1 - Medieval Lordly Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

Medieval Lordly Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

2 - Carew monument, Exeter Cathedral

Carew monument, Exeter Cathedral

Early 19th-century praying portrait, Winchester Cathedral

Early 19th-century praying portrait, Winchester Cathedral

Here are some very basic musings about tombs in cathedrals prepared for the Speaking with the Dead exhibition at Exeter Cathedral. Church monument experts: expect to find errors and happy to be corrected and additional examples pointed out.


Effigy tombs are complex, varied, striking and prominent monuments to the elite dead which can dominate even the largest of cathedral churches. These space-gobbling monuments can be placed in wall-niches or free-standing within cathedral aisles, chapels or transepts. They are among the most interesting to visitors and most commented upon monuments for any cathedral.

These are body-centred monuments. Effigy tombs (and effigy slabs) depicted the dead in prayer or holding artefacts that denote their office and identity. The sculpted bodies wore costumes befitting the deceased’s status or rank held in life and that aspired for recognition in Heaven.

Recipients of effigy tombs included archbishops, bishops, abbots, deacons and priests. For the secular elite: royalty, nobility, gentlefolk were sometimes joined by lower social classes.

Effigy tombs were created to commemorate the dead as animate souls, upon chest tombs, elaborate canopies above. The body is in repose, not asleep and certainly not dead. Originally, they were depicted in rich polychrome to give a life-like appearance.

Angels, saints, heraldic beasts, canine companions and a range of other figures and ornament add to the variability of effigy tombs. Text is thus subordinate, wrapped around and introducing the principal corporeal focus of the tomb. Yet these are not mute stones: they speak to us and they spoke and speak to each other.

4 Worcester - King John's Effigy Tomb

King John’s Effigy Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

5 Ripon 18th century monument

18th-century monument, Ripon Cathedral

Effigial Chronologies: Speaking over Time

Medieval effigy-slabs and tombs date from the late 12th century through to the early 16th century.

After the Reformation, both secular and ecclesiastical effigy tombs persist during the later 16th and 17th centuries. In addition the continued depiction of the dead in repose, new postures are adopted, including the dead in prayer, seated, standing or simply busts. Figural art also rises up onto the walls upon more abbreviated murla monuments.

There are 18th-century examples that depart from the formal effigial design with the deceased lying down beneath the epitaph. There are also increasingly  life-size ‘mourners'; usually women but also children, angels and cherubs.

6 Lichfield - girls

Early 19th-century effigy commemorating the lives and deaths of two young girls, Lichfield Cathedral.

Early nineteenth-century examples include the ‘sleeping children’ of 1817, a particularly sentimental sculpture from Lichfield Cathedral for two female children who died in 1813 and 1814.


Effigies find a further lease of life following the Gothic revival in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. There are recumbent effigies of specific individuals as well as statues of mourning women and generic representations of soldiers upon war memorials. Therefore, effigies in cathedrals were designed, commissioned and installed for over eight hundred years and are phenomenally varied.


9 Redvers Buller Winchester

Effigy tomb for Sir General Redvers Buller, Winchester Cathedral

Continuous Effigies: Speaking through Time

Effigy tombs form a prominent lynchpin creating senses of continuity through the ages in cathedrals. At Canterbury there are effigy tombs for all periods, the earliest dating to the thirteenth century and the latest dating to Archbishop Randall Johnson (d. 1928).

In other cathedrals, there are huge time-gaps without effigies. For example, Exeter has a good range of medieval and early modern effigy tombs but nothing later. Here, effigies define the cathedral’s distant past. Conversely, effigy tombs from Chester and St Albans only survive from the 19th century, suggesting they are neo-medieval attempts to embed the dead in relation to imagined pasts.

