Monday, August 17, 2009

"I see dead people!"

© 2009 by Christy K Robinson

I collect photos of ancestral effigies. I have compiled a list of burial places for hundreds of ancestors. I’ve even visited many of the burial places in England, Scotland, Ukraine, and Paris. There are scores of locations I’ve yet to visit.

What is an effigy? Dictionary.com says, “a representation or image, esp. sculptured, as on a monument.”

The medieval effigy gave words to the deceased, which even an illiterate audience could read: the stone image showed the social status, religious piety, power, and beauty that the deceased would have at the Resurrection, as well as a bit of history in the accompanying heraldic insignia: which noble families contributed to the genealogy, status, dignitas, and wealth of the deceased. Effigies were, like the pyramids of Egypt, meant to be eternal memorials to the memory of the deceased. Their depictions were specified in wills.

Realism in depicting the deceased came in a big way during the reign of Edward III and Philippa (latter half of the 14th century), but there was a wonderful art patronage during Henry III’s reign a hundred years earlier, so some effigies may bear resemblance to the person who’s buried there. In royal personages, there was an attempt at realism in the facial features of the tomb effigy, while the body and clothing were idealized as the warrior, the pious, the literate. There are several paintings, bosses, and sculptures of Eleanor of Aquitaine, that show a beautiful woman with an oval face. Taken on the whole (if you squint), you can get an idea of her looks. Similar story with Edward II’s wife Isabella of France.


If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from CreateSpace, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon

I like the sweetness of the clasped hands of Katherine Mortimer and Thomas Beauchamp, Countess and Earl of Warwick, at the church of St. Mary there. (Katherine was daughter of Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March.)
Katherine Mortimer and
Thomas Beauchamp at Warwick.
Photo by Christy K Robinson
The effigies I’ve observed are now bare stone, but many of them would have been richly painted in blue, red, and gold. The ones of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, in France, have been restored to colorful glory. 

Ralph Neville, 1st Earl Westmorland, is the central figure of an effigy grouping at Staindrop church at Raby, Durham. His first and second wives (Margaret Stafford and Joan Beaufort, both of whom are my ancestors) are buried elsewhere, but are depicted in alabaster with Ralph at Staindrop. The women look the same in features, dress, and age, although Margaret died at age 32 and Joan at age 61. I’m not sure of the date of the sculptures, but Ralph’s wife Joan Beaufort died in 1440. The alabaster was said to have come from John of Gaunt’s quarries, so perhaps they were made during the life of Joan, youngest daughter of John of Gaunt.
Humphrey de Bohun's effigy at Exeter.
Photo by Christy K Robinson
In non-royal effigies, I’ve read (somewhere) that effigies were roughed out by masons at a quarry, then finished and “personalized” to order. Most effigies have no resemblance to the deceased, but are depicted in clothing or armor of their generation. The women appear to be in their 20s (and might have been if they died in childbirth), and the men in their 40s. However, at Arundel’s FitzAlan Chapel, there’s a grotesque effigy of a decomposed body, some sort of super-pious reminder that humans are inherently evil and destined for hell. 
Effigy of Longespee at Salisbury.
Many images portray the person with open eyes fixed upon a prayer book, an image of saint, angel, or crucifix; or with the body turned slightly toward the altar. All recumbent effigies (and indeed the bodies buried there) have their feet toward the east end of the church, reportedly because at the Second Coming of Christ, the body would arise facing the Lord. Some effigies show a relaxed body with crossed legs and feet resting on a pillow, a lion, or a lap dog. Others depict knights in battle armor, hands on sword pommels. 
On some tombs, there are small figures carved at the base. These are “weepers,” showing their loss with hunched bodies or hands covering their faces, but much more, they indicated the noble ancestry or the virility of the deceased. Sometimes the weepers depicted the children of the deceased, as with 13th-century Ralph Neville and Alice d’Audley at Durham, or with the 16th-century Eyre memorials at St. Thomas Church in Salisbury. In clerical instances, the weepers represented their noble connections and/or ecclesiastical authority.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of effigies were destroyed when abbeys and priory churches were destroyed at the Dissolution in the 1530s. After the removal of precious art and furniture, the lead roofs were melted for recycling, the churches were burned, and the dressed stones removed to build other structures. Even more tombs were destroyed or vandalized by parliamentary forces in the English Civil War, including those of my ancestors in Lincoln and Durham Cathedrals.

Although I’ve found ancestral effigies in small gatehouse chapels and huge cathedrals, my favorite effigies were those of the Lords of Middleham, Robert fitzRanulf and his father Ranulf fitzRobert, at Coverham Abbey in Yorkshire (see my blog header). The effigies were discovered in the wreckage of the Dissolution, and now stand as garden art on private property. Ranulf and Robert were ancestors of the powerful Neville family from whom I (and millions of others) descend.

When you see the effigy, say a prayer or “think good thoughts” if you’re so inclined. That was the purpose of an effigy -- that onlookers would remember the importance or influence of a life; that the pile of dust inside the tomb was once beloved of mother or father, children or spouse. While they lived, they patronized religious houses (providing charity to the poor and dying). They were mighty in battle or political influence. When these people lived, they paid for masses and prayers in perpetuity, hoping to be relieved and redeemed from purgatory or hell. Who knows how long (or if) these prayers continued. But some of us like to pay our respects and wonder, just a little, what the living years felt like for the people resting under the effigies.


  1. Great, informative post, Christy! I love effigies, and it makes me so sad to think of the destruction during the Reformation and after.

    One of my favourite effigies is Roger Mortimer's (died 1330) daughter Blanche Grandison at Much Marcle church in Herefordshire. It's just incredibly beautiful. I love Katherine (Blanche's sister) and Thomas Beauchamp holding hands, too.

  2. Thanks, Alianore. Did you know that the fourth pic down is Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex? (Brother-in-law of Edward II.) After his death at Boroughbridge, he was buried at Friars Preachers in Yorkshire, but his effigy is in Exeter Cathedral. I wonder why Exeter, and not his own counties? Maybe he was a member of the Exeter guild.

    Next trip to UK, I need to see Much Marcle. There are other ancestors there!

  3. Nice site, Christy! I'm descended from this royal line too. Humphrey de Bohun, the 4th Earl of Hereford, 2rd Earl of Essex, was buried at Exeter Cathedral, not at Blackfriars or Friars Preacher, Yorkshire. I'm not sure where that information came from.

    Perhaps he was buried at Exeter because his eldest surviving daughter, Margaret Courtenay nee Bohun was then the Countess of Devon and her family were then being buried at Exeter. She would have been in charge of his funeral at that point, since his lands and titles were forfeit after his opposition to the king, Edward II. They were reinstated after the fall of the Despensers.

  4. Thank you for the information, Catherine. Yours is very logical. I had at least two sources, both of which may be wrong, because everyone trusts that the Internet is pure gospel! ;) These were my sources for Humphrey's burial place: http://www.whosyomama.com/gabroaddrick3/5543.htm
    and http://www.empusa.co.uk/home/history.htm I wonder if he was initially interred in Yorkshire and moved when Margaret was ready to memorialize him. That happened to other ancestors.

    Many generations of Bohuns were buried at Llanthony Secunda in Gloucester.

    When it came to taking a photo of his effigy, I had some trouble. There was an art show in the south quire aisle, and a large, heavy signboard directly in front of the effigy. I had to take several pictures (segments) and then merge them in Photoshop. I could have copied the image from another website, but that wouldn't be MY trophy!


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