Church Monuments Society


Altars and alterations

By CMS in Heritage

Social media have had a lot of criticism lately but I have to say that our Twitter discussions at @ChurchMonuments are (a) courteous , (b) informative and (c) often have that ‘Good grief! I never knew that’ factor.

Recently we were discussing the reuse of ledgerstones. Always problematic – they get used as lintels, doorsteps or just paving stones. In my other identity as @heritagepilgrim I pointed to these medieval cross slabs at Brecon Cathedral


which have been reused as an altar and a credence table. I thought that the people they commemorated would have been thrilled to be used for the Mass, but @stiffleaf thought we might have to be careful: some of those he’s seen used as altar stones were 17th and 18th century ledgerstones and they might not have been as enthusiastic.

However, @stiffleaf then found a series of altars from repurposed tombs. This one at Fordington

Fordington Stiffleaf

he said was ‘supposedly made from a chest tomb from one of the demolished chantry chapels at Salisbury cathedral, though I can find no pre-demolition drawing showing it in situ. Three sides and hollow.’

Then there was Watford

Watford Stiffleaf

‘an altar utilising the 1857 tomb of an earl of Essex, but may possibly have been built with this in mind’

At Winchester, Arnold de Gaveston’s C14 chest tomb acts as an altar

Gaveston Stiffleaf

and at Cornwood in Devon it’s a 16th century chest tomb.

Cornwood Stiffleaf

I don’t have a picture of this one, but Llanilltud Fawr in the Vale of Glamorgan has an altar slab that was recut as a ledgerstone and is now back as an altar stone.

@DrFrancisYoung wondered ‘whether table tombs in the former position of the high altar were a way of restoring the stone high altar by stealth or a defiant ‘secularisation’ of the space by installing a tomb’. Stiffleaf thought both might have happened, though in the case of this one at Ermington

Ermington Stiffleaf

‘mermaids and heraldry probably preclude a religious use’.

He also pointed to the towering tombs against the east walls of aisles at Holbeton and Chelmsford


‘certainly made to usurp the positions of altars. Obviously one reason for choosing the position along with it being pride of place. Though Victorians disliked such hubris and removed many examples during restorations.’

@johnevigar  spotted this one in Preston Park, East Sussex

prestonpark vigar

moved to be an altar in the early 19th century, when stone altars were still suspect.

It’s not just altars that get replaced by tombs. Our current Monument of the Month is the rather overwhelming monument to Sir Redvers Buller at Crediton.


It covers the west face of the chancel arch, which would in the medieval church have been dominated by the rood screen and a wall painting of the Last Judgement. Bullers is a difficult man to commemorate: he fought in the Zulu and Boer Wars, and his monument shows him in the company of leaders of the Crusades. On the other hand, he is clearly an important part of the history of his home town.

And Helen Wilson (tweets as @NellytheWillow ), whose tweet on ledgerstones used as paving stones started the whole thing off, posted this, at Kenton in Devon

Kenton NellytheWillow

‘Monument to Dulcibella Hodges, erected in 1628 after removal of rood loft, then obscured when loft reinstated 1930s.’

There must be more out there. Keep tweeting.

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