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Remember death, for you must die...

There’s a lovely example of a cadaver tomb at St Michael’s church in Aylsham showing two grinning skeletons having what looks like a lovely time in their shrouds.

Two grinning brass skeletons plaques in the floor of a church
The brass memorials of Richard Howard on the left and Cecily is on the right. CREDIT: Stacia Briggs

Richard Howard is on the left and his wife Cecily is on the right: a former sheriff of Norwich in 1488, Richard built the church porch at Aylsham and his name remains carved on the roof. These 19-inch brasses show the couple in their winding sheets, or shrouds, and were made at a workshop in Norwich in 1499.

The skeletons are almost mirror images of each other and have the remains of rotting flesh on their upper chests, their skeletal hands crossed, their expressions are jolly and inviting. The plaque beneath them asked passers-by to pray for their souls.

A cadaver tomb is a memorial on which the effigy is shown as a shrouded body or an unshrouded skeleton – they were intended to remind everyone that life is short, and that decay awaits us all, regardless of our status or wealth.

In the 15th century, it became commonplace for the clergy, gentry and merchants to commission ‘transi tombs’, double-level tombs in which they were portrayed in their earthly finery on the top level and below, as decomposing corpses. These tombs were often placed in churches while the person commemorated was still alive to serve as a memento mori for them in their last years.

One such tomb in Canterbury Cathedral for Archbishop Henry Chichele (d.1443) shows him in his robes on the upper level and below on his death bed: “I was a pauper born, then to primate here raised, now I am cut down and served up for worms. Whoever may be who pass by, I ask for your remembrance.”

At St Andrew’s Church in Oddington in Oxfordshire, priest Ralph Hamsterley’s brass (how brilliant is the name ‘Hamsterley’? It sounds like a description of how he looked) commemorates his death in 1518 in the most ghoulish of manners.

Ralph Hamsterley died in 1518 and commissioned this grim brass before his death. It can be found in Oddington, aptly. CREDIT: Wikicommons

He is shown as a skeleton in his shroud with worms writhing out of his ribs and eye sockets with the inscription: : “VERMIBUS HIC DONOR ET SIC OSTENDERE CONOR QUOD SICUT HIC PONOR: PONITOR OMNIS HONOR” (“Here I am, given to the worms, and thus I try to show, That as I am laid aside here so is all honour laid aside.”)

These kind of grim brasses first appeared in England in the 1420s and coincided with a medieval vogue for the macabre: Norfolk has an unusually high number of such memorials, along with London, as befitted two such important medieval centres.


Some other cadaver/shroud tombs in Norfolk can be found at…

  • St Peter and St Paul, Salle: John Brigge, 1430, said to be the first English shroud brass

  • Norwich Castle Museum: Robert Brampton, 1468. This tomb for Robert and wife Isabel was made at a Norwich workshop

  • St Andrew, Kirby Bedon: William Dussyng and wife Katherine, 1505.

  • St Mary and St Walstan, Bawburgh: Thomas Tyard in his shroud

  • St Margaret’s, Cley-next-the-Sea: A spectacular 1508 shroud brass shows Symondes and his wife Agnes in their shrouds with their four sons and four daughters – William, Ralph, Aleyn, John, Cecily, Anne, Agnes and Rose - in ordinary clothes

  • St Miles, Coslany: Henry Scolows and wife in their shrouds, 1515

  • Holy Trinity Church, Loddon: Dame Catherine Hobart and second husband John in their shrouds, 1536

  • St Andrew, Frenze: Thomas Hobson, a man in his winding sheet, c.1520

  • All Saints, Great Fransham: Cecily Legge in her winding sheet, 1500.

  • St Martin’s Church, Fincham: An unusual medieval brass of a shrouded woman in the nave

  • St Mary, Wiveton: Thomas Brigge, 1470, shown in his winding sheet as a full skeleton

  • Norwich Cathedral: Thomas Gooding (aka The OG). Thomas Gooding was a mason of the cathedral who died in 1600 and paid a fair amount of money to be buried upright, figuring it would give him an advantage on Judgement Day. His tomb reads: All you that do this place pass bye, Remember death for you must dye. As you are now even so was I And as I am so shall you be. Thomas Gooding here do staye Wayting for God’s judgement daye.

Thomas Gooding at Norwich Cathedral. CREDIT: Siofra Connor


Fancy a tour round a cadaver tomb in Bury St Edmunds?


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