William and Alice de la Pole’s Foundation at Ewelme[i] – St Mary’s Church
Parts III and IV of this series about William and Alice de la Pole’s foundation at Ewelme will deal with the buildings of God’s House. Most of these still stand and provide a glimpse into a long gone-by time. This post deals with St Mary’s Church, which still serves as Ewelme’s parish church.
As was to be expected, a church existed in Ewelme long before the de la Poles started remodelling it, as did the manor house. It was originally dedicated to All Saints, but it then became St Mary’s Church, very much in line with other secular religious foundations of the time.[ii] Parts of the west tower, dating from the 14th century, are the only remnants of this earlier church.
The almshouse was to have its own chapel, dedicated to St John the Baptist. To accommodate this the structure of the original church needed changing.
The church we see today has not changed all that much since the 15th century builders left. Seen from the east, St Mary’s has a rather broad-headed appearance, which is more typical for East Anglian churches. Other design aspects also reflect an East Anglian influence. This has been interpreted as a deliberate attempt to advertise the de Poles’ title of Earl and Countess of Suffolk (the church rebuilding was begun before William was elevated to Duke).
Like the manor house, parts of the church were built in brick for decorative effect. Goodall describes this use of brick as “unusual and ostentatious”[iii]. Considering that bricks were the latest in architectural fashion that was probably the point: the de la Poles wanted to show off.
The inside of the church is remarkable for its low-pitched roof, giving it a strong horizontal impression. The central part of the church is divided from the aisles by arcades, the southern arcade, St John’s Chapel, includes the tombs of Alice de la Pole and that of her parents.
In the fabric of the church, two separate 15th century building periods can be distinguished. The first, earlier work comprises the south aisle with its arcade and is characterized by plain architectural details. The construction work of this period might have been undertaken by Alice’s father, Thomas Chaucer. It is documented that he made repairs to the church and is described on his tomb as “a patron of this church”.[iv] It is not known how far his alterations went, as all that remains are some parts in the south aisle, which were incorporated into the de la Poles’ new church.
While the design of this first period is relatively plain, the second period left us more ornate elements. There are more sculptures and carvings, both inside and out. There might have been a break in this second stage, but it seems that the whole church had been completed by the time the Statutes were drawn up in 1450.
Originally the church would have had many magnificent stained-glass windows. Unfortunately, the only medieval glass that remains is a window composed of fragments in St John’s chapel. It is assumed that the original glass depicted a heraldic and/or a devotional theme.[v] The rather striking east window, we can see today, was only presented to the church in 1882.
Two other features from the de la Pole remodelling are the rood screen and the font and its magnificent wooden cover. Rood screen were the centrepiece of medieval churches and divided the sacred space of the chancel from the public nave. Originally there would have been a rood loft on top, but this did not survive the Reformation.
The font is octagonal and made of stone. However, the most noticeable part is its wooden cover. It is formed of four circles of arches and on top is the figure of an angel, probably the archangel St Michael.
The most eye-catching items are the two monuments: the Chaucer tomb and the tomb of Alice Chaucer, both of them in the almshouse chapel.
Chapel of St John the Baptist
The de la Pole 15th-century building period can be divided into two stages. At first, the chapel for the almsmen, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was built. This commenced probably very soon after the de la Poles had obtained the royal licence in 1437 and was completed in 1438. The chapel is on the right-hand (southern) side of the chancel, with the Chaucer tomb and Alice’s tomb in the arches between the chapel from the chancel.
After this chapel was finished, the emphasis of the work might have shifted to erecting the domestic quarters, before finishing the rest of the church. A break in the masonry can be detected, which indicates that the second stage, including the chancel and the nave, were built later.
The chapel walls are painted in red and black with the monogram IHS (for Jesus). The chapel had originally a tile floor, decorated with heraldic emblems: the Chaucer wheels and the Burghersh lions.
The Chaucer tomb
The tomb chest of Thomas and Maud Chaucer was probably first created as a free-standing monument with four decorated sides. However, once the chapel was finished, it was moved there. It now stands against the screen dividing the chapel from the chancel and only three sides are visible, the fourth one has been cut off to avoid a gap between the tomb and the screen.
When the tomb was fitted into its present space, it was decorated on the three exposed sides with 24 enamel coats of arms. [vi] One of these shows a combination of the arms of York and Neville, celebrating the alliance of Richard, duke of York, and Anne Neville.
The Chaucer tomb is encased in Purbeck marble, with a darker stone on top. The top features two brass effigies: Thomas Chaucer on the left and Maud Burghersh on the right. At their feet are the heraldic animals of their families, a unicorn for Chaucer and a lion for Burghersh. In each of the four corners there is a heraldic shield. On the arcade above the tomb are two carved saints: St Catherine with her wheel and the Burghersh coat of arms, and Mary Magdalene with her jar and the Chaucer coat of arms.
