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The Cadaver talk given by Rohan Brown and Dr. Christina Welch 2nd Jun 2011


We were told that the name of our tomb should be a “Transi Tomb” and not a Memento Mori Tomb. This is because a depiction of a rotting cadaver in art is called a transias opposed to a skeleton tomb.

 Memento mori can be freely translated as “Remember you are Mortal” or “Remember your Death”


 Rohan Brown, who has shown great interest in our figure has found, what she believes to be the complete list of these tombs and there are only approximately 37 known in the UK and not 150 as other authors describe, the others being shroud tombs, which is a very different style.


A large number were destroyed during the reformation and again in the Victorian times when tombs were moved as part of a “restoration” project.


The one in our church is amongst those recorded in the UK and also one of the finest.


The fashion for this type of memorial came from France and was popular from the middle of the C14 and into the C15, but mainly 1420 to 1480. Rohan believes ours could perhaps date from the 1480s to 90s, the time of the last two William Malherbes.


It was in circa 1493 that  "John Babingtone & William Malherbe / hathe a warraunt to the Custumers of the Custumes & subsides in the poorte of Excestre & Dertmouth to pay unto theim xi marc / which the king (Richard III) hath geven unto them towardes theire Ramison / late taken upone the see by brytaygnes". Somewhere else I have seen "fell into the hands of his countries foes and was taken on the sea by Brytagnes". Another report suggests the ransom was for 40 marks.


There is a difference of opinion as to whom this memorial is dedicated too, some say either Sir William Fry or Sir John Fry, whilst others say William Malherbe (d 1493) but I favour the last William Malherbe.


In Watson’s book “A Devonshire Village in the Olden Days” he suggests it to be William Malherbe and if you look closely above the tomb and above the window, in the centre is a crest which bears a strong relationship to that of the Malherbes. Ms Brown suggests that 90% of these tombs had coats of arms and identification, commonly lost in the Victorian restoration of medieval churches.


Who ever it was would have been a person of high position, firstly to be able to afford the memorial , which Dr. Welch considers it may have cost, even in those days £500, and secondly to be influential enough to warrant an allotted place inside the Altar rails. Again Dr. Welch believes it would have not been inside the altar rails at all but facing north / south in the main body of the church where it was looked at by those attending the services.


This casts in doubt that originally this memorial was on the south side of the sanctuary and was moved in 1877 when there was a major refurbishment of the Church. Previously it may have stood on an altar tomb.


Things to note about the emaciated figure in his winding sheet, are the tonsure haircut and if you feel his left shoulder you will find a large piece missing. It has been suggested that this was the result of a sword injury from a right-handed swordsman but on closer examination there is a round object inside this injury and of a different colour stone which could be a missile of some sort. The left leg also appears to be swollen and the left foot differs from the right.


Rohan informs us that that these effigies can bear the marks of injuries and ailments from life. Arundel Castle apparently has a figure of John Fitzalan with one leg missing after he was shot in the foot and had it amputated. 


The absence of the nose could be a result of syphilis or leprosy but it is also likely that damage was done the monument by a latter lord of the manor who also removed the name which could have been where the damage is to the plinth and also the removal of an orb like object which indicated a rank under the right hand. This was to indicate that the previous lord was no more and that times had moved on.


In the question time after the talk it was noted that the church was well funded by priests being paid to pray for the dead to ease them from purgatory to heaven, rather than hell. The church services were read out in Latin and the congregation were unable to understand this, so it is thought that these tombs were a source of learning about the body in death.


David Lanning.

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