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Hidden for almost 150 years - the Good Earl’s sons revealed

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Tomb of 15th Earl and his wife Elizabeth. Copyright Michael Anderson/St Nicholas Church.

Martin Crowther, Heritage Engagement Officer with St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham Voices from the Pews project, explains how a clever piece of smartphone photography has shone a light on hidden Tudor carvings behind an important tomb… as well as helping to solve the mystery of why it was re-located the wrong way round in Victorian times.

St Nicholas Church from the South East. Copyright Michael Anderson/St Nicholas Church.

The finest church in Essex

St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham, is a heritage building that literally takes the breath away. A magnificent 800-year-old church, at the heart of a picturesque North Essex village, it is packed to the rafters with the kind of architectural treasures that most congregations can only dream of.

From its soaring hammer-beam roof and colourful Norman cartwheel window, to the intricately carved rood screen with its cast of medieval characters, it’s a church that just keeps giving. No wonder esteemed architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner called it ‘the finest church in Essex.’

Carefully lift the misericord seats in the choir and you’ll discover exquisitely carved stories of medieval life, including a fox carrying a priest in his mouth, led by a wolf blowing a trumpet.

And there are animals everywhere! From the wild boar symbol of the Earls of Oxford, who were patrons of the church for several hundred years, to an upside-down cat or leopard on a holy water stoup, and a wrought iron basilisk lizard crawling across the entrance door.

However, like all old churches, there are still plenty of mysteries waiting to be revealed, and research into these hidden stories has been a key strand of the current Voices from the Pews community project, generously supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The black marble tomb of the Good Earl and his wife Elizabeth

Our story, which concerns a recent discovery, begins at the height of the Coronavirus epidemic in early December 2020, and centres around the opulent black ‘marble’ tomb of John De Vere, the 15th Earl of Oxford (1490-1539) and his wife, the Countess Elizabeth.

The fifteenth Earl (also known as The Good Earl) was an important historical figure. He fought under Henry VIII at the Battle of the Spurs after which he was knighted, and was with the king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. As Lord Great Chamberlain he carried the crown at the coronation of Anne Boleyn and witnessed her trial. He attended the funeral of Jane Seymour in 1537.

His wife, the daughter of Sir Edward Trussell, led a busy life, running his household and raising a large family at nearby Hedingham Castle.

Their tomb (the only De Vere family tomb in St Nicholas Church) was prominently positioned in the centre of the chancel, until extensive Victorian alterations moved it behind the altar rail, with one side pressed tight against the north wall of the church. As such, is largely inaccessible to the public, except during special tours. But what a hidden gem it is!

Top of the tomb. Engraving published in Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, Vol I, Part XV. (1853).

Outstanding craftsmanship

The tomb is made from a smooth fine-grained black limestone (known as Blacke-touch or touch marble). The effigies of the Good Earl and his wife are carved on the top, along with their elaborate coat of arms. He dressed in fluted plate armour, she wearing a head-dress and heraldic mantle.

The wild boar symbol of the De Vere family (Earls of Oxford). Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.

The carving is of excellent quality and must have taken one or more highly skilled craftsmen many weeks to execute.

Blacke-touch tombs were certainly in vogue for the wealthiest members of the aristocracy and royal court at this time. A magnificent blacke-touch sarcophagus being prepared for Cardinal Wolsey by the Florentine Sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1552) was appropriated by Henry VIII for his own use, following the disgraced cleric’s death in 1530, though was not actually used for his burial. Instead, after gathering dust for more than 250 years, it was presented by King George III to become the tomb of Horatio Viscount Nelson, following his heroic, if untimely demise at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The two links below provide more information about these fascinating stories:

The Strange History of Nelson's Tomb

Benedetto da Rovezzano was one of a number of Italian Renaissance sculptors who worked in England. Another, Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528), fled his native Florence after badly breaking Michelangelo’s nose and eventually ended up at Henry VIII’s court. His most impressive work in this country is the tomb of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey.

Rovezzano was resident in England between 1519 and 1543, and the artistic techniques and materials used by him and others like him, were widely copied, including by the unknown sculptors of the XVth Earl and his wife’s tomb at Castle Hedingham.

The effigies are extremely lifelike and are the only contemporary portrayals of the earl and his wife to survive.

Visible side of tomb, showing the 4 daughters. Engraving published in Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, Vol I, Part XV. (1853).