10 Bishop Owen - St Davids, early 20th century

Effigy of Bishop Owen in St David’s Cathedral

In between these extremes, effigy tombs appear spasmodic constructions in some other cathedrals. At Norwich and Llandaff cathedrals, the medieval effigies are only augmented in the 19th century. Likewise, a large number of medieval effigy tombs survive at Winchester Cathedral but there is subsequently a hiatus until an early 17th-century effigy, a late 17th-century statue and then another hiatus before the construction of a series of 19th-century monuments and one early 20th-century effigy tomb commemorating General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (d. 1908).

A great spasmodic situation exists at St David’s Cathedral there is a huge time-gap between the fine collection of medieval effigies and one early modern effigy tomb, and the early 20th-century memorial effigies to Bishop John Owen (d. 1926) and the Countess of Maidstone (d. 1932). These temporal leap-frogs create different balances between continuity and discontinuity in the effigial use of cathedral space.

11 The Lord Rhys

Effigy of the Lord Rhys, St David’s Cathedral

12 Pearson - Chester Cathedral

Victorian effigy tomb celebrating the 17th-century theologian John Pearson, Chester Cathedral

Effigial Ancestors

A further dimension of effigial chronologies is that many are created retrospectively, and thus speak of far older periods as active ways of creating ancestral identities in cathedral space. The 14th-century effigy to the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd (d. 1196) in St David’s Cathedral may represent a medieval example of retrospective commemoration or else an antiquarian misattribution.

Chester Cathedral’s effigial obsession, with the exception of an early modern mural monument, was short-lived and Victorian. One effigy, for Bishop of Chester John Pearson (d. 1686), was 1863 paid for by American funds nearly two centuries after Pearson’s death.

Other effigies accrue ancestral identities through time; their lack of texts meaning that anonymous memorials acquire attributions. An effigy originally in the north transept of Norwich Cathedral has been afforded such an identity, attributed by antiquaries to the first Norman bishop: Herbert de Losinga. Likewise, at St David’s Cathedral, one effigy attributed to the famous Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) is legend rather than historical fact: it is more likely to be the effigy of his nephew Giraldus Fitzphilip de Barri.

15 Ripon - severly damaged effigy tomb

An example of memorials subject to iconoclasm: medieval effigy tomb at Ripon Cathedral

Effigial Biographies: Speaking with Different Voices

The project is also interested in the biographies of individual monuments: how they took on new associations, were installed, reused, fragmented, vandalised, relocated, restored and reinterpreted. Especially those without texts acquire many speculative attributions by antiquaries and many of these ‘named effigies’ remain in guidebooks and popular accounts of cathedrals without demonstrable evidence as to their real, original owners.

16 Ripon - Hugh Ripley monument

Ripley monument in Ripon Cathedral

Texts sometimes chart dimensions of the biographies of effigial monuments. For example the mural monument with a portrait of the deceased has a distinctive 18th century look, even though the memorial commemorates the early 17th-century merchant and mayor Hugh Ripley (d. 1637). An appended memorial plaque explains that the corporation restored the monument in 1730 following its damage in the English Civil War.

A 15th-century cadaver effigy, now separated from its now defunct owner’s tomb, has been displayed on two subsequent bases with 19th and 20th-century Latin inscriptions is now situated in the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral.

17 Cadaver tomb - LIchfield

15th-century cadaver tomb in Lichfield Cathedral

Equally interesting is this process of reattribution and reuse over time. At Exeter Cathedral, for example, there are two effigies, one in the Speke Chantry (Sir John Speke, d. 1519) and an effigy attributed to either Bishop Bartholomeus Iscarus (d. 1184) or a retrospective memorial to the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Leofric (c. 1070) in the Lady Chapel that are today the focus of votive offerings, memorial photographs and cards.

Thus tombs become foci for memorialisation long after they cease to operate as foci of memorialisation by those that knew the deceased. In this case, the identity of the deceased is largely incidental to the memory work focusing upon them.

19 Exeter - Lady Chapel

Exeter Lady Chapel pairing of medieval bishop’s effigy tombs

Referencing Effigies: How Effigy Tombs Cite Each Other

A further theme is how effigy tombs reference each other in their form and their location. Sometimes this was original, at other times the associations were created long after their original installation. These ‘conversations’ between tombs can be between tombs of the same broad epoch.

