and it provided
its sculptor with five surfaces for decoration. Those commonly found inside
medieval churches and cathedrals are usually topped by effigies of the
subject, often husband and wife, lying with their hands clasped in prayer
and provide a tantalising glimpse of the clothes and fashions of the time.
Outside in the churchyard, effigies are omitted, and the chests are usually
decorated on their sides only, and perhaps the edge of the lid, but there
are some spectacular exceptions, such as the ‘bale’ tombs of the Cotswolds,
so called because the top was thought to represent bales of wool.
the appearance of the railways, churchyard memorials were constructed
of local stone by local craftsmen. Early designs were all individual,
with a vast variety of different approaches, reflecting local custom first,
and national styles second. What was fashionable in London was not necessarily
fashionable in Cheshire or Edinburgh. Some fashions travelled well, but
others remained local. Thus the use of such memento mori as skulls and
hour glasses fell out of favour in some areas in the early 18th century,
but continued to be popular in the Cotswolds and many areas of the country
until the end of the century. Pattern books and designs published by,
for example, Batty Langley and the furniture designer Thomas Chippendale
promoted new tastes, but the polite classical and romantic forms they
inspired often appeared alongside those in the local traditional style:
theirs was a quiet revolution, dependent on local craftsmen to interpret
their designs in local materials.
comparison, the revolution that followed in the 19th century had the roar
of a steam engine, fuelled by a vast expansion in the population, the
growth of large dedicated cemeteries in the major cities, new technology
for cutting stone, a national distribution network of railways, and the
rise of monumental masonry as a distinct industry. Craftsmanship did not
die, despite the protestations of the mid 19th century medievalists like
William Morris, but it was very different.
it is convenient to consider the design of pre-Victorian chest tombs in
three distinct periods: Tudor, Stuart and Georgian.
EARLY AND TUDOR CHEST TOMBS
origins of the chest tomb as a distinct form of memorial are difficult
to trace, since churchyard memorials are exposed and vulnerable not only
to the elements, vandalism and accidental damage, but also to constant
use. If there were just eight burials per year, an ordinary parish churchyard
would have had 6,400 burials since the 12th century, requiring an area
of at least 1.8 acres of burial space. Competition for space was therefore
intense, reducing the incentive to retain and repair old and damaged memorials.
oldest table tomb in an English churchyard is believed to be the Perceval
Monument at Weston in Gordano, Somerset. According to its plaque, this
is the tomb of ‘Richard Perceval, commander in the crusades, who fought
under King Richard and died in 1202’. It is plain with a very thick, simply
shaped lid. There are a couple of 14th century examples; one at Necton,
Norfolk is unique in that it is surmounted by the effigy of a woman, and
is otherwise plain; the other, at Loversall, South Yorkshire (illustrated
in The Buildings of England) is superbly ornamented with fine tracery
in the Gothic perpendicular style.
these few examples it is impossible to draw many conclusions about the
design of the earliest chest tombs, or how comon they were. However, there
are a few more examples in the South West in the perpedicular style which
are believed to date from the 15th century (one of which, at Bishops Canning,
is illustrated below) and the development parallels that of chest tombs
inside the church.
tracery continued to be used into the 16th century, but later designs
tend to be plain, or simply ornamented with geometric emblems and shields,
as at Badgeworth near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. Another, at Podimore,
Somerset has simply fluted pilasters, and the rim of its heavy lid is
ornamented with dentils.
thickness of the lid is a useful guide to the age of a tomb. It was not
until the 17th century that the construction began to become significantly
THE STUART PERIOD AND THE POST-RESTORATION HEYDAY
vast majority of churchyard chest tombs are believed to date from the
17th century onwards. Many are simply but elegantly detailed, like fine
joinery, sometimes with fielded panels. Others are much more elaborate.
The Restoration in
1660 marks the start of arguably the most spectacular period of craftsmanship
and some of the finest carving can be seen on chest tombs of the period.
In some cases, every available surface was covered with ornament. In the
example from Northleach, Gloucestershire (illustrated below), the
ornamentation includes a skull, visible bottom right, as well as cherubs,
drapery, fruit and floral motifs. Memento mori such as this were intended
to remind people of the fragility of life and the importance of preparing
for the afterlife. At Plemstall, Cheshire, a
tomb is decorated with a complete skeleton on both sides, set in a frame
with ornate brackets and the rim of its lid is heavily gadrooned (a scrolling
bead-like pattern commonly used by silversmiths at this time). On one
side the skeleton holds an hourglass and an arrow, and on the other a
palm frond and an arrow. All are common devices on the more elaborately
carved headstones and tombs of the period. The hourglass represents the
passing of time (and our lives), the arrow represents death, and the palm
frond is believed to represent victory over death.
15th century chest tomb at Bishops Canning, Wiltshire, decorated in
with fine tracery in the perpendicular Gothic manner. The tomb
was completely covered by a dense mat of ivy before this photo was
exuberantly moulded design from the Cotswold village of Northleach,
Gloucestershire. Every inch is packed with ornamentation, including
fruit and foliage, as well as such memento mori as the skull.
magnificent example of the neo-classical style, at Bishops Canning,
THE GEORGIAN PERIOD
the 18th century progressed, designs became less exuberant, with a predominance
of heavy architectural mouldings and balusters until, with the rise of
palladian architecture, designs began to become lighter and more neo-classical,
characterised by fluted cornices and pilasters, often with geometrical
flower-like devices known as paterae where the cornice intersects with
the pilasters. A form of chest tomb known as the pedestal urn emerged,
with a tall, narrow chest (the pedestal) surmounted by an elegant neo-classical
classical forms continued to flourish throughout the regency period but
these were supplemented by a wide variety of other architectural sources,
including Greek, Gothic and Egyptian – a style which proved particularly
popular following victory against Napoleon at the battle of the Nile in
1805. Examples of all these styles can be seen in the new cemeteries of
the major cities.