On the visible side panel, kneeling dutifully in prayer are their four daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, Frances and Ursula.

Frances, who became Countess of Surrey, was sketched by Hans Holbein the Younger, probably around the time of her marriage in 1532, when she was just 15 years old. This drawing now forms part of the Royal Collection.

Their sons John, Geoffrey, Aubrey and Robert (it was a big family) lie hidden in a dark, narrow, cobwebbed space, no wider than a hand’s breadth, tight against the wall. They have not been seen in living memory.

It was John who succeeded his father as the 16th Earl (1516-1562). A fine soldier he distinguished himself as one of Henry VIII’s generals and once killed a charging wild boar armed only with a rapier. His wife Margery was Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth I, who visited Hedingham Castle in 1561. Interestingly, when he died, John, a noted spendthrift, was interred with his parents in the vault beneath the chancel of St Nicholas Church, there being no money left to pay for his own tomb.

The Good Earl and Elizabeth’s sons revealed

With the church closed due to Coronavirus in December 2020, only vital behind the scenes work continued (socially-distanced of course), including professional photography by Michael and Angela Anderson of Broadhouse Media for a new virtual tour and church guidebook.

We had already photographed the tomb on a previous day, and in doing so, I had recounted to Michael and Angela the story of the Good Earl, his wife, their very visible daughters and extremely well-hidden sons.

During a short gap in photography (a much-needed tea break on a desperately cold day) Angela disappeared behind the far end of the tomb, armed with nothing more than a powerful slim-line light and her smartphone camera.

Inserting light and camera into the narrow gap between wall and tomb, she experimented to see if anything could be captured of the carving on the hidden panel. The results were startling.

Smartphone photograph by Angela Anderson reveals details of the hidden sons. Copyright Angela Anderson/St Nicholas Church.

Look at this! Angela exclaimed, excitedly showing me a photo on her smartphone. The kneeling silhouettes of two of the sons could clearly be seen, facing away from the camera, with the name of one, ROBERT, carved above and to the left of his image. Of the other two sons, there was disappointingly little to see, a rather impressive cobweb blocking the view!

Camera access from the far (west) end was sadly prevented by the unfortunate siting of an early 20th century radiator.

So why was the tomb turned round?

We know that when the tomb was repositioned in 1868, it was turned round the wrong way, so that the heads of the earl and his wife now face away from the altar rather than towards it. But why?

It seems the far side of the tomb was already quite badly damaged. This is clear in Angela’s photograph and includes significant loss to at least one figure and along the top edge of the tomb.

To show the tomb at its best, the Victorian builders under the supervision of the architect Henry Woodyer, turned it round 180 degrees, so the largely undamaged side showing the four daughters was in public view, and the damaged section hidden against the wall.

The question as to when the tomb got damaged is another story.

However, if one looks closely at the top and sides of the tomb, it is literally covered in a mass of historic graffiti, a profusion of neatly carved initials, names and dates, with the earliest example dating to 1539, the year it was installed. It even includes a neatly executed piece of compass-drawn daisywheel graffiti. These unofficial additions continue right through to the mid-late 19th century, when the tomb’s re-positioning behind the altar rail made opportunistic carving like this much more difficult.

It is almost certainly the case that considerable damage to the reliefs of the Good Earl’s sons, as well as to other parts of the tomb, was caused during the 300 plus years prior to its 1868 relocation.

Local historian and former Churchwarden Charlie Bird suggests much of this may have occurred during the Civil War period, when the church was used as a school, and the pupils were under the tutelage of among others, the Puritan minister and diarist, the Rev Ralph Josselin. One can imagine the boys, when their strict schoolmaster was not present, sitting and climbing on the tomb in their hob-nail boots!

Sadly, the tomb’s repositioning against the church wall, has led to further deterioration over the last 150 years, with damp leading to fragments of the reliefs flaking off into the narrow void. Thankfully, these have been collected up by Charlie, and are safely stored, ready for the day when money can be found to conserve this exceptional monument.

It is hoped that once Lockdown 3 is over, a tiny film camera, mounted on a pole, along with a long reach soft feather duster to remove the giant cobweb, might be the next step in revealing the true condition of the hidden sons of the fifteenth earl. Watch this narrow space!

Martin Crowther (Heritage Engagement Officer, Voices from the Pews)

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