21 19th-century effigy tombs

Victorian effigies in the Lady Chapel of Worcester Cathedral.

A classic example of two medieval effigy tombs that ‘speak to each other’ can be found in the pairing of bishop’s tombs in the walls of the Lady Chapel at Exeter Cathedral: Bishop Branscombe (d. 1290) and Bishop Stafford (d. 1419). Likewise, pairings of bishop’s tombs in St David’s Cathedral are post-medieval contrivances; creating associations from tombs previously located outside the cathedral church. In these instances, a spiritual genealogy is created through this spatial pairing within very prominent places in the cathedral despite their deaths being separated by over a century.

23 Exeter - south transept tombs

Effigy tombs ‘in conversation’. A pairing of effigies of contrasting date and original location but similar pairs of husband and wife in the south transept of Exeter Cathedral.

A comparable ‘conversation’ can be found between Victorian effigy tombs at Worcester Cathedral, and in this case this was created after each tomb was created. Again in the Lady Chapel, there are two late 19th-century effigy tombs commemorating Lord Lyttelton (d. 1876) and the Earl of Dudley (d. 1885). These are joined by a striking female effigy in prayer in a semi-upright position (Charlotte Elizabeth Digby, d. 1820).

In further instances, the conversations involve far greater time travel over the centuries and hence represent cumulative pairings or assemblages of tombs through spatial associations.

Explicit spatial relationships between medieval and post-Reformation monuments are evident in the south transept of Exeter Cathedral with its juxaposition of two effigy tombs, both to husbands and wives; the 14th-century Courtenay tomb moved here after the Reformation and juxtaposed with the late 16th-century Gilbert monument.

At Llandaff Cathedral is a similar pairing beside the high altar in the chancel between the anonymous effigy of a medieval knight, repositioned next to an effigy of a Victorian bishop, Alfred Olivant (d. 1882). In such instances it is important to remember that the Victorian effigies used the colour of the stone to create a sense of antiquity, invoking the worn medieval effigies that would have originally been richly painted in polychrome.


Different cathedrals in England and Wales reveal different effigial chronologies, adopted ancestors, biographies and citations, making effigy tombs operate in contrasting ways in the accrual and transformation of social memory over the long-term. It is by looking at how tombs ‘speak’ to each other, we can further understand how tombs speak to us.

24 Llandaff - juxtaposition of medieval and modern effigies

‘Conversing’ effigies at Llandaff Cathedral


As part of Strand 1 of the Past in its Place project – Speaking with the Dead – I am writing (with my PhD student Ruth Nugent about cremation and cathedrals) in England and Wales.

In considering cathedrals as environments for ongoing literary and material engagements between the living and the dead, it would be easy to dismiss the last 150 years as a time of commemorative decline. Scholarship on monuments and memorials bears out this impression. After all, the vast majority of scholarly research on cathedral memorials has focused on medieval shrines and effigies, early modern mural monuments, and sometimes the grandiose edifices of Victorian clergy.

Our research suggests the contrary. By looking at a sample of English and Welsh cathedrals to reveal wider trends and practices in cathedral commemoration, the Speaking with the Dead project has identified that cathedrals have sustained and adapted themselves as nodes in a complex topography for remembering the dead. While burial in cathedrals has all but ceased in the late 19th century, cenotaphs to bodies interred elsewhere, and memorials to the cremated dead, persist as key dimensions of how cathedrals operate as places of memory. Furthermore, the ashes of the cremated dead have, during the 20th century, increasingly reached into cathedral commemorative environments long denied to unburned cadavers following Victorian legislation against intramural and inner-city burial.

While lengthy, eloquent epitaphs are all but absent, this memorial tradition remains textual, in an abrupt, formulaic and thus powerful and conservative fashion. Furthermore, these memorials gain their significance both individually and collectively, through their integration into the pre-existing fabric of medieval buildings and their surroundings. Memorials to the cremated dead also gain significance through their close association and reuse of far older aisles, chapels, monuments and memorials: often place side-by-side with the tombs of medieval bishops and Jacobean aristocrats.