from the moment they were created, these churchyard monuments were under
threat from the elements. In some cases, wind, driving rain and frost
rapidly erode the surface of the masonry, obliterating the inscriptions
and carving. Some stone used was simply unsuitable, peeling off in layers,
or crumbling away as the moisture absorbed from the rain freezes. Most
tombs are pinned together with iron cramps which rust and can split the
stone. Those early examples which have survived were well constructed
and are the most durable. But these too are threatened, particularly by
the roots of ivy and trees, if neglected.
many churches are struggling to cope with maintaining the primary church
buildings, let alone the churchyard monuments, with resources dwindling
even faster than their congregations. Furthermore, many of the best monuments
are in the ancient parish churches of small country towns and villages
with the lowest populations to support them. Most churchyards now rely
on volunteers for their maintenance, and often all that gets done regularly
is the lawn mowing.
importance of chest tombs is easy to overlook. Although often lavishly
ornamented, they remain small structures – some even smaller as they have
sunk below ground – attracting least attention. The 15th century tomb
at Bishops Canning for example was recorded for the Images of England
database in 2001, looking pristine. Two years later, not one inch of it
was visible beneath a dense mat of ivy, and the volunteer mowing the lawn
had no idea what was underneath it. Chest tombs are relatively inexpensive
to repair and maintain. However, churchyards which have chest tombs tend
to have lots of them. Sherston, for example, has over 40 pre-Victorian
chest tombs of interest and beauty, many of them listed. For churches
such as these, funding presents an almost insurmountable problem.
NOTES FROM GLOUCESTER DAC
Wiltshire and the Cotswolds have, between them, the greatest number
of chest or ‘table’ tombs in the country, and the Gloucester Diocesan
Advisory Committee has become increasingly concerned by the scale
of the problem faced in repairing and maintaining them. These
notes provide useful advice.
DAC is anxious about many of the tombs in its diocese which are
suffering from structural instability and general old age and dilapidation.
Quite apart from being a potential safety hazard, these tombs are
of obvious architectural quality (many are listed) and historical
value, and more must be done to stave off their demise.
view of the pressing claims on PCC finances, the Diocese recommends
that funds would be best used on those tombs which are either physically
dangerous (bearing in mind the PCCs’ legal responsibilities) and
especially on those which are unstable but which retain attractive
carving and detailing, often in surprisingly good condition. Where,
in other cases, the stonework is in an advanced state of decay,
it may be that attempts to arrest dilapidation would be unjustified,
and the resources better used elsewhere. We have to accept that
it may not be possible to conserve all our tombs.
Typical problems are likely to include:
of iron cramps, forcing the top slab up and/or the sides apart,
and causing fracturing of the stone
by ivy, which is capable of pushing stones apart
due to collapse of underground vaults
by inappropriate DIY repairs, in particular the use of hard cement,
which can accelerate decay of adjacent stone
decay or delamination of the surface of the stone.
many cases comparatively simple (although physically heavy) repair
work may well avert disaster and give otherwise well-preserved tombs
a chance of survival for many decades to come. This work needs an
approach which combines practicality and sound workmanship with
a sympathy for old materials. There are traditional builders and
specialist stone conservators who have had experience of similar
methods and materials are essential. In particular, any new metal
fixings must be non-ferrous, and appropriate lime mortar must be
used. Vegetation needs to be removed thoroughly but with care, and
this may involve at least partially dismantling the tomb in order
to get at all root growth. The use of herbicides will in most cases
not be appropriate, as it poses problems for wildlife, and its effects
over a period of time may in fact damage the stability of the tomb.
it will be necessary to provide a new solid base for the tomb, however
this should not be done as a matter of course. Levelling should
only be required where the tilt of a tomb poses a threat to safety.
Rebuilding of belowground structures may need archaeological supervision.
of missing stone is a problem which can be approached in different
ways. Limited replacement of decorative stone may be appropriate
- for example to replace missing corner pillars on classical chest
tombs, or missing pieces of lyre-shaped ends. It may be possible
to reuse and consolidate broken stonework, but if a complete side
is missing, rendered brick may be acceptable as an economical and
traditional solution to the problem.
will often be helpful for the PCC’s inspecting architect to be consulted,
and to discuss with the contractor or stone conservator an appropriate
solution to these problems. He or she could prepare a specification
for the work, or you could consider a specialist conservation report.
If a number of table tombs need attention, and/or if there are particularly
high quality tombs, it may be best to commission a report which
can be used as a basis for making decisions about priorities. Reports
of this sort are also appreciated by grantmaking bodies. A good
report will include a plan and numbering system, together with photographs
and a description of the tombs, together with recommendations for
necessary work. Contractors can then use this report as a basis
for their proposals, and for pricing purposes.
of a report of this quality will usually cost at least £500 plus
VAT. However the Council for the Care of Churches is often willing
to cover most if not all of this cost, from its reports fund. The
DAC secretary can advise on the desirability of a report in any
- Frederick Burgess, English Churchyard Memorials, Lutterworth
Press, Cambridge, 2004
- Mark Child, Discovering Churchyards, Shire Publications, Aylesbury, 1982
- Margaret Cox,
Grave Concerns, Council for British Archaeology, York,
- Hilary Lees, English Churchyard Memorials, Tempus, Stroud, 2000
- Julian Litten, The English Way of Death, Robert Hale, London, 1991
article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2003
JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.
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