Commemorating Courtiers

In the second of her posts on commemoration, Laura shows the role that effigies could play in creating dynastic identity.

Royal body surrounded by mourners

London, British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f.40v: funeral service

Most aristocrats did not set up public crosses in memory of their deceased loved ones. But it was seen as very important for the salvation of your soul to be laid to rest properly, with all the right prayers and rituals. Funeral services were usually meticulously planned and could last for many days. Vigils were kept over the corpse and Requiem Masses would be said for the deceased. After the burial itself, funeral feasts could also be held on successive days, alongside lots of alms-giving. A month after the death, more feasts, masses and alms-giving followed on what was known as the ‘month’s mind’.

The elite of medieval Europe commissioned elaborate tombs, with a sculpted effigy on top depicting an idealised form of their living selves. Like the Eleanor Crosses, these not only kept the memory of the deceased alive, but would prompt- and sometimes explicitly request- the prayers of passers-by.


By the later middle ages, most aristocrats also had traditional dynastic burial places: religious houses that might have been founded by their ancestors, and remained supported by the family. The church of St Mary’s Priory in Abergavenny, in the scenic Brecon Beacons area of Wales, preserves many tombs of the Hastings family.


St Mary’s Priory Abegavenny


The priory was originally founded in 1087 by a Norman knight, Hamelin de Ballon, and was staffed by monks from the abbey of St Vincent, in Le Mans. But in the early 1320s, John de Hastings was given control of Glamorgan by Edward II. A nephew and retainer of the staunch royalist Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, these lands in Wales formed a rich reward for John’s service at court. As the new lord of Abergavenny, John de Hastings made his mark on the local priory. He arranged that the French monks of St Mary’s be replaced with Englishmen (resulting in prolonged legal disputes and appeals from the evicted monks) and completely rebuilt the priory church, including its tower. He died in 1325 and his beautiful wooden tomb effigy rests in the north transept. Originally, it would have been painted and gilded.


An elaborately carved tomb with effigy of a knight

John de Hastings d.1325

Detail of John de Hastings’ effigy

Laurence de Hastings, d.1348/9


His son, Laurence de Hastings, was only four when John de Hastings died in 1325 and wardship of his lands passed between numerous courtiers, including Edward II’s notorious favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. In 1328, at the age of just seven, he was married to the third daughter of Roger Mortimer. Mortimer was another controversial courtly favourite, this time of Queen Isabella of France, de facto regent of England until 1330. Mortimer, supposed by many to be the queen’s lover and blamed for all the evils of the regency government of Edward III, was clearly using his position at court to enrich himself and his family, exploiting his connections to make excellent marriages for his daughters.

In 1332, Hastings is recorded as an esquire in the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault and went on to make his career in royal service, fighting regularly in Edward III’s wars. He died in August 1348 or 1349 at Abergavenny and was again buried in the priory church.

Shown in armour, sword by his side and wearing an elaborate jewelled belt, the tombs of Laurence and his half-brother William, who also died in 1348, tells us how the Hastings family wanted to be remembered- as wealthy and powerful warriors.


Stone effigy of a knight in full armour

William de Hastings, d.1348


But neither died in battle. It is even possible that the brothers died of the bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death. The disease first reached England in summer 1348, and the first recorded instances of plague in Wales came in April 1349. As royal courtiers, who will have regularly travelled around southern England, including coastal towns such as Dover and the disease-ridden capital of London, it is perfectly possible that these members of the Hastings dynasty were some of the earliest casualties of the plague.

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