This summer I got the chance to visit, for the first time, the wonderful English Heritage site of Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire. Founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall (son of King John and younger brother of the future Henry III), this was one of the largest Cistercian abbeys in the country, and a prominent site of pilgrimage from 1270 when the Holy Blood relic was gifted to the community and housed in an eastern extension to the monastic church.
Compared with other ruins of Cistercian monasteries I’m familiar with, the frustrating thing about Hailes is just how utterly ruinous it is: there is so little to see beyond the cloister walls. Indeed the church is almost completely gone! How can one get a sense of this space as it was and the rich material dimensions of cult and commemoration associated with the Cistercian community?
English Heritage’s answer is a great guidebook and a superb museum, together with adjacent lapidarium cloister.
The top-notch guidebook is written by Michael Carter, whom I had the privilege to hear speak, and got to briefly meet, at this summer’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds. At that time I hadn’t been to Hailes, and I dared to ask Michael whether he felt there was an example of ‘good practice’ in the display of medieval monastic mortuary and commemorative practice at EH sites. I explained to him that I have gained the impression from my visits, and writing on this blog, that funerary monuments tend to be neglected, and receive poor conservation, management and heritage interpretation. This applies to both EH and Cadw sites, and I have written about this most recently in regards to Tintern Abbey.
Michael replied to the effect that he felt I had a valid point, and indeed that he couldn’t think of any single site that foregrounded, or tackled in depth, mortuary themes. He mentioned Hailes, but perhaps humility on his part, combined with my clear admission of not having been to Hailes, prevented him from explaining just how much ‘archaeodeath’ there is on display at Hailes and its environs, despite the heavily ruinous state of the medieval architecture.
In this context, I feel I want to use this blog to explain why Michael could have been asserted how Hailes – despite the ruinous state of the abbey due to post-Dissolution robbing – is an example of good practice in presenting medieval monastic mortuary themes in a fashion I suggest is all too low-key elsewhere.
So I want to briefly highlight the key mortuary dimensions of the museum at Hailes. For even though there are no out-of-doors displays within the abbey itself with a funerary theme, and the cloistered lapidarium adjacent to the museum is populated only by architectural fragments without clear funerary associations, the museum itself does contain a host of material cultures and monument fragments that are overtly funerary connotations, as well as displays that pick up mortuary themes. Having said that, both the out-door displays, museum and guide book all explain the importance of the Holy Blood relic and the miracles associated with it (Carter 2017). Yet it is the display and careful labelling of the museum, combined with a relative prominence of mortuary discussion in Carter’s guidebook, which render mortuary themes far more prominent at Hailes than any other English or Welsh monastic site I’ve seen thus far.
Museum of Delights
The relatively small museum contains many features of monastic life and its architecture, including the wonderful 13th-century boss showing Samson in combat with the lion.
Tiles as Mnemonics
First up in commemorative terms, the museum displays a range of tiles with heraldic insignia upon them, denoting the patronage of Richard of Cornwall, the abbey’s founder, and the arms of related families (his second and third wives, for example), and other familial patrons. In this fashion, the floor served to commemorate the patrons of the abbey.
What can be said about tiles might also apply to the many surviving tiles: the heraldic arms of key patrons were integrated into the abbey’s architecture.
A dedicated display outlines the royal burials at Hailes, starting with Richard Earl of Cornwall himself, who died in 1272. Throughout, images of tombs and shrines from elsewhere inform the narrative, including a heart burial. Together, these features explain the importance of Hailes as a royal burial church.
Fragments of an Effigy
There are also fragments of an effigy tomb, with the Dorchester on Thames effigy is used as a parallel. The combination of the photograph of the Dorchester monument, with the careful arrangement of the fragments, imply an absent monument, now displaced and only known from small fragments.
A Tomb Canopy
There are also fragments of a tomb canopy, with parallels cited surviving from Tewkesbury Abbey, suggesting the former munificence of the mortuary architecture in the church at Hailes.
As a rare instances of a surviving intact grave-cover this cross-slab is prominently positioned. It explains clearly that two other cross-slabs are known from a nearby parish church, revealing that this was one of a number from the site. The floriated cross and the fully-intact nature of the monument, displayed with adjacent floor tiles, afford a sense of the liturgical and funerary functions of the abbey church.
Together, these traces give a strong sense of the architecture and monumental dimensions of funerary monumentality and commemorative practice within the Cistercian monastery at Hailes, despite the poor preservation of the ruins themselves. EH have done a great job of foregrounding Hailes’ ‘archaeodeath’ dimensions, both in the way they present the material traces, and the use of valid comparisons from elsewhere to help fill in the gaps in visitors’ minds.
Carter, M. 2017. Hailes Abbey, London: English Heritage.