Church Monuments Society

Huntingdon Tomb and Monument photo (c) Martin Vaughan


Month: January 2022
Type: Chest tomb  
Era: 17th Century

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St Helen's
3 Lower Church St, Ashby-de-la-Zouch LE65 1AA

More about this monument

After repairing the alabaster chest tomb of his ancestors, the 7th Earl of Huntingdon commissioned a wall monument which it has been suggested could be by Grinling Gibbons.

(This is an amended version of the original posting, following an energetic discussion with Dr. Clive Easter. It has been very exciting to follow the debate. This is what historians do – we suggest interpretations, we find new evidence, we challenge what we ourselves have said in the past. We will never get it entirely right but it is our duty to try.)



St Helen’s, the parish church of Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, was rebuilt by the 1st Lord Hastings, Edward IV’s Lord Chamberlain, in the 1470s. His church incorporates a family chapel, the Hastings Chapel. The family were created Earls of Huntingdon by Henry VIII in 1529. However, there are only three monuments to the Earls in the Chapel. This may be the result of the family’s perennial money problems.

The earliest monument is for the 2nd Earl. In his will he had asked for his “body to be buryed in the parish-church of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, in the County of Leicester, in the Chapell of the South side of the Chancell; and that a convenient monument and tombe be, etc. made there, over the place where I shall be buried, with such a remembrance of me, my wife and children, as shall be thought convenient by my executors”. Presumably it was his son, the 3rd Earl, who commissioned the alabaster chest tomb for him which is attributed to Richard Parker of Burton-on-Trent.

The 3rd Earl himself died in York on 14th December 1595 where he was Lord President of the North (in effect Queen Elizabeth’s regent in the troublesome North of England). He had no children and he had not made a will. No one in the family was prepared to arrange for the conveyance of his body to Ashby because they thought that this meant they would become responsible for his debts. On 18th February 1596 Lord Burleigh wrote to the 4th Earl: “The Queen commanded me to understand of the Countess your sister how she intended to proceed for the burial of your brother or the administration of his goods. I find her no ways disposed to intermeddle herewith, so the burial is deferred, to the dishonour of the house and discomfort of all his friends”. Eventually on 28th April 1596 the 3rd Earl was buried in St Helen’s with elaborate ceremony but no monument was erected to him.

Worse was to follow for the family when the 6th Earl was committed to the Fleet Debtors’ Prison in 1649. It has been suggested that his creditors may have been emboldened to take action against him by the abolition of the House of Lords during the Commonwealth period. It could have been this experience which led his widow to arrange a marriage for her son, the 7th Earl. He recounts that “having attained the age of twenty and one years hee married by her choice on 19 Feb., 1671[-2] …. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter and coheire of Sir John Lewys”. John Lewys had “acquired a large fortune in India and Persia”. He offered a dowry of £10,000 (equivalent to over £2million today) and incorporated this in his will, also leaving £10,000 to his other daughter. Unfortunately for the Hastings family John Lewys died before the money was paid over. His widow contested the will, claiming that under special rules that applied to the City of London where he had been an Alderman she was entitled to a third of her husband’s estate. The cash-strapped Earl and his mother eventually accepted £4,000 (equivalent to about £900,000 today).


The 7th Earl wrote on 5th April 1676 that he had “some alterations and repairs to make in the church and chancel at Ashby”. Some of the repairs may have been necessary because of damage caused during the Civil War. Ashby Castle nearby was a Royalist stronghold and it is thought that the church itself was fortified. The Earl in a letter of 15th April 1679 complained that “the mending of the glasse will be endlesse and yet no ornament to the church”. The alterations he carried out included the provision of a gallery at the west end of the church and the installation of wainscotting throughout. He placed carved woodwork, 30ft high and incorporating the Royal Arms, in the upper half of the chancel arch. A wooden reredos was installed behind the altar and an ironwork screen in the chancel.


After repairing the alabaster chest tomb of his ancestors, did the 7th Earl of Huntingdon commission Grinling Gibbons to make an accompanying wall monument at the same time as he was working on the Earl’s own monument?


The 7th Earl then turned his attention to the alabaster chest tomb. In August 1694 he told Laurence Cromp of the Herald’s Office: “I have been this summer, att a Considerable charge, to repair and Beautifie a monument of Francis Earl of Huntingdon, in Ashby church.” He also moved the chest tomb from the centre of the Hastings Chapel to a position against the wall under a heraldic panel (fig 1).

The wall monument complements the chest tomb. It consists of a rectangular section, containing the coat of arms of Katherine Pole, Francis’ wife, and above this a smaller semi-circular section containing the Hastings coat of arms. Katherine Pole was a member of the Plantagenet royal family which may explain why her coat of arms occupies a more prominent position than her husband’s. (When Queen Elizabeth fell seriously ill with smallpox, Robert Dudley, her favourite, proposed the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, who was both his brother-in-law and a staunch Protestant, as her successor).

At the top of the monument set in a niche is an urn of white marble with a Latin inscription, which translates as: “Theophilus, Earl of Huntingdon, as a last service, caused this chapel to be decorated, and this tomb to be restored, in glorious memory of his most illustrious forefathers whose remains are buried here. Done in faith, 1698”.

The supporters on Katherine Pole’s coat of arms are a manticore (a lion with the head of a man) and a griffin. These echo the chest tomb where they are the animals on which the Earl and the Countess’ feet are resting. Also the alabaster candelabra strips on the wall monument match those on the chest tomb.

Until now it has been assumed that a letter the Earl wrote to Laurence Cromp on 10th September 1698 was about his own monument. In the letter he says: “I have now made a perfect agreement, with Mr Gibbons the Carver, in Bow Street for the monument which if made according to the modell, I shall like very well; I therefore desire you, to doe me the kindness to Call on him to see in what forwardnesse it is in, and what your judgement is of itt; particularly as to the armes”. However, the Earl then talks at some length in the letter about the design of the Bull’s Head, the crest of the Hastings family. The Earl’s own monument does not include a Bull’s Head so the letter  does not appear to be about this. The wall monument does have a Bull’s Head as part of the Hastings coat of arms so it could be this monument which the letter is about. (fig 2). However, the wall monument is similar in style to the chest tomb and so would appear to be of the same date. This would leave unresolved the question of why the Earl wrote at such length about the design of the Bull’s Head. It also raises the issue of why there are two monuments to the 2nd Earl considering that the family were heavily in debt at the time. (Richard Parker was paid £20, equivalent to £16,600 today, for a similar chest tomb for the 1st Earl of Rutland – Monument of the Month November 2013).

Major work was undertaken at St Helen’s between 1878 and 1880. As part of this the chest tomb was moved back to a central position in the Hastings Chapel. The plinth and the alabaster slab under the effigies also appear to have been replaced. The Parish Magazine says of the wall monument that it had “been greatly improved by the addition of an alabaster front, and is now seen to be – what of course it always was – an independent monument, though it formerly appeared to form part of the altar tomb of Francis Earl of Huntingdon” (fig 3). The alabaster work was presumably by Thomas Earp of Lambeth who also provided a new alabaster pulpit and font for the church.

Ian Scruton