Church Monuments Society

Effigy of Charnel Chapel Lady

The ‘Charnel Chapel Lady’ in Worcester Cathedral

Month: September 2019
Type: Effigy  
Era: 13th Century

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Worcester Cathedral
8 College Yard, Worcester WR1 2LA

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An effigy in Worcester Cathedral has been identified as that of Margaret de Say (d. 1230), a significant benefactor of the abbey and one of the earliest effigy tombs in England.

On the north side of Worcester Cathedral’s Lady Chapel is the medieval effigy of a woman.  Moved, in 1636, from the Charnel Chapel to the Lady Chapel, there is no decoration or armorial to identify her and she is known only as the ‘Charnel Chapel Lady’.  In 2018 the Worcester Cathedral Library and Muniments team set out to search their records to attempt to identify her.

On the north side of Worcester Cathedral’s Lady Chapel is the medieval effigy of a woman.  Moved, in 1636, from the Charnel Chapel to the Lady Chapel, there is no decoration or armorial to identify her and she is known only as the ‘Charnel Chapel Lady’.  In 2018 the Worcester Cathedral Library and Muniments team set out to search their records to attempt to identify her.

Effigy of Charnel Chapel Lady

Effigy of ‘Charnel Chapel Lady’ in Lady Chapel, Worcester Cathedral. ‘Photograph by Christopher Guy, copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral’

The effigy is carved in Purbeck Marble with restoration to the left arm and front of the head in limestone. The effigy itself measures 1.9m in length and rests on a combined slab and base of Oolitic Limestone which is in three sections.  The slab that the effigy is resting on is slightly coffin-shaped, narrowing by 4-5cm at the foot. The head rests on a single cushion and is possibly the earliest use of a single cushion in England. The base has a border of stiff-leaf moulding and the whole rests on a chest of Cotswold Limestone.  It is presumed that this chest is contemporary with the effigy.

The edge of the slab has a simple rounded moulding, but the base supporting the slab has a border of stiff-leaf decoration, which is echoed in the corbel that the feet rest on.   The stiff-leaf carving to both base and corbel correspond in style to the carving found on the capitals of the pillars around the walls of the Lady Chapel.  The Lady Chapel was built by Bishop de Blois in 1224 and the Charnel Chapel, where the effigy was originally, was also constructed by Bishop de Blois for the bones of monks displaced by the building of the Lady Chapel and would probably have been decorated in the same style as the Lady Chapel.   The similarity of style and form of the effigy to these implies a comparable date.

The single cushion and the stiff-leaf decoration on the base are in the same style as the Lady Chapel decoration suggesting a date for the effigy post- c.1224, when building of the Lady Chapel and Charnel House were commenced and pre-c.1250 when a more naturalistic form of leaf carving was introduced in the Quire and Chancel.  The clothing also fits this time frame.  The only major benefactor recorded in this time was Margaret de Say, who died in 1230 leading to the conclusion the effigy is of her.

Corbel of effigy and Capital head in Lady Chapel. ‘Photograph by Christopher Guy, copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral’

Margaret de Say was the daughter of the Marcher Baron Hugh de Say and his wife Mabel Marmion and was also the granddaughter of Eustacia de Say who had founded Westwood Nunnery.  Margaret married three times, the first marriage, in 1197, was to Hugh de Ferrars when she was still a minor, secondly, she married Robert de Mortimer of Essex in c.1213.  He died in 1219.  Later the same year she married for the third time to William de Stuteville, who outlived her.  She kept her name as she was of higher status, and wealthier, than all her husbands.   Her death in 1230 was reported in the Annales de Wigornia therefore emphasising her importance to the Cathedral and Priory of Worcester.

Spandrel in the Lady Chapel and Head of Effigy. ‘Photograph by Christopher Guy, copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral’

Margaret de Say was a significant benefactor of the monastery.  Along with other smaller grants she gave the Manor of Boraston to the monks, worth between half a million and two million pounds in today’s money.  Even more importantly she also left her body to the Priory.   She wrote a will on the death of her second husband Robert de Mortimer and in this she not only left her body to the monks but included the annual rent of 5s. from Cotheridge to pay for a lamp in the Chapter House and for prayers for the souls of her husband Robert and herself.  That she included her husband may suggest that Robert de Mortimer is buried at the Priory as well.

De Say Will Orig

The will of Margaret de Say. ‘Photograph by Christopher Guy, copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral’

Margaret de Say was not only a significant benefactor to the monastery but her death in 1230 fits the time frame of the effigy.  She is now thought to be one of, if not the, oldest non-ecclesiastical female effigies in England.

The Charnel Chapel Lady is anonymous no more.

 

Bartoszuk. V.  ‘Giving the Dead a Name’, published in the Archaeology at Worcester Cathedral: Report of the Twenty-Eighth Annual Symposium, March 2018, pp 4-9

All images: ‘Photograph by Christopher Guy, copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral’