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All These Knights in Shining Armour. Funerary Art of Medieval England

Sir Thomas Wykeham (d. 1470) and his wife, Broughton, Northamptonshire, England. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

Middle Ages

All These Knights in Shining Armour. Funerary Art of Medieval England

What do Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have in common with a tiny village in Lincolnshire, England? Say “Disney” and you get suspiciously close to “d’Isigny”. And there it is, the connection we are looking for.

When in the late 1940s, famous film producer Walt Disney ventured into England he was hoping to prove his descent from a Norman invader of 1066, the soldier of fortune who came from Isigny near Bayeux to fight for William the Conqueror at Hastings. His descendants, the d’Isigny are buried in the aforementioned village called Norton Disney and are said to have been Walt Disney’s forefathers. They rest in peace in the local parish church, one of the hundreds of inauspicious churches scattered across the English countryside. Their tomb effigies are modest comparing to other similar monuments England can boast.

Funerary Art Medieval England, Disney
The cutting from Norton Disney local magazine. Dated 30 July 1949, it reported the events of Walt Disney’s brief visit. Disney is pictured studying the tombs and gravestones in the church. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

For thousands of years people all over the world placed great importance on burial rites and rituals. Britain has one of the richest histories of burial practices in Europe. They can be most revealing, varying from ceremonial burial inside of a cave, as in case of the famous red ochre dusted Lady of Paviland to even more famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo. However, the greatest body of funerary monuments dates back to the Middle Ages, during which spectacular religious architecture was introduced, both on the Continent and in Britain.

John Harewell (1365-1428, St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

Today in England more than 150 military effigies survive from the thirteenth century and almost 200 from the fourteenth. In comparison to Continental Europe, England suffered few losses during World War II, London has been the main target of the German invasion. English countryside, however, with all its treasure chest full of history, remained virtually intact. Nowhere else in Europe one stumbles accidentally across a country church only to find a knight resting in peace immortalized in his splendid tomb effigy. They vary. From history’s glittering figures to common knights known only by name, such as Jock of Badsaddle buried in St Mary’s Church, Olingbury, Northamptonshire, who is said to have killed the last wolf (or boar) in England.

Funerary Art Medieval England
An alabaster effigy of a knight named Jock of Badsaddle, described as the killer of the last wolf (or boar) in England. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

Armor effigies first emerged in Europe circa 1240 and were to gain most prominence on English soil. In comparison to the effigies of royalty, clergy and female aristocrats, the knightly ones show intense physical dynamism. Sword-pulling or cross-legged the armor figures are far from lying serenely on their tomb slabs with their hands folded in prayer. Thus such military effigies are identifiable not only by chain mail and surcoats, shields and swords, but also the said vitality.


Components of costume denote the figures knightly status, as in case of the famous William Longespee tomb effigy in Salisbury Cathedral. The effigies shown in the photos depict the knights from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Interesting example is Sir John de Lyons of St Mary’s Church, Warkworth, Northamptonshire, literally covered with lions. Lions are everywhere. They adorn his armour, his helmet, his sword, his shield.

Sir John de Lyons. St Mary’s Church, Warkworth, Northamptonshire. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

Another group of tomb effigies is exceptional in different respect. Sir Ralph Greene (d. 1417) and his wife Katharine were buried in St Peter’s Chruch, Lowick, Northamptonshire. Their tomb is unusual in that Ralph is holding Katharine’s hand and there are only a few monuments in England of this form (including the famous Arundel Tomb), even fewer on the Continent. In medieval art when a couple was shown holding their right hands, as in case of Sir Ralph and Lady Katharine, it meant their union was sanctioned by God, and they were married. When, however, a couple was holding their left hands the message was clear – their love was an adulterous one. Ralph and Katharine rest together as man and wife, in perfect unison even after death. On more down-to-earth note, note the details of his armour and her splendid headdress.

Sir Ralph Greene and his wife Katharine, St Peter’s Church, Lowick, Northamptonshire. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.
Funerary Art Medieval England
Continental example of a similar tomb effigy. Duke Henry I of Jawor and his wife Duchess Agnes of Bohemia, Lwówek Sląski townhall. Lower Silesia. Poland. Photo courtesy of Ludwig Schneider.

One of the finest tombs in the country can be found in St Mary and St Barlock’s Church in the village of Norbury, Derbyshire. They were made to the family of John Fitzherbert. They are in Chellaston alabaster from Nottingham School. Originally richly decorated and coloured, carved with great care and abundant in delightful detail, they date from about 1491.

Sir Ralph Fitzherbert (d. 1483) and his wife Elizabeth, St Mary and St Barlock’s Church, Norbury, Derbyshire. Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

The most refined monuments were made of alabaster, but the new trend was to emerge. Smaller two-dimensional effigies made of brass and affixed to monumental slabs of stone were introduced. Since they were cheaper they won great popularity among the emerging middle class. One of the finest examples can be found in St at Broughton, Northamptonshire, where Lady Philippa Byschoppesdon was buried. She was one of the five daughters and two sons of Sir William Wilcotes of North Leigh and Headington, who represented Oxfordshire in Parliament and was appointed chief steward of the estates of Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia. Philippa’s grandson, William Catesby, closely connected with Richard III, was the Cat commemorated on the well-known satire on the favourite ministers of the king which began: “The Cat, the rat and Lovel our dog do rule all England under the hog”. He was beheaded after the battle of Bosworth in 1485. Lady Philippa’s brass effigy is one of the finest in the country.

Funerary Art Medieval England
Lady Philippa Byschoppesdon, St Church, Broughton, Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk.

Another famous brass effigy has been preserved in St Margaret’s Church in Felbrigg, Norfolk. It shows Sir Simon Felbrigg and his wife Margaret, the duchess of Cieszyn [Teschen], today’s Poland. Lady Margaret came to England as one of the maids of honour to the future queen, Anne of Bohemia. King Richard II saw fitting to arrange her marriage with his standard-bearer. Lady Margaret and Sir Simon married and had three daughters together. She predeceased her husband and was buried in the aforementioned church in her husband’s family estates. Sir Simon commissioned their joint effigy. He was to be buried next to her, but remarried and was buried with his second wife in the choir of the Norwich Blackfriar’s church. The tomb inscription is in Latin. Blanks were left for Sir Simon to be filled in upon his death. They never were. Due to the aforementioned circumstances. The effigy is full of royal symbols of Richard II. His arms appear on the left shield at the top, next to another shield with the arms of his queen, Anne of Bohemia. Below these, is the shield with the arms of Sir Simon and his wife Margaret, her half being the arms of her father, Przemysław I, the Duke of Teschen. Below these again is the Felbrigg badge of a fetterlock, used twice. Below the shields is Richard II’s person badge of the white hart. Sir Simon himself is shown carrying the personal standard of Richard II. Just below his left knee he wears the Order of the Garter. The inscription on the tomb reads:

“Here lie Simon Felbrigg, knight, former Standard bearer to the most illustrious lord, our lord the King Richard the Second. He died on the …day of the month of … in the year of our Lord 14.. and the lady Margaret formerly his wife, of the nation and noble blood of Bohemia and formerly maid of honour to the most noble lady Anne, Queen of England; she died on the 27th day of June in the year of our Lord 1416; upon whose souls may God have mercy; Amen.”

St Margaret’s Church, Felbrigg, Norfolk, where Lady Margaret and Sir Simon’s tomb has been preserved. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Simak.

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik

Middle Ages fan? See the Medieval Bestiary or read about Sir Lancelot of the Lake!

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