Recently, I rediscovered photos of the tomb of Henry Neville, 5th earl of Westmorland (and his first two wives) taken while I was researching my PhD. Of all the tombs I visited during my research, this one stood out as the only one made of wood. I posted a couple of the photos on Twitter but I wanted to write a bit more about the tomb!
Starting with… Who was Henry Neville?
Henry was the eldest of the 18(!) children on Ralph Neville, 4th earl of Westmorland and Katherine Stafford, daughter of the duke of Buckingham. His career could perhaps be described as chequered… Married for the first time at the age of 11 or 12, he would go on to remarry twice – controversially, his 3rd side was the sister of his 2nd wife. In 1546, he was arrested for gambling debts and for planning to kill his first wife and his father. He admitted neglecting his wife and ‘naughty living’. He was arrested again in 1552 for plotting to rob his mother and seize treasure from Middleham Castle. His political career, in contrast, was of little note, though he was a relatively early supporter of Mary Tudor’s claim to the throne in 1553. He died in February 1564 at approximately 40 years of age.
Where is his tomb?
His tomb was erected in the church of St Mary in Staindrop, near to Raby Castle, the ancestral home of his family. His father and other relatives were also buried in the same church (although not all have surviving tombs).
How rare are wooden tombs?
Pretty rare! Wood was commonly used for simple grave markers or for painted tablets. It could also be used for more elaborate chest tombs, canopies, and effigies, however, these were less common. In his study of post-Reformation monuments, Nigel Llewellyn identified six wooden architectural tombs ie: chests or canopies, and twelve wooden effigies. Henry Neville’s tomb is the only one commemorating a nobleman. Obviously, there may have been others that have been lost but the number is still going to have been relatively low.
Wood was usually chosen as a material for larger architectural tombs or effigies simply because it was a cheaper alternative to alabaster or ‘marble’ (*marble is often used to refer to limestones such as Purbeck that resembled marble) – both in terms of the material itself and the cost of working it.
It is, however, unclear why this particular tomb was made of wood. There is no evidence of a trend towards wooden chest tombs in Staindrop or the Neville family – for example, it sits alongside the alabaster tomb commemorating Ralph Neville, 1st earl of Westmorland.
Who made the tomb?
Unusually for 16th century tombs, we know the name of the craftsman – John Tarboton. Unfortunately, Tarbotons is an unknown craftsman and the only record of him the handful of memorials he worked on and signed!
He was clearly talented at carving wood. The Neville tomb is a beautiful example of a 16th-century tomb with the same features found on stone/alabaster chest tombs, including carved heraldic shields, effigies, kneeling figures on the sides and turned columns. In fact that quality of the carving is higher than seen on some stone monuments. Highlights include the faces on his armour, the detail of his hair and face, the detailing on his wive’s dresses, and the bull crest behind his head.
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 204-6); K. Dockray, Neville, Ralph, fourth earl of Westmorland (1498–1549), magnate. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 22 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-19953.