Like Norton Priory’s museum, Hailes Abbey is a rare example where the mortuary, commemorative and cultic dimensions of medieval monastic life are revealed in the heritage interpretation of a ruined abbey or priory open to the public to visit. It does this through the display of funerary monuments and monument fragments, and architectural features and fabric (tiles and bosses). In this regard, I think Hailes Abbey – managed by English Heritage – is great in archaeodeath terms. Yet there is a difference between Norton and Hailes and here’s why.
While I’ve reviewed the museum displays at Hailes, in contrast to Norton where sarcophagi are a prominent feature of the outdoor ruins, there is little comparable to explicitly allude to the dead amidst the surviving stonework of Hailes.
So one might argue that although the guidebook and museum give attention to deathly themes, the outdoors experience is bereft of mortuary matters. However, there are two principal commemorative dimensions to the outdoor displays in the absence of traces sarcophagi and grave-covers. Hence, death is present, but in different fashions.
Citing Medieval Cult
First, there is a single sign board focusing on the cult of the Holy Blood and the pilgrims the relic brought to Hailes. Crucially, it is outside, and therefore not impeding a sense of, but orientated upon, the presbytery of the church. It depicts a vivid artist’s impression of the shrine with pilgrims waiting to approach, and monks presiding over their movements.
Linked to this board, the site of the shrine of the Holy Blood itself is marked on the map in the guidebook. Further still, on the ground the shrine is denoted with a specific marker on the spot. Although no text indicates its significance, there is a large dark-grey slab that presumably indicates the shrine’s position.
Second relates to the final pair of lines in Michael Carter’s excellent guide book:
“The site was donated to the National Trust by Mr and Mrs Hugh Andrews of Toddington in 1937. In 1948, the Ministry of Works, a predecessor of English Heritage, assumed responsibility for the care and interpretation of the abbey, ensuring its preservation for enjoyment by generations to come.”
There’s obviously a longer story here, but the original donation to the National Trust is preserved on the walls of the cloister. Therefore, while succeeded by the MoW and then EH, who have not deigned to commemorate themselves, the act of gifting to the nation is made clear, thus honouring the benefactors as well as the National Trust. A similar relationship between the Trust and donors is played out in the memorial at Attingham Park.
I guess there is a third dimension. Although there is no indication on the ground, the guidebook’s fold-out plan of the ruins does point out likely sites for the burial of the royals interred on the spot near the High Altar, including the site of the burial of Henry of Almain. Well, his heart had been buried at Westminster Abbey, his flesh near the site of his death at Viterbo, Italy, so it was his bones interred at Hailes (Carter 2017: 12). As previously discussed, there are also attention in the guidebook to discussing the traces of burial and commemoration visible in the museum.
Having said that the MoW and EH haven’t commemorated themselves, I wonder if there signs – old and new – also serve to ‘commemorate’ heritage custodianship?
On another note, I didn’t observe any memorial plaques on the benches in the ruins, although I confess I might have missed a dimension here.
What’s the big point here? Well, superficially the abbey looks bereft of mortuary and memorial traces: a ‘death-denial’ as I’ve asserted elsewhere for monastic ruins that rarely, if ever, give accounts of the mortuary and commemorative dimensions of their spaces and architecture in guide books, heritage boards or other media of communication with the public. Yet, so much of the discussion of heritage sites’ dealings with mortality hinge near-exclusively on choices to display human remains that other, material dimensions of mortality are easy to miss.
Certainly, there are no bodies on view at Hailes, but still, the ethics and practices of interpreting death and memory are key to how heritage professionals rethink how we tell the stories of complex multi-period sites and monuments, as well as their landscape contexts. Hailes and Norton together give us examples of the various ways that life and death can be woven into the stories we tell about medieval monasteries and their afterlives.
Carter, M. 2017. Hailes Abbey, London: English Heritage.