How are the cremated dead memorialised through materials, texts and spaces in and around the modern cathedral?

  1. Churches and cathedrals have a long tradition of cenotaphic memorialisation since the Middle Ages, with memorials situated on/in walls, windows, floors and fittings (such as pews and lecterns) displaced from the bodies subject to commemoration. In many ways, memorials to the cremated dead are incorporated into this long tradition of memorialisation without the body that persists to the present dayFig 1a - Canterbury
  2. Long before cremation came back into fashion, cremation was implied in cathedral architecture from the late sixteenth century through to the nineteenth century. Mural monuments to aristocrats, and later regimental and war memorials, depict the hero’s tomb, flaming urns articulating the ascension of the soul to Heaven, lidded urns implying the idea of ashes therein, and torches used in antiquity to ignite funerary pyres.

    Fig 2a - Lichfield

    One of many neo-classical allusions to cremation in cathedral contexts

  3. Since the late 19th century, memorials to burials in cathedrals become exceptional, yet memorials to bodies and ashes interred elsewhere persist. Many of the memorials in cathedrals allude indirectly to individuals who were cremated upon death. Only upon rare occasions is there an explicit reference to the memorialisation of ashes interred elsewhere.

    Fig 3a - Chester

    Memorial citing ashes interred in the Chester Cathedral garden of remembrance

  4. As cremation rose in popularity during the 20th century, interments of ashes for those closely connected to the cathedral were permitted beneath floor surfaces. In rare cases, this is made explicit in the text of the memorial, but far more often it is implied by the small size of the memorial and its location.

    Fig 4a - Norwich

    A rare explicit instance of a memorial covering cremated human remains in the modern cathedral

  5. During the twentieth centuries, burial grounds within cloister gardens either persisted, or were reused, to receive the interment and/or scattering of ashes. The walls and windows of cloisters continued to receive memorials to those whose ashes were scattered or interred therein, adapting a long existing cenotaphic memorial tradition.

    Fig 5a - St Davids

    Ashes in the cloister

  6. Both the long-defunct and still-operational burial grounds around cathedrals have been revitalised as spaces for ash dispersal, interment through burial plots and gardens of remembrance.

    Fig 6a - Llandaff

    Llandaff Cathedral’s garden of remembrance

  7. Cathedrals are almost always situated in close proximity to one or more suburban cemeteries and crematoria built during the late 19th, early 20th or (most often) late 20th centuries. The funerals and memorial notable individuals and military groups have linked these spaces together.

In summary, despite the traditional ambivalence of many sections of Anglicanism to the rise of cremation, the disposal of the dead by fire has had a long-term impact, as idea and reality, on the commemoration of the cathedral dead since the early modern period and in particular during the 20th and early 21st centuries.


Twins enjoying the view from Beeston Castle


Inner defences of Beeston Castle

Yesterday I visited Beeston Castle for the first time. It is one of my most local castles along with Whittington, Dinas Bran, Erddig, Caergwrle, Holt, Aldford, Ewloe, Flint and Chester. So why has it taken me so long to visit Beeston Castle?


Outer gatehouse at Beeston Castle

Beeston Castle is certainly a fascinating site and has been subject to extensive archaeological excavations. Beeston Crag is a fabulous landmark and I have long seen it from the train from Chester to Crewe and driving in its environs.


View over the outer bailey, Beeston Castle

The crag has a long biography of use with evidence of Neolithic occupation, a Bronze Age metalworking site, Iron Age hillfort, 13th- and 14th-century castle, 17th-century English Civil War fortress, and then its ruins inspired the sham 19th-century Peckforton Castle on the adjacent hill. There are caves to see too. So there was every reason for this to be the first castle site for me to visit on moving to the west Cheshire area in 2008.


