Heraldic memorials in churches

A “cut and keep” judgment on this obscure aspect of ecclesiastical law

A recent judgment on the installation of a hatchment in the church of St Mary Magdalene, Adlestrop, includes an examination of the arcane rules of heraldry and their present-day relevance in the Church of England. Following a brief consideration of what is and who can have a hatchment, the court determined whether a hatchment should now be displayed in a Church. It also includes a warning to witnesses as well as others seeking information on obscure areas such as this: “Alas, a Google search is not always accurate or complete” [34], (to which should be added, Wikipedia, as we often remind ourselves).

Re St Mary Magdalene Adlestrop [2017] ECC Glo 2

St Mary Magdalene is described by the Chancellor as “a small, simple village church, listed Grade II, not having any of the facilities, now beginning to be regarded as essential in such a building, to allow concerts and other public meetings or wider use”; this appears to be code for “no loos, no kitchen, uncomfortable seating”. It has a loyal congregation, and the Parochial Church roll lists over 25% per cent of the 80 or so village inhabitants. The parish forms one of the seven churches of the Evenlode Vale churches, so that, inevitably, there are only some two services per month together with Christmas and Easter, together with weddings, baptisms and funerals.

Whilst many will associate Adlestrop with the poem by Edward Thomas, (or an excellent circular walk encompassing Chastleton House (NT)), the village was the home of the Leigh family; they were relatives of Jane Austen, who was an occasional visitor to the (then) rectory, now Adlestrop House, which stands adjacent to the church and to Adlestrop Park (see photo). However, the Leighs subsequently moved from Adlestrop and the great house is now owned outright by the Collins family.

The Rector and Churchwardens of St Mary Magdalene, Adlestrop petitioned to install a hatchment in the Church in memory of the late Mrs Collins of Adlestrop Park. The hatchment would be either on the north wall of the nave or on the east wall of a very short northern transept. The church currently contains some windows commemorating Leighs and also three hatchments. Although not included in the judgment, the photograph here shows two of the large triangular hatchments on the north wall of the nave of St Mary Magdalene.

It was the proposed addition of a Collins’ hatchment that was dispute.


International Heraldry describes a hatchment as “a distinctive rendering of a dead person’s arms, represented on a lozenge (not lozenge shaped arms, but arms painted within a lozenge shaped frame). It continues:

“Hatchments have now largely fallen into disuse, but many hatchments from former times remain in parish churches throughout England. Hatchments were usually placed over the entrance of the armiger’s residence, at the level of the second floor, and remained for from between 40 days and twelve months, after which they were removed to the local parish church.

The practice developed in the early seventeenth century from the custom of carrying an heraldic shield before the coffin of the deceased, then leaving it for display in the church. In medieval times, helmets and shields were sometimes deposited in churches and a few examples may still be seen in English parish churches”.

The court considered their history and the associated legislative provisions in paragraphs 8 to 16. It noted [emphasis added]:

 “[11]. …There are few remaining in Scotland, as the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an Act in 1643 (in the early days of the Civil War) prohibiting: “Honours of Arms or any such like monuments to be displayed in any church”. Many were then pulled down. Indeed, in 1649 in Strathbogie, the Presbytery of the Kirk, finding some still hanging in the Kirk, had them pulled down “and the minister rebuiked for suffering to hing there so long”. This attitude may not be unconnected with Presbyterian objections to episcopacy and landed gentry.

“[12]. The Church of England never adopted that approach, so that hatchments continued to be hung in churches into the 19th century.

“[13]. However, funeral fashions change, even for Royal funerals, and the hatchment fell into disuse (though not completely as will be seen). If there be an argument (not argued before me) that a hatchment was only to stay in place in a church for a limited period of time, I would and do reject this for lack of authority, and because the sheer number of hatchments still remaining after centuries in parish churches cannot all have been ignored and left up like forgotten Christmas decorations. The number of hatchments being restored and conserved in many, many churches demonstrates the interest and affection in which they are held as representing the local history of a parish. These are clearly not regarded as temporary items to be thrown out or returned to the family. I understand that there are now still in excess of 4,000 hatchments in English Churches.”

Chancellor Rodgers stated that given there are some three existing hatchments in this church shows that a hatchment in itself, is not barred. Such an object is not uncommon in many churches [16]. The introduction of a hatchment under the faculty jurisdiction should conform to the threefold test of:

  • “Is it removable? “ Yes, clearly, it is.
  • “Does it harm the fabric?” Not, if carefully installed.
  • “Can it be removed?” Clearly, yes.

Faculty Petition

Neither the Leigh nor Collins families directly appeared in this matter and the background necessarily had to emerge through third parties. Following the death of Mrs Collins, the PCC had notice from her widower, Mr Dominic Collins, that he wished to donate a hatchment in memory of his wife. On 24th October. This was given unanimously approved by the PCC, and after making enquiries as to its proposed positioning, and whether the Collins family were benefactors/parishioners of the Church, the DAC had then formally recommended the proposal without any condition. (Mr Collins having a father in Holy Orders, whose last position was at Holy Trinity Brompton, and the family being regular parishioners and benefactors of the Adlestrop Church [17 and 26]).

The petition sought to “install a heraldic hatchment with the coat of arms of the Collins family of Adlestrop Park in the North transept,” and with the initial petition, the court was sent a copy of the grant of arms by Norroy and Ulster King of Arms to Mr Collins. Consequently, he fulfils the armigerous requirement and his Coat of Arms is legally recognised by the College of Heralds. The hatchment and the work of installation is a gift from the donor, and neither the Church nor the PCC are to fund this petition [18].

