Church heritage

‘Must have’ monuments of 17th century Suffolk

IF you’ve got it, flaunt it. While today it is the nouveau riche who tend to have the showiest cars and the largest hot tubs, back in the 17th century it was the nobility too that liked to show off, only quite often it was posthumously.

Take the £200 paid to master mason Nicholas Stone in 1624 for a couple of effigies for the first baronet Sir Nicholas Bacon and his wife Lady Anne in Redgrave St Mary, now under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust

It’s not easy to compare, but in today’s money you wouldn’t get much change from £50,000. 

Granted Stone was no ordinary sculptor. He was master mason to the Crown under James I and later Charles I.  And producing fine sculpture was no picnic. Your work had to make an impact, otherwise it had more or less failed.

A precarious life

Suffolk happens to have one of Stone’s best pieces of work in Bramfield St Andrew. Wander into Bramfield church to see it for yourself but prepare to be moved because it shows just how precarious life was in the 17th century.

The kneeling figure of Arthur Coke (whose dad Sir Edward was Lord Chief Justice at the time of the Gunpowder plot) is displayed above a life size figure of his wife Elizabeth. She died in childbirth in 1627, just two years ahead of her husband and is cradling one of their baby daughters. 

Death has no regard for status as we’re made brutally aware by the symbols on these monuments of the rich and famous. There was no shortage of memento mori – reminders of what lay ahead. They included scales for weighing souls, draped and empty urns, deathbed pillows, and scythes for the cutting down of life.

Flight of the soul

See the proliferation of skulls on the monuments of the wealthy Barnardistons in the unforgettable church of St Peter and St Paul Kedington. A skull with wings looks morbid but symbolizes the flight of the soul from mortal man.  

Yet far from morbid was the idea of bodily resurrection and salvation of the soul. John Donne, renowned poet and 17thcentury Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, famously posed in a shroud a month before he died just to ensure Nicholas Stone got this across. Today you can see Donne in St Paul’s, shrouded but standing upright, ready to ascend to heaven at the Day of Judgment.   

Monuments were not solely an expression of wealth or standing. 

Eliciting prayers for one’s soul – often shown by hands clasped in prayer – was considered more important in the Middle Ages though the apparent contradiction of adding heraldic arms and other symbols of worldly status made the whole thing quite complex to say the least.

Today our conspicuous consumption is in the end stripped away to a simple epitaph that we rely on to define our character, tell our story or comfort our relatives. We may even return anonymously to earth in a biodegradable coffin. 

Does your church have important historic features to highlight? Marion Welham specialises in raising the profile of historic churches through accessible guides and family activity packs.

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