The well inside the inner bailey, Beeston Castle

If these weren’t attractions enough, there is a further pressure to visit for me since 2011. I now supervise a superb doctoral student who not only co-wrote the English Heritage guidebook: Rachel Swallow (formerly Rachel McGuicken). She has published two academic journal articles (Journal of the Chester Archaeological Societyon Beeston Castle exploring its interpretation and heritage.


Twins exploring the inner bailey, Beeston Castle

Moreover, Rachel has a forthcoming paper in the Archaeological Journal volume 171. The judgement to accept it was handled by my Reviews Editor – Dr Kate Waddington – to avoid the obvious conflict of interest with me as Honorary Editor of the Journal. Her article was unanimously lauded by its academic referees in a fashion rarely seen in the tough and critical world of peer-review and it was accepted for publication. In this article, Rachel explores a new interpretation of the significance of Beeston Castle in relation to its Welsh Marcher context. The article will be available in September 2014.


Twins looking out to the east over the steep precipice of Beeston Crag

So why did I only visit Beeston Castle for the first time yesterday? Unfortunately, it was simply the combination of steepness and expense. All the other castles I mentioned above are FREE to visit. If I had visited any of these other castles and the kids had been sick, had a strop, or the walk proved too difficult for them or a pushchair), there would have been no financial loss in abandoning the visit.


The model of the medieval castle in the museum

I have visited far steeper free and open-access castles with the kids: like Castell Dinas Bran. With Beeston, I didn’t want to pay and then find I couldn’t get whichever combination of children with me up the hill safely and without stress because of practical or behavioural factors. Moreover, to add insult to injury, even parking at Beeston Castle is £3 before you pay for admission. This is a major off-putting factor. In summary, there are plenty of other free castles in the area, why waste a visit to Beeston?

Still, having said that, I thought that a visit was long overdue. So I finally got around to visit the castle. There is the usual EH gift shop, a small museum with artefacts on display from the excavations from the Stone Age through to the modern era, and also three models of the castle to help communicate the phasing of this extremely three-dimensional site; one for the Bronze Age, one for the Iron Age hillfort, and one for the medieval castle.


Exploring the inner bailey with the twins

The ruins and the views they afford were spectacular. Striding up the steep and uneven paths with a double pushchair laden with the unyielding weight of my 19-month-old twin girls was a fine and typical experience for me. The main problem wasn’t the steepness or the uneven rocky paths, but the failure of EH to cut back brambles and nettles from the path. Still, I made it, enjoyed the fabulous views and the twins got to explore the rocks and shout at passing trains, peregrine falcons and crows, dig into molehills, as well as trying to steal crisps from other picnicking kids.

Victorian Ticket Office

Like the gatehouse of a large 19th-century estate (which is actually not far from the truth), the Victorian neo-gothic crenellated ticket office is a marvel of medievalism in itself.


The Victorian gatehouse – a bit of neo-Gothic heritage history in its own right


Memorial Benches

Yes, again I’m afraid I have to comment on the memorial benches. This time, nothing special, but it was good to see them, including one commemorating a former custodian of the castle.

A bench halfway up the hill, just outside the gatehouse of the outer bailey, commemorating a local lady from Bunbury

A bench halfway up the hill, just outside the gatehouse of the outer bailey, commemorating a local lady from Bunbury

The Bridge

In addition to the fine ruins, I cannot but congratulate Beeston on one of the finest pieces of concrete footbridge I have seen anywhere. Arcing over the remains of the medieval drawbridge and causeway, the modern structure is ludicrously steep at its beginning, but it does allow step-free access to the inner bailey. I am a fan of this bridge I have decided.


The modern bridge and early 13th-century gatehouse of the inner bailey, Beeston Castle


Maps don’t convey the true sense of the strategic importance of Beeston Castle: you need to be up there to get a full sense of why this particular crag was so important at different times in prehistory and history. Jutting out from the Mid Cheshire ridge, views are afforded west, north and east over long distances.