The procedure for obtaining a coat of arms is detailed in paragraphs 20 to 23, and further information is available from the College of Arms [which indicates that as of 1 January 2018, the fees payable upon a personal grant of arms and crest are £6,075, an increase from the 2017 figure quoted at paragraph 20]. A former Norroy and Ulster King of Arms is quoted as saying:

“Tests for eminence are very wide in that they include possession of a university degree or a professional qualification”…”A great many people in the country could, if they wish, have a coat of arms, but if we were to advertise too much it would debase our own currency.”

Or as W S Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor put it, “when everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody”. The Chancellor commented [22]:

“If people want to buy their own coat of arms they may do so for various reasons … which can be satisfied for the price far less than for a flashy watch or car. People who never had nor needed a coat of arms can, apparently, in most reasonable circumstances, obtain one if they want it. It is a free country”.

A primary concern of the court was that proposed hatchment “shows a legally obtained coat of arms, and is not just a made up one, such as one sees in tourist shops” [23]. The only formal objector, who lives in the village and had written a book “Jane Austen and Adlestrop”, was concerned that the Collins family were not, and are not, the ancestral Lords of the Manor who still live in the village.

However, this placed the Chancellor in a dilemma, as she explained:

“[27]. … I was faced with the somewhat unusual position of parishioner objectors appearing to run arguments when those who might have been somewhat better placed to run them were not doing so, and were taking no part in the proceedings.

In the event, the Petitioners were asked to reply to this objection. They considered (rightly I find) that the erection of a hatchment was not just for a Lord of the Manor, but for “families who had armorial authorisation”. The petition had been properly advertised. The generosity of Mr Collins (and others) had happened to coincide with the death of his wife. Mr Collins had indicated to them that he was perfectly open to what this Court might consider to be a less prominent position within the Church”.

With regard to Lordship of the Manor, John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, and, inter alia coauthor of The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, and well known architectural historian, gave his opinion that: “Lordship of this or that manor is no more a title than Landlord of The Dog and Duck” [28]. The Chancellor added:

“[30]. … it is not a title of Honour but a property right which, as I have said, can be bought and sold. This merely scratches at the surface of the law surrounding manorial rights, and I mention it only in passing to show that the phrase has little or no weight in the way [the objector] appears to regard it.

Another complainant suggested that hatchments were historical, their erection having died out in the 20th century: “sanctioning this [one] would create a precedent so that anyone in future who buys a coat of arms, could argue that he too could justifiably apply to install his own hatchment” [32]. The Chancellor was unimpressed with the “everyone would do it” argument, and from the tone of his letter, “had the distinct impression that the PCC’s failure to recognise the work, financial or otherwise, of others in the village who had helped the Church rankled”; however, in his absence from the Site View [25], she made no specific finding on this comment [33].

The Chancellor cited examples of hatchments being erected in churches more recent than those revealed on an internet search (i.e. on the doors of houses in the 1890s; on an occasion in 1925 in Eaton Square; and in 1944, over the front gate of Exeter College, Oxford, on the death of its Rector). These were

“[35]. In June 2000 Chancellor Grenfell (unreported) granted a faculty for St Michael and All Angels Spennithorne (North Yorkshire) to install a hatchment to Colonel van Straubenzee. The Petition was opposed, but proceeded very much like this one. After written representations from two objectors, to save the parish costs, there was a site meeting at the church. The objector there objected that: “in this day and age the Church should avoid a feudal approach of placing memorials in churches”.

The Chancellor said: “It is now well recognised that the true test for the introduction of a memorial to a particular person is the nature of that person’s special contribution to the work of the church”. In that Church there were some hatchments already, albeit in the vestry. He considered that the unnamed memorial with no inscription was akin to an historic artifact and could be introduced”.

“[36]. In 2011 Chancellor Hudson (unreported) granted a Faculty to install a hatchment in St Aidan’s Church, Banburgh. This was to commemorate the late Captain Baker-Cresswell DSO of the Royal Navy, who had died in 1997. He had been in command of HMS Bulldog in 1941 whose crew had boarded and captured the German U-boat 110, from which they had seized an intact Enigma machine and code book, a vital event in the Second World War. Although he retired to his estate near Banburgh, and served as High Sheriff in the year 1962, it was for the Enigma incident that the Church installed his hatchment”. [A news item, with photographs of the hatchment, was posted by the Newcastle Diocese].

On the issue of whether the proposal had fomented unrest in the village, the Chancellor observed [37]:

“Three people from a village of 80 does not, to me indicate a groundswell of opposition. As I have already said, there had been time before this meeting so that objectors could have been mobilised. In the course of the discussion [at the Site View meeting] it appeared that there was a subplot involving some local objections or dislike of changes at Adlestrop Park following Mrs. Collins’s death in 2013 … these arguments did not help me, and as they appeared to be being carried on not by the persons involved but ostensibly on their behalf and smacked of village tittle tattle which did not go to the matter in hand”.

In granting the petition, the Chancellor concluded

“[38] (6)Hatchments, if displaying legally authorised Coats of Arms, can with sufficient reason be introduced by Faculty. The fact that they are now rare does not in itself preclude them being introduced.

(7). There are here amply sufficient reasons to permit this hatchment to be introduced.

However, she added the conditions:

(I). That the design on the hatchment is formally approved by a Herald from the College of Arms: i.e. is it suitable to reflect that it is for a deceased wife, or
should it be altered to reflect that her husband is still alive (so that on his death it can subsequently altered as appropriate)

(ii). If such approval is forthcoming, the hatchment to be erected within one year.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Heraldic memorials in churches" in Law & Religion UK, 22 February 2018, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2018/02/22/heraldic-memorials-in-churches/

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