Recently I went to view St Nicholas’ church, Burton-in-Wirral. Dating from 1721 and the chancel rebuilt in 187o, this is a red sandstone Georgian build on a prominent position overlooking the Dee estuary. Given its rebuilt state, there are only a very few hints of its many centuries of service as a place of worship, burial and commemoration prior to its rebuilding.
On display in the tower is an extraordinarily finely preserved 13th-century grave-slab. This was the primary motive for my visit; to get a chance to see it (because I haven’t been to the church before) but also because this monument is currently the subject of research by Brian and Moira Gittos who requested that I visit and photograph it for them. They will soon be publishing a discussion of the slab and exploring its parallels.
It is very fine and well-preserved, so much so that at first I imagined it was some Victorian allusion to a medieval cross-slab! The foliage is quite superb. It is also quite diminutive: if it was a grave-slab, it must have covered the body of a juvenile.
Also in the porch are two scalloped capitals, the only remains of the early church that existed by the time the grave-slab was installed covering a grave within. I’m not sure what the woodwork is all about.
As previously discussed at other churches, the oldest spolia frequently take pride of place. At Burton, the grave slab and the capitals might be modest in size and number, but they more than make up for this in their date and quality. Together, they fulfil the role for Burton as lithic ancestors for the more-recent church building. They remind all who enter of the building’s medieval origins as well as its earlier mortuary significance.
Their location often helps with this, as at Burton. This is because the cross-slab and capitals are situated against the north wall of the tower. Unlike many churches, here at Burton the south door of the tower is the principal entrance to the building.
These lithic vestiges of the Middle Ages also go to show the power of anonymous, non-textual and non-figural memorials can also become lithic ancestors for churches today. While effigy tombs, brasses and memorial inscriptions can evoke the presence of people, the shape and function of this grave-slab also evokes a sense – the absent presence – of the medieval dead.