The modern bridge into Beeston Castle

It is not simply the approach to Chester it guards, but anyone wishing to approach the Wirral peninsula. This got me thinking about the potential significance of Beeston in times poorly represented by the archaeological discoveries on the site: namely the Roman and early medieval periods. Was Beeston significant in these periods too?

All together a worthwhile visit; I am glad I got over the pay-to-enter impediment, although I think that the parking charge and entrance fee will always make Beeston are rare site for Williams family days out, especially when there are so many other fabulous castles in the area to choose from.


Ruth photographing memorials in the cloister of Canterbury Cathedral

There is much outrage and indignation about the proliferation of ‘selfies’ extending into mortuary and dark touristic realms in the media of late. Boundaries of ‘taste’ have been infringed apparently. With this in mind, and nearing the completion of Strand 1 of the Past in its Place project, with a forthcoming exhibition about our work planned at Exeter Cathedral, it seems appropriate to post some photographs of the project team exploring the memorials and tombs of English and Welsh cathedrals.

As part of the project, we have been taking an exhaustive set of digital photographs of the memorials on windows, fittings, walls and floors in a series of English and Welsh cathedrals. This has presented all manner of methodological and practical challenges and I am not always pleased with the results. The advantages have been tremendous too, since we are focusing not only on the grandest monuments, but on the humble ledgers too. Hence, we are exploring the chronological and spatial variability of commemorative practices in and around cathedrals.

Incidentally and sometimes accidentally, Ruth and I have captured pictures of project members going about photographing and investigating memorials and tombs, talking with each other around memorials and tombs, and meeting librarians, archivists and archaeologists.

I didn’t go about this recording of other people in a systematic way, and likewise pics with me in are rare and accidental. In and around cathedrals where I was alone on my visit, there are few pics of myself. I wonder if these photographs will arouse anger and indignation. If not, this blog entry might simply be a bit self-indulgent. Still, they are not really ‘selfies’ in the usual sense, but in the collective project sense, they are photographs of ‘us’.

Be that as it may, like funeral selfies, it is not mere narcissism of myself and/or of the project. These photographs serve to document, to mark our presence in time and place, at different times of day, times of year, and in different English and Welsh places with long and complex ‘histories of memory’. We were there, we saw the tombs, we saw the memorials, we visited that place.  As such, in a humble sense, they are a snapshot of the many thousands of pilgrims and visitors who, over the centuries, for different motives and different circumstances, have explored and inscribed, prayed and remembered, sung and sobbed among the tombs…. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of memory work our project is seeking to investigate.

Featured are Philip, Naomi, Paty, Ruth and various other scholars with whom with met at Norwich, Canterbury, St Albans and elsewhere.


Howard at St Albans


Naomi, Paty and Philip at Exeter


The team at Norwich


Philip and Ruth at Norwich


Naomi and Philip at Norwich


Ruth, bravely exploring Ripon Cathedral on crutches! What a star!


Naomi at Norwich


Philip at Edith Cavell’s grave, outside Norwich Cathedral


Howard at St Albans


Meeting Julian Litten at Norwich


Ruth at Canterbury



Image  —  Posted: July 29, 2014 in Past in its Place
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Stafford blue compressed

The first strand of the Past in its Place project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the European Research Council, is exploring literary and archaeological engagements between the living and the dead in English and Welsh cathedrals from the Middle Ages to recent times. This project began life as a successful funding bid for a stand-alone project investigating English cathedrals funded by the Leverhulme Trust called ‘Speaking with the Dead’. The ERC funding has extended the project to include Welsh cathedrals.

24 Llandaff - juxtaposition of medieval and modern effigies

Medieval and Victorian effigies, Llandaff Cathedral

Led by Professor Philip Schwyzer (Department of English, University of Exeter) and involving medieval historian Dr Naomi Howell (Department of English, University of Exeter), PhD student Ruth Nugent (University of Chester) and myself, over the last 3 years we have explored a range of English and Welsh cathedrals, their tombs and memorials.

Delivering dimensions of this project’s results Philip and Naomi are co-presenting a public lecture at the Chapter House of Exeter Cathedral on Monday 4th August at 2pm.

This public lecture opens a public exhibition in the north aisle of Exeter Cathedral from 4th to 14th August displaying posters relating to project themes and results. As well as work by Naomi, Philip, Ruth and myself, this exhibition has benefited from the support and input of the University of Chester-based Senior Researcher working primarily on Strands 2 and 3 of the Past in its Place project: Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores. In addition to a series of posters about the literary, historical and archaeological research of the project, the exhibition will include a video as well as artefacts and rare books held by the Cathedral Library and Archives.

In separate and subsequent blog entries, I will outline some of the contents of the posters that I contributed to for this exhibition.

20 bishops tombs, st Davids

Medieval Bishop’s Tombs from St David’s Cathedral. Photograph: Howard Williams



The memorial to Jane Johnson (d. 1741) and her two sons, St Boniface’s, Bunbury, Cheshire

No-one talks about big breasts in the serious academic study of church monuments.

Why not? Inspired by this lacuna in the literature, I want to write a blog about this ever-popular (with me at least) dimension of female anatomy.

In doing so, can I get away without appearing to be smutty and unprofessional? Probably not. So I might as well firmly embrace big breasts (metaphorically) and proceed. Thus my title parodies a British tabloid headline to the extreme in order to introduce a truly giant pair from Bunbury, Cheshire.

The church and churchyard of St Boniface’s, Bunbury has many fine assets, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the largest and most important of Cheshire medieval churches’. However, the curvaceous carving in question is one of three prominent memorial effigies in the church and the only one of 18th-century date (and the only female one). The memorial commemorates Jane Johnson who died aged 25 on 6th April 1741. Jane was the wife of a dancing master Henry Johnson from Nantwich. The memorial also commemorates Jane and Henry’s two sons: Hamilton and Joseph.

I suspect some in Bunbury want to downplay this monument since the church’s Wikipedia entry ignores it and focuses on the other two: the 14th-century effigy tomb of Sir Hugh Calveley and the 17th-century effigy tomb of Sir George Beeston. Still, the parish newsletter from 2004, when describing the movement of her monument, affectionately refers to her as ‘Busty Jane’ and muses whether her new-found prominence will have a corrupting affect on the local youth.

The Cheshire Pevsner guide won’t have any of this sort of frivolity. It describes the monument in dismissive terms thus:

‘Jane Johnson d. 1741. A shockingly bad upright portrait, badly preserved from having been buried in the churchyard’ (Hartwell et al. 2011).

If there was any mention of her bulging bosom in the original write-up, it was edited out. Jane’s breast is clearly not magnificent enough, or high-quality enough, for the Pevsner guide.

The story goes that the memorial was originally beside the altar. However, the ‘bulging udders of Jane’ disturbed the rector so much he buried it secretly near that location within 30 years of her breasts first being on show, sometime in the 1760s. It was only discovered again in 1882 and subsequently installed back on display near the tower. In 2004 ‘Busty Jane’ got moved again to a more prominent location for all to see at the west end of the nave on the north side. In summary, her body has been on the move; first on display, then a ‘boob-burial’ (I claim this term as original and mine), then exposed by the Victorians, and then displayed in at least two locations within the church ever since.


Jane’s breasts are certainly enormous, and she stands in awkward erectness holding a dove. It certainly isn’t ‘high art’ like the finest memorials of the mid-18th century to be found in Britain’s great cathedrals. Still, I wonder whether this portrait can be dismissed as ‘bad’, or a somewhat rustic attempt to render a  big-busted lady with some degree of accuracy. And is it really just that her breasts being so vast, or also her head being rendered so small? Is she really big-busted or simply pin-headed? Or perhaps, to an artist of restricted ability, this is a way of articulating her beauty, personality and/or her young female identity at the time of her death in a broader sense. After all, unlike so many naked small boys and naked women on neo-Classical statuary of that century, at least Jane is the subject of the tomb, a tragic case of a woman who died young with no surviving offspring. Moreover, she is a subject without a ‘protecting’ male presence. For this is surely the real identity being projected: a relatively rare case of a woman of relatively low social standing who is afforded an incredibly prominent monument that focuses on her female body without a male body to accompany her. Therefore, perhaps her chest was simply a short-hand for broader objections to the monument… There is more research to be done here I feel.

