Church monuments and gravestones in Norfolk

Richard Barham, April 2019

Well – it was an experience! Richard Barham took us on a photographic Norfolk Grand Tour of I don’t know how many churches and of an even greater number of memorials.

Memorials, large and small, to lives that at least their successors thought were worthy of permanent and, in older times especially, prominent recognition. The picture to the right shows cherubs from physician Sir Edmond Newdigate's tomb in Holt (1779).  My memories of the talk are less permanent than the monuments, so I apologise to those of you who know far more than do I.

We started with the priests, because until the 1300s they were the only people allowed to be buried in church. Their memorials are usually in the form of coffin slabs, variously ornate but generally simple, and frequently set into the church floor. Major trips hazards they can sometimes be especially as some ornately carved slabs remain set into the aisle. In general priests’ memorials do not include the name of the priest – a sign of modesty?

During the 1300s non-clerical monuments began to appear, generally knights in armour or Lords of the Manor, reclining next to their wives – the sort of thing most of us have seen. Over the years styles changed, from rigid flat on the back to rather more elegant poses – elegant, but not always looking comfortable, awkwardly propped on an elbow.         

There are common themes, many morbid and including a preponderance of skulls and even shroud-wrapped skeletons. Whole families of children appear on some monuments, presumably mourning the loss of their parent. Frequently you see hearts held in hands and offered up to heaven.

Sadly there was competition to be memorialised as close to the east end of the church as possible. Chancels and communion rails were overwhelmed by the monuments of the over-weening wealthy. Some small churches have been virtually engulfed by large monuments and in one case a hole had to be cut in the ceiling to accommodate the huge stonework.

In the Tudor era memorials became smaller and less ornate but still full of symbolism and there was a move towards brass and towards wall plaques. Some memorials were damaged at the Reformation and later during the Parliamentary period. Even the less ostentatious brass versions have been attacked – but brass is a material of some value!

Many memorials are notable works of art, sculpted usually in stone but also in a range of other materials including wood and alabaster. In some cases, no expense was spared. I forget where, but somewhere in Norfolk is a huge monument designed and created by a sculptor of national reputation for the bargain price of £3,000.00 – in 1805 – work that one out if you can.

It is hard to believe that the most recent full-sized lying effigy was installed in 1932, but pleasing to learn that Edward VII’s Sandringham memorial to his mother is a model of restraint. I hope this is it.                                 

 Noel Mitchell


Holt-cherubs Sir Edward Newdigate memorial

(Above: Holt-cherubs Sir Edward Newdigate memorial)
(Below: Queen Victoria, at Sandringham)


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