Church Monuments Society

ShiptonFig 2

The Churchyard bale tomb to the Morgan family at Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire.

Month: August 2020
Type: Chest tomb  
Era: 18th Century

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2 Magpie Alley, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Chipping Norton OX7 6BS

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One of the most spectacular of the intriguing ‘bale tombs’ of the Cotswolds

Cotswold churchyards arguably contain some of the finest tombs of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially those located in the Windrush Valley. The river starts in the Cotswold hills in Gloucestershire north-east of Taddington and flows for about 35 miles through Bourton-on-the-Water, by the village of Windrush, Gloucestershire, into Oxfordshire and through Burford, Witney, Ducklington and Standlake, finally meeting the Thames at Newbridge, upstream of Northmoor Lock.

The tombs are notable for two reasons. First, the area round Burford in particular had important quarries of excellent oolitic limestone, which varies in hue from golden and honey tones to paler shades. J B Priestly eulogised thus on Cotswold stone: ‘I call this stone grey, but the truth is that it is no colour that can be described. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew that trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold … these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them. This lovely trick is at the very heart of the Cotswold mystery’.[1] Secondly, the texture of Cotswold stone enables masons to produce opulent and fascinating architectural detail. Tomb chests and gravemarkers are mostly extremely richly carved, being packed with ornamentation, including cherubs, fruit and foliage, as well as such memento mori as the skull. Chest tombs take various forms but unique to the eastern Cotswolds are tombs are those with a rounded top slab, termed ‘bale’ tombs.

There are just over a hundred such bale tombs.[2] Those that contain legible dates range from the early 1660s, and continue to the 1770s, although some Victorian and even later replicas survive. All but about 10 are within 10 miles of Burford, home of important stone-mason families, such as the Strongs, Kempster and Beauchamps. About half of the bale tombs are within 5 miles of the town. The example east of the church at Shipton-under-Wychwood is to my eyes the most spectacular (Figs 1 and 2). Edith Brill was less enthusiastic, describing it as ‘an extreme example of the new pomposity … the overall rectangular shape almost concealed by its load of ornament’.[3]

Whichever view you adopt, there can be no doubt that it was a costly example, even if the stone could be sourced from within a very few miles, minimising transport costs.

Constructed from ashlar, the Shipton-under-Wychwood bale tomb comprises an unusual ‘double-decker chest, with fielded panels, a gadrooned band above first level and four swagged corner piers, all enriched in high relief carving. The bale capping is of the type categorised by W.R. Elliot as the ‘Reversed Diagonals’ type, being made up of two separate pieces of stone.[4]

The tomb commemorates various members of the Morgan family, apparently of three generations. All three of the incised inscriptions were originally picked out with black colouring, but much of this has weathered away and parts of the inscriptions are eroded or obscured by lichens of silvery-grey and amber. On the eastern side of the chest is a blank panel but with fixings evident at the four corners. Could it originally have held a monumental brass?

On the eastern end panel is a wreathed cartouche carved in relief with the incised inscription ‘In Memory / of Henry ye son of / Henry Morgan who / Departed ye life Feb ye / 19th 1739 in ye 55 yeare of / his age’ (Fig 3). This presumably relates Henry Morgan of nearby Bruern Grange who made his will in 1739, proved in 1740.[5] Henry Morgan’s will does not refer to his burial or commemoration, but Bruern chapel had no burial rights and it would thus be appropriate for him to be buried at Shipton. He was survived by his widow, who was provided for together with their four underage daughters, but left his lands to be divided between his brother, Robert, and nephew, Henry Furley.

On the northern face of the chest are two incised inscriptions, one each on the rectangular panels (Fig 4). That on the upper panel appears to read ‘Near this lyeth ye body of Mary wife of Robert ye son of Henry / Morgan she died Dec ye 3rd 1754 in … of hire age / In Memory of Robert ye son of Henry Morgan / + Ann his wife he died June ye … 1739 aged 69’. The main inscription panel, on the lower and larger panel, which is damaged with part having shaled off, reads ‘In memory of Henry Morgan Gent: Originally / from Fairford but late of Southill [Bedfordshire] who on ye 23 of June / 1727 / Died … inge & lies buried here in ye / … of his age …(mors) ianua] vitae [translation Death is the gate of life]’. Below is a largely illegible rhyme:  ‘… to live again / … for ever to remain / … Lord who on the tree did die / … him shall live eternally / … Soul fly there with Angel / … adore the King of Kings’. Doggerel verses are to be found on some other bale tombs, including examples at Fairford and Quennington; all appear to be individually composed.

Henry was probably the son of Robert and Elizabeth (nee Holford) Morgan. Robert is buried in the churchyard at Fairford (Gloucestershire) and is commemorated by a bale tomb there. Henry was baptised at Fairford on 10 June 1688. However, there was another Henry Morgan, who was baptised at Fairford on 29 January 1655, who was the son of Edmond and Mary (née Savery). Unfortunately, the Shipton parish register does not give Henry’s age at death which would confirm his parentage.[6]

The family were of armigerous gentry status, as the heraldic display at the short west end shows (Fig. 5). The shield bears a gryphon segreant, consistent with the arms of Morgan of Tredegar (Gwent) (i.e. or, a gryphon segreant sable), from whom this branch must have been related. Outside the end of the Corpus Christi chapel at the church of St Mary, Fairford, stands a group of three listed tombs, also for the Morgan family, one of which, a single-story bale tomb, shows noticeable stylistic parallels to the tomb at Shipton-under-Wychwood, albeit that it is not as elaborate.

Sally Badham

[1] J.B. Priestley, English Journey. Being a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the autumn of 1933 (London, 1934), p. 48.

[2] B.J. Marples, ‘Some Capped Tombs’, Oxoniensia 47 (1982), 139-40 records the outcome of a survey undertaken in 1981, but it was not revealed where the full survey results are stored. He found 98 Bale Tombs in 42 locations, but further searching, not yet complete, has revealed additional examples.

[3] E. Brill, Cotswold Crafts (London, 1977), p. 69.

[4] W.R. Elliott, ‘Chest Tombs and “Tea Caddies” by Cotswold and Severn’, Trans. Bristol & Glos. Arch. Soc. XCV, pp. 68-85.

[5] The National Archives, PROB 11/702.

[6] I am grateful to Chris Hobson for help on the Morgan family.