Anyway, as someone interested in the biography of monuments (perhaps almost as much as female anatomy), this is an interesting case study. Biographical approaches to monuments are now well-established in archaeology. Instead of simply exploring their original design, location and use, biographical approaches consider how monuments shift their significance and are altered, removed, reused, buried, exhumed and so on, including archaeological interventions and products.

Busty Jane’s monument biography shows us how monuments can quite rapidly be decommissioned for a variety of reasons, in this case the ‘distraction’ it caused to the incumbent and perhaps also to his duties and the congregation. It might perhaps also reveal how the human form, even after death, and rendered in cold stone, can provoke reactions akin to a living person. I propose above, it might be the case that the isolated female form was ‘disturbing’ as much as her chest-size.

I’m really not sure why there is a miniature brass canon on the monument: but that is perhaps another dimension to Busty Jane’s explosive memorial bodice.







Recently I visited St Winifred’s Well, a tourist attraction and Christian cult focus at Holywell, Flintshire. For further details see their website here.

With twins in tow, I didn’t get a chance to walk around the museum, but I did get the opportunity to explore well chapel itself: the ‘Lourdes of Wales’. A focus of legend associated with the supposed 7th-century female saint. Wini lost her head to save her virginity from a rapist, and it miraculous was reattached. Headstrong Wini lived out her life a nun and her cult grew throughout the Middle Ages. The structure you can see is a phenomenal early 16th-century well-chapel with later additions during the 18th and 19th centuries.


St Wini’s chapel from the north (above the well)


As with all foci of veneration by pilgrims, there are various ephemeral material cultures that inhabit and augment this space, from candles to cards. There are also different forms of memorial.


Colin Stell’s section of the chapel and well


St Winifred’s Well: 16th century.


The facade of the well


The vaulting within the chapel – fabulous construction


Inside the well, water bubbling up


The museum – formerly Victorian custodian’s house

Commemorating the Dead

The historic churchyard associated with and uphill from the chapel has now been cleared completely, but it is a strikingly steep space that reminded me of Coalbrookdale’s Quaker burial ground. Along its western edge there remain a collection of in situ and relocated memorials of 18th- and 19th-century date.


The cleared burial ground above the chapel




More gravestones

More recent memorials allowed in the chapel grounds take the form of our good old friend the memorial bench. These include a notable number to ladies named ‘Winifred’. Lining the route to, around and within, and from the well, these benches allow the dead to be remembered at, and presenced at, the holy well.


A further memorial or votive practice is placing potted plants and flowers around the statue of St Winifred in front of the well.

Commemorating Cures

The most prevalent historic form of memorial is the graffiti that adorns all surfaces, including notably the sites of the structure that face into the waters. The motives of inscribers are unclear: counter-souvenirs of the act of pilgrimage itself (i.e. marking the place been to rather than/or additional to bringing a memento back with the pilgrim), dedications of prayers to Saint Winifred for hoped-for cures, or commemorative statements celebrating cures received by pilgrims. There are forms of graffiti familiar from cathedrals where pilgrims have thronged around the crypts and shrines containing the remains of the saintly dead.

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In the visitor exhibition there are wooden boards recording financial offerings to the chapel, as well as another form of discard; crutches left behind by cured pilgrims. Crutches were something I hadn’t encountered before as an assemblage of similar artefacts at a sacred site. They reminded me of the sinister display of artefacts in horrific piles at Auchwitz-Birkenau; the possessions – suitcases, shoes, cut hair etc – of those killed by the Nazi regime and serving as material testimony to this atrocity. Yet at St Winifred’s while the former owners are undoubtedly now dead, these artefacts commemorate cures and the lifting of suffering by saintly intercession.

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