Church Monuments Society

Coberley tombs

An unidentified female miniature effigy at St Giles’s church, Coberley (Gloucestershire)

Month: February 2015
Type: Effigy   Stone carving  
Era: 13th Century

Visit this monument

St Giles’s church
GL53 9RA

More about this monument

The small village of Coberley is situated not far from Cheltenham. Access to the parish church is through an arched doorway and across a private farmyard. The church houses a number of interesting monuments, including a small wall memorial depicting the half-length figure of a knight clasping a large object in both hands (Fig. 2 below). This memorial commemorates the heart burial of Sir Giles II de Berkeley (1240–1294), who fought in the Crusades and whose body was buried in Little Malvern (Worcestershire). It is claimed by some to be the only memorial of its kind in the Cotswolds, but that is far from true: a second such heart tomb is located within the same church, just opposite Sir Giles’s memorial.

When viewing the large double monument of Sir Giles’s son Sir Thomas I de Berkeley (1289–1365) and his wife Joan, visitors may be forgiven for assuming the diminutive tomb alongside it is to commemorate the couple’s unnamed daughter (Fig. 1 and 3). This is how it has often been incorrectly described in guidebooks in the past and perhaps still today. True, there is nothing child-like about this small fourteenth-century tomb effigy apart from its size, but its appearance might easily confirm the popular misconception that medieval children were regarded as miniature adults. The figure is certainly dressed like an adult and her feet rest on what appears to be a dog – the conventional footrest for female effigies.

Yet this rather sentimental reading of the monument must make way for a perhaps less palatable one, for this miniature effigy probably commemorates not a child but an adult – or at least the heart of an adult. If we study the effigy closely (Fig. 4), it becomes evident that the figure does not have her hands raised in the conventional attitude of prayer. Instead she holds a glove in the left hand and with the right hand she reaches into her bodice, thereby indicating the heart that was removed from her body after death and buried separately on this spot. In 1931 Ida Roper already hinted at this possibility when she wrote that ‘no decided opinion has been formed by antiquaries concerning the meaning of this and similar diminutive effigies – whether they represent children or adults, or are placed over the heart buried beneath’.

The medieval custom of burying the heart – and sometimes also the flesh and the viscera – of the deceased was originally intended for people who died far away from their preferred burial site. In order to preserve the corpse for transport the body was embalmed by removing the internal organs (evisceration) and burying these separately. Sometimes just the bones were preserved by boiling the body, a process known as excarnation. An early example is that of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (b. 1122 – d. 1190), who drowned in the Göksu (then Saleph) River on the Third Crusade: the plan was to bury him in Jerusalem, but when efforts to preserve his corpse in vinegar proved unsuccessful it was decided to bury his flesh in Antioch, his bones in Tyre and his heart and internal organs in Tarsus.

A famous English example is that of Queen Eleanor of Castile (b. 1240 – d. 1291), who underwent triple burial after her death in the village of Harby outside Lincoln. Her husband Edward I had her viscera buried in Lincoln Cathedral, her heart in the Dominican convent of Blackfriars in London and her body in Westminster Abbey, where her gilt copper-alloy effigy may still be seen: her viscera and heart memorials were lost centuries ago.

Division of the corpse actually became a matter of prestige among royalty and the aristocracy across Europe, irrespective of where the deceased had died. It allowed people to show their allegiance to a particular church or order, while there was the additional benefit of prayers to be said for their souls in different locations. For example, Robert the Bruce (b. 1274 – d. 1329) was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, but he had wished his heart to be buried in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in token of his vow to undertake a crusade against the Saracens. When Sir James Douglas, to whom the heart had been entrusted, was killed in battle fighting the Moorish kings of Granada, the silver casket was recovered and interred at Melrose Abbey (Roxburghshire). Although the church frowned on bodily division and papal degrees forebade the practice, it was possible to obtain dispensation. The custom continued in modern times, for example among the Habsburgs in Vienna.

The Berkeley family seem to have been particularly keen on division of the corpse. Apart from Sir Giles’s heart memorial in Coberley, three more miniature effigies can still be found on the window sills of the nave of St Mary’s church next to the family seat of Berkeley Castle, of which two were probably holding hearts: these, too, have frequently been mistaken for child effigies and one may compare the famous case of the so-called ‘Stanley boy’ monument in Elford (Staffordshire), which was the Monument of the Month in January 2010. The unknown female whose heart was buried in Coberley presumably belonged to the Berkeley family as well.


Figure captions

Fig 1. Unidentified female miniature tomb alongside the double monument to Thomas Berkeley (d. 1365 and his first wife in St Giles’s church, Coberley (Gloucestershire). (Photo: C B Newham)
Fig 2. Wall memorial commemorating the heart burial of Sir Giles Berkeley (d. 1294) in St Giles’s church, Coberley (Gloucestershire). (Photo: Tim Sutton)
Fig 3. Miniature female effigy alongside the double tomb monument to Sir Thomas I de Berkeley (d. 1365) and his wife Joan in St Giles’s church, Coberley (Gloucestershire). (Photo: C B Newham)
Fig 4. Fourteenth-century miniature female effigy in St Giles’s church, Coberley (Gloucestershire). (Photo: C B Newham)

Further reading:

● Bradford, Charles Angell, Heart burial (London, 1933).
● Oosterwijk, Sophie, ‘“A swithe feire graue”. The appearance of children on medieval tomb monuments’, in Richard Eales and Shaun Tyas (eds), Family and dynasty in the Middle Ages (1997 Harlaxton Symposium Proceedings), Harlaxton Medieval Studies, 9 (Donington, 2003), pp. 172-92, esp. pp. 188-89 and pl. 44.
● Roper, Ida M., The monumental effigies of Gloucester and Bristol (Gloucester, 1931), pp. 377-378.
● Warntjes, Immo, ‘Programmatic double burial (body and heart) of the European high nobility, c.1200-1400. Its origin, geography, and functions’, in Karl-Heinz Spieß and Immo Warntjes (eds), Death at court (Wiesbaden, 2012), 197-259.
● Weiss-Krejci, Estella, ‘Heart burial in medieval and early post-medieval Central Europe’, in Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Jessica Hughes (eds), Body parts and bodies whole. Changing relations and meanings (Oxford, 2010), pp. 119-133.

More photos Click for images and descriptions