Church Monuments Society

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Stories from Stones

By CMS in Heritage

One of the good things about our new web site is that it makes accessing the Monument of the Month archive so much easier. We still have some work to do getting better-quality images for some of the early entries, but working through these as they arrive is a great way of browsing through a random sample of entries.

Lots of themes emerge. One is Sophie Oosterwijk and Trudi Brink’s survey of monuments in the Netherlands, including lots of gruesome cadaver carvings (might come back to that in another blog post). Another is the way that local legends develop around monuments. We are familiar with the the way that folk traditions can develop around tomb carvings (crossed legs and Crusaders, ‘pirate’ tombs with skulls and crossbones, effigies of ‘giants’  …), but some are more specific. One of our earliest featured monuments was the ‘Stanley Boy’ at Elford (Staffs). This is traditionally said to commemorate John Stanley, the last male heir of the Elford Stanleys who was fatally hit by a ball around 1460. In fact the ‘ball’ may be a heart. Miniature monuments often commemorate not children but heart burials. Further, the monument may actually be a post-medieval replacement for a damaged medieval original. The full article is at https://churchmonumentssociety.org/monument-of-the-month/the-so-called-stanley-boy-monument.

At Scarcliffe in Derbyshire is a monument locally said to commemorate a Lady Constantia and her baby. The legend is that she was lost in the forest, guided to safety by the church bells of Scarcliffe and safely delivered of a son, and that she gave land to the church in gratitude. The monument is possibly an early 14th century effigy of a woman who died in childbirth, but is more probably a replacement modelled on a carving of the Virgin and Child. The full story is at https://churchmonumentssociety.org/monument-of-the-month/a-monument-with-a-story.

There are other examples which haven’t made their way into Monument of the Month (yet). At Much Cowarne in Herefordshire is a battered effigy tomb said to be of Sir Grimbald Pauncefoot.

'Sir Grimbald Pauncefoot' at Much Cowarne: photo Phil Hellin

'Sir Grimbald Pauncefoot' at Much Cowarne: photo Phil Hellin

According to antiquarian descriptions, the effigy once had ‘the stump of a woman’s arm’ on its left side. (I found this at https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/hereford/churches/much-cowarne.htm which unfortunately doesn’t give a reference.) The local legend, still recorded on a board in the church, is that Grimbald was a crusader who was captured by Saladin (the dates don’t of course tie up) and that in order to ransom him his wife Constantia (again) cut off her hand and sent it to his captors. Antiquarian descriptions also mention the effigy of a woman in late 13th century dress with one hand missing, but this now seems to have disappeared. This seems on the face of it to be a story to explain (a) the crossed legs of the male effigy and (b) the missing hand on the female effigy.

Bizarrely, the same story is told about two other Pauncefoots. The early 14th century effigies of Grimbald and Sybil Pauncefoot are in St Edmund’s Church in Crickhowell, Powys. An interpretative board outside Crickhowell Castle says that Sybil Pauncefoot cut off her hand to ransom her husband during the Crusades. Again, this looks like a story to explain the fact that Sybil’s effigy is missing its hands. And finally a Richard Pauncefoot is said to have been captured by ‘Barbary pirates’ and to have been ransomed by his fiancée who sent them her hand. (There’s a good blog post at https://athomeinthehills.com/2016/01/19/lady-sybils-hand/ which tries to disentangle the three stories.)

It can be difficult to explain to a church community that these stories don’t really work. The guides and welcomers at Llandaff Cathedral were quite upset to learn that David Matthew, whose effigy lies in the north quire aisle of the Cathedral, was not a giant and a military hero. He is said to have saved Edward IV’s life in the battle of Towton but there is no evidence that he  fought there and he would have been well into his 60s by 1461. His effigy depicts him in armour but he was never a knight: he worked as an estate manager for the bishops of Llandaff and for Tewkesbury abbey. He obviously did well enough at this to afford an elaborate alabaster tomb showing him in armour, but he was never a military hero. Rhianydd Biebrach’s demolition job on the legends about him is at https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/welsh-history-month-tomb-david-3406443.

Then there was the awkward business of the Good Priest of Geddington. Geddington in Northamptonshire is a fascinating church with some Saxon fabric, links to a royal hunting preserve – and the effigy of a priest, in his Mass vestments. Priests were often shown in effigy with a chalice, chalice and paten or chalice and book, to identify them. The Geddington priest has all three, chalice in one hand, book in the other and the paten tucked rather awkwardly under his elbow. The local legend about this one was that he was shown with the Mass vessels because he was of such exceptional holiness that he was taken up to Heaven in the act of celebrating Mass. A former vicar picked up on this and the mistranscription of an antiquarian description of the tomb and tried to create a local cult of a ‘St Hagius’. (More on this at https://welshtombs.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/the-good-priest-of-geddington/.) Fortunately, we were able to work with the church and correct some of the misunderstandings, but it was difficult all round and there is still more to be done.

So what should we actually be doing about these legends? They can be very close to the hearts of local people. As a reputable academic society we need to offer advice and help where we can. But do we simply write them off? Are they part of the ‘after-life of the monument’, something that tells us about people’s need for colour and engagement with the past?


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