Grand Tombs at St Peter’s Church, Chillingham

In the shadows of Chillingham Castle sits a tiny, unassuming church, framed by woodland and centuries-old headstones. Its secluded location, beside the staff entrance of the castle, sets the small structure as a true hidden gem, being far older than the buildings that surround it.

There has been a Christian place of worship on the site of St Peter’s since at least the 11th century, and still retains a portion of Norman stonework. While little from its original incarnation remains, the centuries of alterations sit comfortably alongside each other, as long as you remember to watch your step. The oldest part of the building is the cosy 12th century nave, followed by a 13th century chancel, 16th century timber roof, 18th century bell-cote, 19th century box pews and porch, and finally, substantial renovations to the sanctuary were made in 1967.

During my recent visit to Chillingham, visiting this little church was high on my list. So, like a good little tourist, I put on my sensible footwear (a hard lesson learned there), put on a few more jumpers and headed down the snaking gravel pathways to the back of Chillingham castle and the gates of the church. Quite wonderfully, St Peter’s is open daily, thanks to the keyholder being an employee of the estate and permanently on-site. Having experienced countless disappointments by being faced with locked rural churches, this certainly felt like cause for celebration.

The churchyard at Chillingham is still open to local burials, which are to be found at the back of the church. The historical burials that interest tourists and taphophiles are found to the sides of the church, where substantial and striking examples of 18th and 19th gravestones can be found.

There are some beautiful pieces of grave symbolism that are rarely found this far south of the border. These include skulls, coffins and hour glasses that are chunky and simplistic in nature, being easily identifiable markers of death and repentance.

My particular favourite was this little inadvertent ‘hidden Mickey’ which rather cheered up a drizzly, grey day.

The porch is rather unremarkable, but protects the Norman doorway from the harsh Northumberland weather. Immediately inside, the simple whitewashed interior reveals rows of delightful Victorian box pews and a 17th century font, decorated in simplistic carvings of years and names.

The refurbished sanctuary has been controversial since it was completed in the 1960s, as the large window that may have once held stained glass was replaced with clear glass, showing the graveyard beyond. Considering that this same outcome was a rather heart-warming conclusion to an episode of the sitcom The Vicar of Dibley in 1994, it’s surprising that this decision not to invest thousands into a window remains a divisive one.

Opposite the show-stopping feature of St Peters is a small, quaint little fireplace, installed in the 18th century, with part of a medieval grave slab installed into the wall beside it. The modern chairs that offered a bit of respite to the church visitor seemed to be the most rickety aspect of the interior, with rot and bat poo dissuading me from taking the weight off my feet.

Overshadowed by grander memorials is a curious wall monument to Robert Charnocke who died in 1691. According to his epitaph, he was the steward to Ford Lord Grey at Chillingham. The monument is topped with an angel holding a scythe, whereas the corners have cherub heads, two human heads and a rudimentary skull and crossed bones stating ‘Memento Mori’; remember you will die.

However, windows and bat poo aside, the most staggering feature of St Peter’s church is the enormous tomb of Sir Ralph Grey (b. 1406 d. 1443) and his wife Elizabeth Montfort (d. after 1453). This grand tomb features the life-size effigies of Grey and his wife, surrounded by angels and heraldic symbols, with the whole sculpture elevated as though they were resting on a joint death-bed.

The sculpture is awesome in size, and doubly exciting when the extent of its preservation is realised. The figures and decoration are in fantastic condition, with large patches of original paint still intact, most obviously on Sir Ralph’s red tabard. The monument is sculpted in alabaster and sandstone and is opulent to the extreme.

Sir Ralph is depicted dressed for battle and his wife is shown in her finery while they both recline in prayer. At Sir Ralph’s feet is a small lion whereas the creatures at his wife’s feet – perhaps smaller lions or dogs – are severely damaged and lost to time.

Surrounding the base of the tomb are archways with the detailed carvings of 14 saints, angels and bishops holding heraldic shields, with the centre of each side being marked with a pair of more substantial angels with shields. The couple had three children, with one of their two sons, Ralph Grey II becoming the first of the family to live in Chillingham.

Above sir Ralph and his wife is an elaborately carved reredos (an ornamental screen covering the wall to the back of an altar or monument) depicting more heraldic shields flanked by demi-angels and a rams head. One of the most surprising elements to have survived the centuries is a royalist motto framing it all, ‘De bon vouloir servir le Roy’, which translates to ‘to serve the king with goodwill.’

But this ‘goodwill’ reads a little differently when we look into the life of Sir Ralph and his namesake son, Ralph II. Elizabeth was the daughter of Lord FitzHugh of Ravensworth, chamberlain to Henry V, and like many women, her achievements are lost to time.

As with so many historical texts, this has made differentiating the father and son’s history a little problematic. As a leader of troops, he once took Roxburgh Castle with just 81 men behind him, and defended against the armies of the King of Scotland.

However, Ralph’s triumphs seem a little immaterial when we consider his son’s familial loyalties. During the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), Ralph fought on the side of the Lancastrians, whereas his son fought for the Yorkists. When the Lancastrians were on the up, Sir Ralph sentenced his own son to death by being hung, drawn and quartered. Being a generous father, he decided at the last minute to rescind this brutal fate, and Grey Jr was mercifully just…beheaded.

Chillingham Church may well sleep in the shadow of its big brother, but it seems that it’s this obscurity that has preserved all its treasures for so long. And long may they survive.


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References/Further Reading:

All images from a personal visit.

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