Mounted on the north aisle wall of the church of St Mary, Therfield, Hertfordshire, is one of the most unusual and elaborate wooden monuments in England. It is to Ann Turner and was placed in the church soon after her death in 1678 by her husband, the Reverend Dr. Francis Turner, who later became the Bishop of Ely and was one of the Seven Bishops imprisoned by James II in the Tower of London.
The monument is made from cedar wood and is constructed in a four by three configuration. The largest panel is a black central plate with an inscription in black lettering on an oval gold background. The oval is surrounded by a sparse wreath tied with a ribbon at the bottom. Originally the oval was bordered by a coloured surround but much of this has now faded. Flanking the central panel are figures of Time and Death in round-headed niches. The figures are meant to stand on corbels but, in the current form of the monument, they have been pushed back inside their niches. The niches are surrounded by garlands of fruit and flowers and each has a cherub’s head at the apex.
Above the central section is an unadorned open pediment flanked by flaming urns decorated with swags. The central section of the pediment has a shield in a cartouche. The shield is gold and may have always been like this. Flanking the shield and reclining on the pediment are two female figures, both with one arm raised and the other resting on a skull. The heads of the figures are replacements and now look outward to the viewer, but originally they looked upwards. The sub-section below the pediment is adorned only with a strip of acanthus and is curiously bald. It may once have carried further decoration, although there do not appear to be any fixing points on the original woodwork and, in any case, any such decoration had disappeared before the first picture of the monument was made in about 1874.
The three sections immediately below the central band consist of an inscription plate flanked by stylised flowers in raised decorative surrounds. The inscription consists of black lettering on a gold background. The original inscription plate had disappeared by 1874 and the current inscription is a modern replacement quoting the inscription given in Cussans’ History of Hertfordshire.
The bottom of the monument is composed of a central shield in a cartouche flanked by swags. The central shield is gold but may once have displayed the arms of Turner. The shield once had leaves extending from it on each side but these disappeared at some time between 1874 and 1908 when the Royal Commission visited and photographed the church.
Until 1874 the monument was located on the north wall of the chancel. In December 1872 the ceiling of the chancel began to collapse and the chancel was blocked off. Most of the building was subsequently demolished to be replaced by a new church designed by G. E. Pritchett which was completed in 1878.
The monument ended up, as so many monuments did after Victorian “restorations”, under the tower. The Royal Commission’s 1908 picture strongly suggests that the monument suffered most of its damage by being removed from the wall where it had been mounted for 200 years. This is understandable; no doubt the back of the monument had rotted due to damp through the wall. The ribs of the skeleton may have disappeared long before because of their fragility. An oddity is the clean diagonal cuts – as if made by a long bladed cutting device – through the female figures at the top. Both lost their heads and the tips of their upraised hands.
The monument stayed mounted on the north wall of the tower from 1878 until 1965 when funds were found to have the monument restored. This was carried out by H & K Mabbitt of Colchester under the direction of David Atwell of Donald Insall & Associates. Nearly all of the missing parts were replaced, copies being made either from surviving parts or by replicating what appears in the 1874 pictures. The monument was placed in a new position on the north wall of the north aisle so that it may be seen and appreciated by all who enter the church.
Why is the monument made of wood and who made it? Unfortunately there is no documentary evidence to answer these questions. The author is unknown. It seems reasonable to suggest that he was very good but not great; the figure of Father Time with his wind-swept beard is notable and very finely carved. The surrounding garlands are not in the Grinling Gibbons league but are excellent nevertheless. Further light might be shed if other examples of this carver’s work can be found. Perhaps examples exist in country houses in Cambridgeshire or Hertfordshire.
(This entry is an abridged version of the study published in The Digital Atlas of England Annual Report 2011)
St Peter’s church, Croft (Yorkshire North Riding) sits beside an ancient bridge over the Tees. It contains an array of unusual items including a sedilia with rustic carvings of figures (one of which may have been influential in the design of Charles Dodgson’s Cheshire Cat), a large 18th century font which would look more at home on the formal lawns of a grand house, and two enormous tomb chests (two of the largest I have ever seen in a parish church). Perhaps the most unusual and striking feature is the family pew in the north aisle.
The pew belonged to the Milbanke family, formerly of Halnaby Hall. Nikolaus Pevsner in the Buildings of England says it dates from before 1680, although I get the feeling it is somewhat later; perhaps early 18th century (the Victoria County History also suggests an 18th century date). It sits on five large wooden Tuscan columns and is equipped with a set of fetching red curtains. One ascends to the pew via a three-stage staircase with fancy twisted balusters.
Behind and underneath the enormous pew is an equally enormous tomb chest surrounded by an iron railing. It has no inscription but sports a funeral helm, sitting rather ill-at-ease on the top, and a series of heraldic shields of the Milbanke family. It is most probably the tomb of Sir Mark Milbanke 1st Baronet (d.1680) or, less likely, to his son Sir Mark (d.1698) who built a large family vault in the church.
The first Sir Mark was created a Baronet on the 7th of August 1661, presumably helped by the fact that his father, Mark Milbanke, had been High Sheriff of Northumberland and had also been instrumental in the restoration of Charles II to the Throne in 1660.
If you visit the church, try tapping on the front columns. You’ll find only the inner two are for structural support; the outer two are hollow and for show only.