There is a Latin inscription around the rim of the tomb on the three visible sides. Translated it reads:
Here lies Thomas Chaucer, knight, sometime lord of this manor and patron of this church, who died on the 18th day of the month of November, the year of Our Lord 1434. And Matilda his wife, who died the 28th day of the month of April, the year of Our Lord 1436.[vii]
The tomb of Alice Chaucer
While her parents’ tomb is traditional, the monument of Alice Chaucer is a much grander affair. She had commissioned it during her lifetime, so we can assume that she had a lot of influence on its execution. The short story ‘The Stone-Workers Tale’ by Margaret Frazer[viii] is set during its construction. The upheaval and chaos the installation of this monument must have caused in the church is well recreated.
Both monuments are along the same wall separating St John’s Chapel and the chancel, with Alice Chaucer’s nearer the eastern outside wall.
Above the tomb chest, is a canopy which is built through the wall, this means that if you were to remove the tomb it would be like a doorway. Th canopy includes eight pinnacles each with an angel on top, alternately dressed in costumes of feathers and vestments.
The tomb itself is made of alabaster. The upper section is a conventional tomb chest with a full-length effigy of Alice lying on top. The sides are decorated with angels set into arches. The stone-mason creating these angels as well as those on the canopy plays a significant role in Margaret Frazer’s story.
Underneath, however, is another section, with Alice as a dried-up corpse. This is the only depiction of a woman as a life-sized cadaver that has survived in England. On each side of the tomb are eight angels. Around the rim at the top there is an inscription which reads (in Latin):
Pray for the soul of the most serene princess Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, patron of this church and first founder of this almshouse, who died on 20th day of May in the year of Our Lord 1475.[ix]
This is remarkable in several ways. She inflated her title somewhat as a “princess”. Describing herself as a “patron of this church” echoes the inscription on her parents’ tomb. It is significant that there is no reference to William, neither as husband nor as the patron and founder. This emphasises that this foundation was primarily hers. She had a close connection to Ewelme, which she inherited from her mother. She spent a large part of her life here and this is where she is buried. Alone. Admittedly, in 1475, in the middle of the reign of the Yorkist king Edward IV, it might also have been more politically expedient not to mention the main adversary of the duke of York, the king’s father.
In the life-like effigy on top, Alice is portrayed wearing the Order of the Garter around her left fore-arm. Apparently both Queen Mary and Queen Victoria checked this out to establish the correct procedure of how a lady wears the Order.
The face is elongated, with a long straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes and arched eyebrows. As the tomb was commissioned during her life-time, this might very well be an attempt of a portrait of her. Let’s say, while she may not have been conventionally pretty, it is certainly an interesting face, which seems to fit a woman who knew what she wanted.[x]
On the bottom of the tomb chest, so that the cadaver would look at it, are paintings, with an Annunciation scene directly above her eyes. However, for a visitor of the church this is difficult to see, unless you want to lie flat on the ground.
At the western end of St Mary’s church is an impressive wooden door, leading to a passage which connects the church to the almshouse quadrangle, which will be dealt with in Part IV of this series.
[i] The main sources for this series of posts are Goodall, J.A.A., God’s House at Ewelme: Life, devotion and architecture in a fifteenth-century almshouse. Ashgate Publishing, 2001; Guide to St Mary’s Church Ewelme and to the Almshouse and the School. St Mary’s Church Ewelme, n.d.
[ii] Burgess, C., ‘An Institution for all Seasons: The Late Medieval English College’, in: The Late Medieval English College and Its Context, ed by Clive Burgess & Martin Heale. York Medieval Press, 2008, p.25
[iii] Goodall, God’s House, p.44
[iv] Goodall, p.45
[v] An in-depth examination of the window elements can be found in San Casciani, P., ‘Expert Glazing Techniques in the East Window of the Chantry Chapel of St John the Baptist, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, Oxfordshire’, Vidimus, No. 38 (March 2010). URL: http://vidimus.org/issues/issue-38/feature/ [last accessed 30 Sept. 2017, link does not work any more]
[vi] For an examination of the shields: Lamborn, E. A.G., ‘The Arms on the Chaucer Tomb at Ewelme’, Oxoniensia, Vol. V (1940), pp.78-93
[vii] Goodall, p.169
[viii] Margaret Frazer, The Stone-Worker’s Tale, Kindle edition, Dream Machine Productions, 15 April 2011
[ix] Goodall, p.181
[x] Although in her youth she seems to have been regarded as beautiful. Archer in the ODNB tells us that at a wedding in 1424 in Paris, “her beauty so captivated the duke of Burgundy, that he attempted to seduce her, much to Montagu’s fury”. Archer, R.E., ‘Chaucer, [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn 19 May 2011 [last accessed online 25 May 2018]
This is the third part of a four-part series on God’s House in Ewelme: