Over 330 churches are cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. An example of ‘Georgian Gothic’, St Mary Magdalene’s church, Croome d’Abitot, was constructed in 1763 as an integral part of the ‘Capability’ Brown landscape gardens of Croome Park.
Its predecessor, the medieval church, was regarded by the commissioner, the George William, 6th Earl of Coventry as too close to his house and so it was demolished! The new church building was integral to the design of his Palladian mansion and Arcadian landscape which launched Brown’s career in landscape design. It is perhaps most often considered as one of a series of landmarks within the gardens, but it was also a carefully designed memorial structure with a splendid array of memorials within and the family crypt below. The exterior was designed by Brown, with the interior designed by Robert Adam. Formerly an Anglican church, it is now a Grade 1 listed building, relinquished to The Churches Conservation Trust in 1975 having been cared for by the Coventry family to 1949.
In the context of this blog, it is a fascinating if unfulfilled example of the public archaeology of death, since this Gothic Revival church is part of the Worcestershire National Trust property of Croome Park and thus might attract many more visitors who might not otherwise explore historic parish churches and their memorials.
Here are the key links to learn more:
- Historic England
- Church Conservation Trust
- National Churches Trust
- National Trust
- British Listed Buildings
However, it is something of a missed opportunity that the online descriptions of the memorials are very limited in these contexts, with Historic England simply stating: ‘In chancel outstanding series of Coventry family monuments from 1639 onwards (the barons and earls of Coventry).’ Meanwhile, the National Churches Trust merely say: ‘Opulent monuments brought from the old church, long since demolished, show the former Barons and Earls of Coventry in their full glory.’ (text which is replicated across multiple websites). The NT guidebook for Croome discusses the church but the memorials receive only passing reference (Shinn 2016).
The memorial dimensions of this estate church are unsurprisingly prominent. The chancel takes up considerable space as it serves as the mausoleum of the Coventry family, thus providing a retrospective reorganisation of past generations by incorporating the memorials from the earlier church and dated from 1640 onwards (the first baron died in 1639).
These have been joined more recently by one effigy (of the 4th Baron and dating from 1687) which was originally installed in St Martin in the Fields, London; it was transferred in 1915.
Thus, today, the church is a memorial amalgam over five centuries of an aristocratic family, with the latest memorial added as recently as 2002!
Absences are also telling:
‘The monument to the 1st Earl, who died in 1699, is missing because the 2nd Earl disapproved of his father’s second marriage, at an advanced age, to a servant, Elizabeth Graham. His monument is now in the nearby church of St Mary’s at Elmley Castle instead.’Churches Conservation Trust
First up, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are memorials to conservation itself. Hence, there is a slate late 20th-century plaque to its status as a ‘redundant church’.
Next, there is a plaque designating it under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.
And there is an interpretation panel giving a brief history to the Trust and the church itself. What is lacking, however, is an explanation of the date and character of the many well-preserved memorials one sees which span the 17th to 20th centuries.
The mural monuments are a striking collection of 17th and then 19th to 21st-century monuments, many evoking neo-Classical tomb and draped urn motifs. While different in detail and scale, they represent a coherent continuity in material and general style. Thus, we have (in chronological order):
- Baron Henry Coventry (d. 1686) (Latin memorial text)
- George William, d. 181? (Latin memorial text, date of death partly illegible in my photograph: MDCCCX). I presume this is the epitaph of the 6th Earl and creator of the mansion and designed landscape in which case the date of death is MDCCCIX (1809).
- John Coventry, 2nd son of the 7th Earl (d. 1852)
- George 7th Earl of Coventry (d. 1831), wife Catherine (d. 1779) and daughter Peggy Countess of Coventry (d. 1810)
- George William Viscount Deerhurst (d. 1927) and Virginia Lee Viscountess Deerhurst (d. 1948)
- George William Reginald Victor, 10th Earl of Coventry (c. 1940)
- George William Coventry (d. 2002)
In the chancel, framing the approach to the altar, there are the four magnificent 17th-century tombs with fine statuary redeployed within the church upon construction and thus honouring the illustrious ancestry of the family.
Because I was visiting with young children, I didn’t get time to explore the folder of information about the church available to visitors. However, it is important to note that outside, the churchyard is a further zone of remembrance now safely within a National Trust property.
It was an odd experience visiting a church within a National Trust property: accessing through the western doorway from parkland rather than through a churchyard. It felt oddly out-of-place to visit an estate church when I’m far more used to experiencing churches connected to both settlements and/or worked agrarian landscapes. And while less accessible since one has to pay NT entry fees, this setting means it is more likely to attract visitors than many parish churches, even those with an open-door policy.
The result is a carefully protected and managed memorial environment in pristine condition and displaying the finest of 18th-century architecture and 17th-21st-century funerary monuments. For public engagement with a religious building and its many memorial dimensions inside and out, this is a striking example. Yet, I would contend that perhaps this secure and protected situation constitutes a valuable opportunity to engage visitors in person and online with the changing and complex relationship between Christian places of worship and funerary commemoration from the 17th century to the present century. At present, while ‘very public’, this is a largely untapped resource for a ‘very public archaeology of death’.
Shinn, M. 2016. Croome. London: The National Trust.