Victorian ‘medieval’ tomb in the cloister, Chester cathedral

Two weeks ago, with the superb MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students, I made a brief visit to the wonderful Chester Cathedral to explore its memorials and tombs. We discussed their diversity in form, ornamentation and texts and their diverse spatial and temporal relationships with their subjects of commemoration. Some were always intended to cite bodies interred elsewhere in the cathedral, cemetery or further afield around the region, country or globe. Others were originally positioned in relation to the deceased but have become subsequently dislocated.

Pearson’s tomb

The long temporal citations of some tombs are fascinating. There are numerous 19th-century monuments that evoke the Middle Ages, memorial components to the Victorian restoration of the cathedral itself. Examples include the faux-medieval grave-slab in the cloister garden. There are also three Victorian effigy tombs, mimicking, adapting and transformating the medieval tradition where, in the case of Chester, none of this form have survived since the Middle Ages.

Part of the heritage trail of walking through the cathedral.

One of these is not a memorial to a contemporary, but a long temporal citation to famous individuals in Chester’s early modern past. This is the19th-century effigy tomb to 17th-century theologian and bishop John Pearson in the north transept. Commemoration in cathedrals is a complex business indeed, taking many different forms and locations.

Fragments of the medieval past on display, Chester Cathedral cloister walk

Commemoration is thus all about movement in cathedrals, both in the past and in the present. Today’s visitor perambulates past the tombs and memorials, seeing them in sequence (or in sequences, depending on the direction of travel). This is true of many tombs and memorials that have been dislocated from their original location. I am particularly interested in medieval memorial dislocations, and a selection of the monuments that have been found in Chester Cathedral are on display, not in the church itself, but in the cloister walkways. Here, commemoration of imagined and unknown medieval ancestors is negotiated by walking past them en route to other places: on the way in, on the way out, on the way through. The only exception is interestingly, and I suspect significantly, the restored shrine of St Werburgh herself. They sit in striking juxtaposition to the Victorian neo-medieval memorials within the cloister garth itself (above) and present surrounding the cathedral church in the graveyard.

The ‘Ripley Stone’

Among the dislocated and displayed medieval memorials in the cloister is the Simon Ripley Stone, discovered under the Chapter House in 1723 and bearing the initials ‘SR’ suggesting it was the tomb of Abbot Simon Ripley (1485-93). It was originally thought to be the tomb of Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester because of the wolf’s head upon it. The precise details of its original occupant, found ‘wrapped in black leather’, remain unclear. What is interesting is how this association endures and renders the stone a personality of its own within the cathedral space.

Medieval grave-slab, on display in Chester Cathedral’s cloister walk
Medieval fragment of grave-slab, Chester Cathedral cloister
A medieval fragment

Other dislocated medieval monuments lack text and images, but their form, ornament and fragmented character are testament to their dislocation and the deep-time heritage of the place. They offer a physical connection between post-Reformation and modern cathedral and the abbey that once was. Their anonymity is in itself powerful, prompting the desire to pin them to historical personages, but inevitably they wriggle free of specificity. Their memorialisation is mutable and thus different and strange.

The altar-monument that provides the memorial focus to the Garden of Remembrance, between the bell-tower and the cathedral
The memorial landscape is constituted by the trees, plants, flowers and backdrop of the cathedral’s south transept as well as the tomb- or altar-like cenotaph. Yet every path is made up of broken up old gravestones, reused from the early 19th-century graves that once populated the graveyard before its reuse as a garden of remembrance.

There is another coherent and prominent dimension to dislocated memorials outside the cathedral. Namely, in the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate the dead of the Second World War situated between the church and the bell-tower, overlying what was once part of the cathedral graveyard. The paths of this garden are replete with reused memorials from the 19th-century and earlier graves that formerly occupied this space. Here, the former occupants of the space are made into the walking experience of commemorating the absent dead of conflict. Also, cremation burials are added here, making this a space of multi-layered memorialisation, and the commemoration of many different kinds of absence: the dead buried here but their memorials dislocated and used as paving, those buried elsewhere but who are given a collective cenotaph, and those whose ashes are here but without a memorial.

Within and without, navigating cathedrals is all about ‘walking with ancestors’, named and unnamed, cited and installed, dislocated and fragmented.

Memorials in fragments – paving for the modern visitor