Church Monuments Society


A likely heart monument in store at Exeter Cathedral

By CMS in Heritage

Remarkable things can be found in under-stair cupboards. Diane Walker recently alerted me to an interesting carved stone artefact in store at Exeter Cathedral. It is kept in the room over the north porch in the cupboard under the stairs to a floor above (Fig. 1).

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Fig. 1

The heart monument in its store in a cupboard in Exeter Cathedral; photo Diane Walker

The item is carved from Purbeck marble and is 53 cm high and 43 cm at its widest extremity; the depth, as measured at the base is 23cm. It shows a demi-effigy of a male holding an item with a domed top, which may well be a heart casket. There is no pillow behind his head; instead the slab beneath him has deep chamfers at the sides, probably pointing to a thirteenth-century date. Unusually, the arms of the figure extend over the chamfer (Fig. 2). The top of the slab is broadly level with no indication that it was ever chamfered.

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Fig. 2

The heart monument; photo Diane Walker

The figure is bare-headed, his hair being cut short just below where his ears would have been and ending in a roll, and he has a very short but full fringe (Fig 3). This style of hair-dressing was common in the late thirteenth century and also the earlier fourteenth, although over time the hair was shown longer and the roll lower.

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Fig. 3

Close-up of the head of the figure on the heart monument; photo Diane Walker

The figure itself might initially appear to be a military effigy as there is part of the top of a shield at the bottom of the carving. However, there is no evidence of mail on the piece, although it could have been represented in gesso or polychromy. Yet that it is not military is shown by the remainder of his dress. He wears a tunic with wrist-length sleeves that are loosely cut over the upper arms but more fitted on the forearms. This is consistent with civilian dress and not a military figure in a sleeved surcoat. The main body of the tunic hangs in vertical folds, with no indication that it was belted at the waist. That he is shown with a shield is not a contradiction of it depicting a civilian; shields are shown on some monuments to civilians. One at Loversall (Yorkshire, West Riding) of a civilian of the 1320s or 30s carries a shield with unidentified carved heraldry on a buckled guige (a strap) (Fig. 4). The man commemorated by the Exeter carving might similarly have been armigerous, his arms perhaps having been displayed on a lost part of the entire composition such as a canopy. Another comparator, at Wadworth (Yorkshire, West Riding) of an unknown mid-fourteenth-century forester has a belt supporting a sword and buckler (a small shield gripped in the fist with a central handle behind the boss) (Fig 5). Some wills made by civilians mention military equipment, including that of John de Ryell (d. 1393), a tailor of Hedon (Yorkshire), who left his sword and buckler to his son (Testamenta Eboracensia vol. I (London, 1834), p. 194).

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Fig. 4

Effigy of a civilian at Loversall (Yorkshire, West Riding) carrying a shield; photo Tim Sutton

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Fig. 5

Effigy of a forester at Wadworth (Yorkshire, West Riding) with a sword and buckler; photo Tim Sutton

The bottom of the Exeter piece is smoothly dressed, indicating that what is to be seen now is the full extent of the piece and that it has not been cut down from a full-length effigy. It presents as if it were intended to be shown in an upright position. This would be entirely consistent with it once being mounted as part of a heart monument, many of which were set in the walls of churches, as exemplified by the one of probable late-thirteenth-century date on the south side of the chancel at Hampton-in-Arden (Warwickshire) (Fig. 6). Within is a demi-figure of a man-at-arms holding what appears to be a casket, over which is a large shield; it likely held the heart of Sir William de Arderne (d. 1276).

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Fig. 6

Effigy of a heart monument to Sir William de Arderne (d. 1276) at Hampton-in-Arden (Warwickshire); photo Tim Sutton

The only comparator carved in Purbeck marble was found in the garden of the Ranger’s Lodge of Green Park some time before 1842, but now in the British Museum (Museum No: 1865,1227.1). It has been cut down and re-dressed but enough remains to show a finely carved demi-effigy of a male or priest emerging from a quatrefoil with the hands holding a heart casket. Curiously there is no head; this could, however, have been badly damaged when found and subsequently dressed away.

