by Anne O'Brien
A Pilgrim's Heart, a Much Loved Son, and a Forgotten Plantagenet Princess ...
St Mary's in Burford is a village church, isolated in its churchyard, surrounded by green fields and trees, all within a short distance of the dark and secretive River Teme in the Welsh Marches county of Shropshire.
Far away from any major towns - the nearest market town is Tenbury Wells - it is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend an hour or two. The church is small, perfect in its rural setting, and visitors, I imagine, are few compared with the likes of Worcester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey, both fairly close. Inside it is dark and full of history. The chancel goes back to the 12th century, the nave and tower to the 14th. Stepping inside, it give the impression that very few changes have been made over the centuries, even though we know that it was extensively restored in 1889. The restoration has been very sympathetic.
But the most compelling reason for a visitor to leave the beaten track and go to Burford is to see the astonishing collection of tombs in this little church, the most important connected with the Cornewall family who were medieval Lords of Burford.
In the chancel there are three in particular not to be missed.
To the left of the altar, set in the wall under a carved arch is what looks like the base of an old brightly-painted altar. Now it is the memorial to Sir Richard Cornewall. He died in 1436, in the reign of Henry VI, in Cologne, possibly when returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He left instructions for his body to be buried in Cologne, but his heart to be returned here to his home in Burford. And here is Sir Richard's heart and this lovely memorial, its history written within the arch.
In the centre of the chancel, directly before the altar, is the fully painted, wooden effigy of Edmund Cornewall. Wooden effigies are quite rare in this part of the world. He died in 1508 at only 20 years of age. He is shown in full plate armour with angels supporting his head and his feet resting on a splendid little dragon wearing a golden crown, crudely carved but with much charm. There is nothing sophisticated or elegant about the carving of Edmund, but this life-sized portrayal of the young man resonates with a sense of tragic loss and grief. His distraught parents must have felt his death keenly to place his tomb in the very centre of the chancel before the altar. It take the eye, as it was intended.
And then, the most surprising tomb of all. Set in the wall of the chancel is the life-sized figure and tomb of Elizabeth Plantagenet. Younger daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, her governess was of course Katherine Swynford. She is beautifully painted as she lies under the arch - the rich red and blue looks to me as if it was restored in the 1889 renovations - with angels at her head, her cloak lined with ermine. Her face is young and serene in repose, even though she was about 61 years old when she died in 1426. She looks truly royal. Who would have expected such a Plantagenet treasure here, far from a major town?
Elizabeth was buried here because her third husband was Sir John Cornewall, Lord of Burford. Perhaps it was her choice to be brought here after death because she loved the place. We will never know. Interestingly her husband is not buried at Burford beside her, but in Ludgate in London.
And finally, the ceiling is not to be missed. Above the tombs is a splendid late 19th century barrel vault, carved with angels with their wings outstretched, as if watching over the pilgrim, the much-mourned son and the Plantagenet princess.
Shropshire is a beautiful county to lure the tourist who wishes to enjoy rural seclusion, and this little church at Burford with its memorials (and there are others not even mentioned here!) is an unexpected jewel in its crown.
My recent novel The King's Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers, is available internationally.
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