A taste for the macabre - late medieval cadaver tombs

Fyfield, Berkshire
Golafre monument at Fyfield in Berkshire

In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century people had rather a taste for the macabre when it came to funeral monuments. From the 1440s onwards it was common for the higher clergy, gentry and merchants to erect transi tombs - double level tombs in which they were portrayed in all their earthly finery above and with image of their decomposing corpse in the openwork tomb chest below. Many of these monuments were erected during the lifetime of the individual to serve as a memento mori for them during their remaining years and for those who saw it in the years after. One of the earliest monuments of this sort is that of Sir John Golafre who died in 1442 and is buried at Fyfield in Berkshire. He was portrayed in a rather advanced state of decay, with sunken eyes, taut neck and exposed ribs. The top of the monument is surmounted with an effigy of Golafre in full plate armour.

Chichele monument in Canterbury Cathedral, photo by Flambard

Around the same time as the Golafre monument is the tomb of Archbishop Henry Chichele (died 1443) in Canterbury Cathedral. On the upper level Chichele is portrayed in full pontificals, while below in the openwork tomb chest he is portrayed in the grips of rigor-mortis. On the monument is the inscription: 'I was a pauper born, then to primate here raised, now I am cut down and served up for worms ... Whoever who may be who will pass by, I ask for your remembrance.'

Holme by Newark, Nottinghamshire 4
Barton monument at Holme-by-Newark in Nottinghamshire

A lot later is the similar monument to John Barton a wealthy wool merchant and self-made man, who died in 1491. He erected the monument during his lifetime, positioning it between the high altar and Lady altar of Holme-by-Newark church in Nottinghamshire, smack in front of where he sat to hear mass. In his will he asked to be buried in the novo monumento he had erected. On the top he is portrayed as a successful and pious businessman of advanced years, lying with his large purse and rosary beads beside the figure of his wife. Below is a wonderful 'screaming' corpse. On the side of the slab that supports the corpse a quote from Job 19 is carved: 'have pity on me, you my friends, for the hand of the lord has touched me' - The monument was obviously intended to be a momento mori for his friends and family.

Holme by Newark, Nottinghamshire 3
A detail of the Barton monument.

For those with less disposable income cheaper versions of the transi tomb were available. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century shroud brasses proliferated, these portrayed the deceased in the attitude of prayer wrapped in their winding sheet. The brass of William Lenthall (died 1497) at Great Haseley, Oxfordshire is a fairly typical example.

Great Haseley, Oxfordshire

Lenthall brass at Great Haseley in Oxfordshire

The most extreme development of this sort of image is perhaps the monumental brass commemorating the priest Ralph Hamsterley who died in 1518. He is portrayed as a skeletal figure wrapped in a shroud, being merrily munched by worms. Even his eyes are being devoured and they have got in between his ribs. Ralph was warden of Merton College Oxford and a pluralist. He had four of these brasses erected one over his grave in Merton and one in each of his livings, the one he erected in Oddington in Oxfordshire remains.

Oddington, Oxfordshire
Hamsterley brass at Oddington in Oxfordshire

Lastly and equally grisly are the shrouded alabaster figures commemorating Thomas Beresford (died 1473) and his wife at Fenny Bentley in Derbyshire. Wrapped up with ties round their legs like overgrown chrysalises.

Fenny Bentley, Derbyshire
Beresford monument at Fenny Bentley in Derbyshire


Andrew Teather said…
Wonderful site. I have given you a mention on Anglican Wanderings.

Lapinbizarre said…
Is the Beresford cadaver tomb of 15th century date? The knots around the legs looked a bit strange to me, and I checked Flickr and found a view of the opposite side of the tomb, complete with tomb-chest. The incised coats of arms, winding-sheet cadavers of Beresford's children, and above all, the style of the lettering, seem more in line with a late 16th or early 17th century date, than with Thomas Beresford's death date of 1473.

The view of the opposite side of the tomb, posted by Buildings Fan, is here:

Allan Barton said…
Thanks Andrew, I'm glad you like it.
Allan Barton said…
Lapinbizarre. Now that is a very interesting point. The tomb chest is clearly as you say Elizabethan or Jacobean, probably Elizabethan. Paula Frosch writing in 'Church Monuments' vol. XV (2000) points out that the effigy of the wife is of a different type of alabaster to that of her husband. She matches the tomb chest and he does not. Her theory is that the effigy of Thomas dates from around the time of his death in the 1470s and may have been part of a different monument, which was damaged or destroyed.
Lapinbizarre said…
The differences in the figuring of the alabaster from which each cadaver is carved, and the differences in their design and execution, down to the beveling of the edge of the slab supporting the smaller of the two, is clearly visible in another of Building's Fan's scans:


Might the larger effigy have been transferred from a dissolved monastic establishment? This certainly happened, at a higher social level, elsewhere, as with the Norfolk tombs, moved from Thetford to Framlingham, the De Vere tombs, moved from priory to parish church at Earls Colne, and the York reburials at Fotheringay.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for these striking images; the wrapped cadavers and the screaming cadaver were types unknown to me. Do not omit what may be the most beautifully executed cadaver tomb, that of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, both in the silken charm of the over-portrait, and in the caved-in corpse, with its detailing of the wrinkled forehead, the matted hair, and the shriveled flesh over the breasts, fingers, knees, and feet. Alice, grand-daughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, died 1475, and is buried in Ewelme, SE of Oxford, between the choir and the south chapel (where her father Thomas Chauceer and his wife Maud Burghersh have their tomb). The church is linked by a short stair and passage to a "cloister" almshouse which Alice and Suffolk endowed, and for which Alice herself wrote the statutes. (No doubt she realized how much extra praying her husband's and her own soul would need to make it out of their political purgatory.) The almshouse was in turn linked to the school they also endowed, which remains to this day a primary school, I believe in the C of E system. The whole makes a visually and mentally rewarding excursion.
Mark Berresford said…
The Beresford tombs at Fenny Bentley date from about 150 years after Sir Thomas's (my forebear's) death. The story goes that, as there was no image of Sir Thomas and Lady Agnes, the mason took the easy way out by depicting them in shrouds.
Allan Barton said…
Dear Mark, thanks for your comment. Please see my earlier comment, the latest scholarly research suggests that the effigy of Thomas dates from the time of his death and that his wife was in fact added later when the monument was altered and a new tomb chest made.
Judith Simpson said…
Dear Allan

I have come across your site while researching the role of clothing in death ritual. I am wondering if I might link to some of your wonderful photographs (academic use only and full credit given...) Please let me know your feelings on this.

Kind regards

(PhD student, University of Leeds)
Billy Blue Eyes said…
Bit late commenting on this but the nearest I have seen to tombs like this was at Ewelme and the tomb of Alice de la Pole though I missed another at St Johns Burford because I did not look down

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