Heart monuments are found in the greatest numbers in the second half of the thirteenth century. The tradition of divided burial was unchallenged by the Church until the closing years of the thirteenth century. The most decisive intervention was by Pope Boniface VIII, specifically in his bull Detestande feritatis, first issued in 1299 and reissued the following year, which condemned in vitriolic terms separation of the parts of the body. After Boniface’s death in 1303 there was a gradual relaxation in the prohibition of divided burial in France, but less so in England. In consequence there is a marked drop in the number of documented cases of heart and entrails burials in the early-fourteenth century, although it is unlikely that all were recorded. This is another factor making a date in the late-thirteenth century more likely than one in the early-fourteenth, although it cannot be conclusive.

Assuming that the Exeter piece was indeed a heart monument, one question is where the casket containing the heart would have been located. In the Museum of Somerset, Taunton (Somerset), is a stone comprising a small shafted arch enclosing a demi-effigy, which was found built into the wall below the sill of a window in the north wall of the nave of St Paul’s church, Kewstoke (Somerset) (Museum No. TTNCM: A.3256). In this case the back of this block was hollowed out into a small arched chamber. However, there must be some doubt about its being a heart burial because when it was found in 1849 it contained not a heart casket but a small wooden cup with a stain in the bottom thought to be the residue of blood, alleged to be that of Thomas Becket. It is therefore described by the Museum of Somerset as the ‘Kewstoke Reliquary’. Despite that some heart monuments may have had the heart casket concealed in the back of the demi-effigy. Yet the Exeter piece is not of this type as the back is entirely smooth and intact.

More likely is that the heart was in a heart casket in a specially constructed hole in the now lost base of the original composition.  The wall monument at Combe Florey (Somerset) features a lias stone in a late-thirteenth-century canopied wall niche above which is a fine inscription in Lombardic lettering recording that it holds the heart of Dame Maud de Merriete nun of Cannington Priory’ (Fig. 7).  The base of the niche has a small tapered heart coffin (though only the top surface is visible) with a distinctively shaped recess for the heart, in plan consisting a circle with a rectangular extension at the ‘foot’ end.

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Fig. 7

Heart monument to Dame Maud de Merriete at Combe Florey (Somerset); photo Tim Sutton

Another comparator is the mural heart monument at Burford (Shropshire), of late-thirteenth century date, which has been appropriated for the heart burial of Edmond Cornwall, who died at Cologne in 1436 but willed his servants ‘to bury his body there and to enclose his heart in lead and convey it to Burford to be buryed’. In the top of the chest, perhaps of modern stonework, are two apertures with what appear to be replacement covers for heart caskets although both are empty (Fig 8).

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Fig. 8

Detail of appropriated heart monument at Burford (Shropshire); photo Tim Sutton

The final issue to be addressed is from where the Exeter heart monument originally came. It is unlikely originally to have been in the cathedral itself. Printed sources record no heart burials in the cathedral, although absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence. The record which sent Diane Walker in search of this item was in their Heritage England red boxes HE 0947_246 showing a photograph by Herbert Felton with the information that it was deposited 1 Jan 1966. John Allan (the cathedral archaeologist) informed Diane that he has not found any reference to it before an inventory which was compiled post-war, although it is briefly mentioned in an inventory of the Cathedral compiled c.1960. This suggests that it was originally elsewhere and donated to the cathedral store. It could have originally have been set up in one of the churches or other religious houses in the city or elsewhere in Devon to commemorate a wealthy civilian. Its origins, however, must remain a mystery. Also unlikely to be revealed is why the person concerned had a divided burial. Maybe he was a merchant who died abroad and was buried there but had his heart sent back to his native land. Alternatively, he might have been a native who moved elsewhere, such as London, and made his fortune but wanted also to have a memorial in his home country. On this we can only speculate.

For more on heart burials, see Sally Badham, ‘Divided in Death: The Iconography of English medieval heart and entrails monuments’, Church Monuments, 34 (2019), pp. 16-76.

I am extremely grateful to Diane Walker for bringing this likely heart monuments to my attention and to Brian & Moira Gittos for observations on the piece, which are largely centred on comparators with Purbeck marble effigies.


Sally Badham

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