Who cares for our historic memorials and tomb monuments?

You don’t have to spend long in a Church of England parish church to see that the condition of many of the older memorial and monuments within them is deteriorating: cracks, spalling/flaked surface, loss of paint/gilding, lost elements. Some of this damage is the result of iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of religious imagery, particularly during the 1540s and 1640s. Other damage is simply caused by the passage of time.

Empty niches on the tomb of Henry Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland, Beverley Minster. The statues were most likely destroyed by iconoclasts

So, who is responsible for the maintenance and repair of memorials in our parish churches and churchyards? And what repair are they allowed to do?

Legally, a memorial remains the property of the deceased and their heirs. If the the Parochial Church Council (PCC) want to carry out work that affects a memorial, for example repair or relocation, they have to demonstrate to the church authorities that they have attempted to contact and consult the heirs. However, whilst recent memorials may be maintained by relative and friends, this is rarely the case for historic memorials. Even where the family is still in existence, they do not necessarily contribute to the maintenance of the medieval/early modern memorials of their ancestors.

Effigies in the church St Peter and St Paul, Ormskirk – much of the decorative detail has been lost, as well as limbs

It, therefore, falls on the PCC to maintain and repair memorials in their church/churchyard. However, they have to do so from their own local income and fundraising efforts (fun fact: the vicar is the legal owner of a parish church, and the vicar and churchwardens are responsible for it’s upkeep). With many other competing demands on their funds – pastoral, worship and building upkeep/repairs – memorials are often left until they become a health and safety hazard, or until they can be incorporated into a larger project that may attract funding from bodies such as the Heritage Lottery fund. NB: there are some organisations that fund conservation of historic memorials but applications are competitive and won’t cover all the costs.

If the money is raised to conserve a historic memorial or tomb monument, what can actually be done to them? The work that can be carried out is underpinned by conservation theory. Whilst there are examples, particularly in the 1970s/80s of historic tombs being repainted, it is unlikely that this would be allowed today. Similarly, permission probably wouldn’t be given to replace a lost element ie: a statue, sword, limbs. Instead, the emphasis is on ensuring memorials are safe and preventing further deterioration. If a missing element has been preserved it might be reattached if possible, surviving bit of historic paint would be stabilised, and efforts would be made to ensure the memorial doesn’t collapse/crack further.

The tomb of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, in the Church of St Michael, Framlingham. The tomb was restored in the late 1970s because it was in a bad state of repair – the extent of the restoration would be unlikely to approved today

Who decides what work can be carried out? Work to memorials in a Church of England church requires a Faculty – a legal document issued by the Chancellor of the Diocese. The PCC have to have the memorial surveyed by a conservator, who would also detail the proposed conservation. The application is then sent to the Diocesan Advisory Committee who advise the Chancellor whether a Faculty should be issued. A number of other bodies also have to be consulted on Faculties (dependent on the work proposed and the age/listing of the building), for example, an application to carry out major conservation of an important medieval memorial in a grade I listed building might also be sent to the Church Buildings Council, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), and Historic England for comment!

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