Sunday, May 15, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 20: Owning the Church

  My sorting and cleaning up of old photographs finally allowed me to identify two pictures which recalled a tale from when they were originally taken. I was trailing two small boys around medieval sites at the time. Mostly they were happy with castles and didn't mind monasteries if they had good drains, but churches generally had to be rationed. They were observant little lads though and as I was investigating a tomb one queried "Why is the shield in the stained glass window the same as the one on the knight's shield. Did he own the church?" I explained no, he didn't own it, but he may have had something to do with building the part of it where he was buried. Thinking about it for a few decades, there is an element of ownership in these remains, and sometimes contested ownership at that.

  The church was in Ryther, West Yorkshire, where there are tombs to members of the Ryther family. In an earlier post I discussed how stained glass windows could be funerary monuments in themselves, and could contain specific references to praying for the souls of the dead. Another post also discussed the use of heraldry on tombs as an identifier and a status marker. I guess I am trying to pull a few threads together to look at signs of possession within the church.
  There must always have been some competition between the clergy and the wealthy lay folks about ownership of the church real estate. The clergy used the space to go about their business of saying the offices and the mass, conducting weddings, baptisms, confessions and funerals and doing their own work. It was their space. Nonetheless, wealthy donors provided some of the means for them to do it, and laid claim to spaces for their personal and family display.
  Some of the earliest large effigy tombs are in the great churches, the cathedrals and abbeys, commemorating the senior clergy of the church; the founding fathers and those who oversaw the development of ever increasing grandeur of these buildings and communities. These can be seen in some places, despite being moved and messed around during the course of various religious upheavals.

  The Purbeck marble tomb to Bishop Joscelin de Bohun (d.1184) in Salisbury Cathedral is one of several of senior ecclesiastics in this church.

  Abbot Benedict (d.1193) is one of a number of abbots who survived the Reformation and remain commemorated in Peterborough Cathedral after it was changed from a Benedictine abbey. They weren't forgetting their origins in Peterborough.
  Ecclesiastics were not the only people memorialised in the abbeys, even those which did not serve as cathedrals. Although one might think of the more remote Cistercian houses, for example, as places that were largely the preserve of their serving monastic communities, significant lay people were buried there, having paid well for the privilege no doubt.

  This mangled specimen of a knightly effigy lies in the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey. Nobody salvaged him and carted him off to a safer haven at the dissolution of the monasteries. His capacity to own a piece of monastic territory was subverted by the disappearance of the institution itself.

  A hefty but battered tomb of Sir Ralph Bowes stands plonk under the crossing of the church of Egglestone Abbey, a Premonstratensian house. More modest slabs and brass indents are scattered about, of lay and ecclesiastical figures. This was a bit of a battling house and probably had to treat its patrons well.

  At Fountains Abbey some battered relics of the tombs of the abbots lie in the chapter house. This was a space where the monks conducted their own affairs and could perhaps be perceived as their particular space, even more than the body of the church was.
  In the later medieval period, the claiming of space in the major churches, by ecclesiastics as well as mighty lay people, became even more conspicuous with the building of lavish chantries, marking out confined spaces within the general area of the church and splashing heraldry and other symbols of ownership all over them. They were for the wealthy, religious or lay, as they not only required payment for their construction but ongoing expenditure to maintain the priests who said the masses in them.

  Entrance to a chantry in Ely Cathedral. Now imagine it with all its colour and statuary; definitely laying claim to a space.
  In the parish churches, it seems the wealthy local laity had the upper hand. While there are some fancy tombs to parish priests, there are many more modest little affairs and a lot of them are small brasses.

  This tiny brass to a priest in West Tanfield church, North Yorkshire, sits in a church with several large and elaborate effigy tombs to the laity. Who provided these modest memorials - family, parishioners? I don't doubt there may have been some battles, and some rearrangements over time, as the priests tried to ensure they had the space to do their business while the lay patrons tried to impose their memorials in the most conspicuous places.
  Stained glass windows do not occupy floor space and they do serve useful and aesthetic functions within the church. Heraldic windows emblazon the family stamp on the place without getting in anybody's way, which might explain why you find so many of them.

  The above is an assortment of glass fragments in St Martin's church, Stamford, featuring some natty heraldic shields.
  I suspect some competition among the laity themselves for ownership of space as family fortunes waxed and waned. There are plenty of clues that tombs got moved around and re-organised and it is not always clear when. The older, and often a bit forlorn, effigies seem to be usually found in churches that are not crammed with the clunky memorials of post-Refomation upstarts, whether they are in tiny country churches or tucked away rather surprisingly in modern industrial towns (or post-industrial in many cases today). Tomb chests show signs of having been broken up and reassembled. Effigies look to have been dragged outside and left in the rain. In some cases they have been found buried in the churchyard or tucked into strange places inside the church.

  This alabaster couple in Pickering church lie in what looks like a family chapel, but if they haven't spent some time out in the North Yorkshire dreek I would be very surprised.

  Then there is this. Several tombs of the de la Pole family reside in the church at Wingfield, Suffolk, a church which became collegiate under their patronage. Note the location of the tomb up next to the altar and the way that various heraldic devices spread all over the aisle arcades of the chancel. The sedilia are actually built in to the structure of the tomb. Another tomb lies directly opposite on the other side of the chancel. These folks are still owning the church.
  We like to have a romantic notion of medieval churches as havens of peace, love and Christian values, but it is very hard for those competitive, acquisitive, pugnacious creatures we call people to leave those characteristics at the door. The battle for status and influence continues inside, using the vocabulary of the sacred spaces.

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