Friday, December 13, 2013

A Little Christmassy Mystery From the Welsh Marches

The Empty Tomb ...

by Anne O'Brien

The career of Blanche Parry is well documented. Born into a prominent local family in 1587/8 at Newcourt, in the small settlement of Bacton in Herefordshire, the county in which I live, Blanche became chief gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth I's Privy Chamber and Keeper of her Majesty's jewels, her personal papers, books, furs, linens and for two years the Great Seal of England. I expect that all this was far less trouble to her than care of the Queen's musk rat (thought to be a ferret). Such details are easily accessible to those interested in Tudor history and Blanche has been much mentioned in Tudor fiction.  Here she is, looking serene and beautifully dressed.

My interest in her, in the physical remains of Blanche's life, however, was born out of a chance visit to St Faith's, the little church in Bacton under the shadow of the Black Mountains in the Welsh Marches.

There the eye is taken by the obvious Tudor figures on one of the memorials, and one of the figures, facing forward to greet the visitor, is immediately recognisable as that of Queen Elizabeth herself. This is the tomb that Blanche had prepared for herself, intending to be buried here. It is dated to before November 1578 when it was noted in her first will, written to her dictation by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, her friend and cousin, during a period of Blanche's severe illness. Despite it being tucked away in this remote corner of England it is a tomb of great importance for it is said to be the earliest known depiction of Elizabeth as an icon, as Gloriana. 

It must have been truly impressive when painted, vibrant with colour as many Tudor tombs were, standing in its original position where the organ is today. 

But Blanche was not to be buried there in Bacton. Despite becoming blind in the 1580s, she continued to live at Court. When she died in 1589 she was buried at Saint Margaret's Church, adjacent to Westminster Abbey, where the Queen paid for her funeral and the memorial. It is impressive, but without the grandeur of Blanche's choice in Bacton (or so I think.) At least, in London, it allows far more Tudor aficionados to see the remains of Blanche Parry. Bacton is too far distant for many to make the pilgrimage. Here is Blanche's tomb in St Margaret's, Westminster, with a fine representation of Blanche.

But my interest in Blanche did not stop there. This is a Tudor stained glass window commemorating Blanche Parry which was originally installed at Bacton Church.

Now it is to be found in St. Eata's Church at Atcham, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. It was moved there in 1811 at the expense of Mary, wife of Henry Burton who was vicar at Atcham from 1780 to 1831. Mary Burton was a descendant of Blanche Parry's family, and so obviously was moved by a need for family ownership of this lovely little window. Such is a covetousness!  The stained glass depicts Queen Elizabeth with Blanche at her side. An inscription records that Blanche died in 1589 at the age of 82, her body being buried at Westminster Abbey and 'her bowells' at Bacton. 

Is this true? Who's to say. Perhaps there are remnants of Blanche still at Bacton today - but a shame about the window. 

What can also be seen at Bacton is another gem of Queen Elizabeth's reign with a strong connection to Blanche. A beautiful, framed, silk Altar Cloth, cut from an Elizabethan court dress which it is thought belonged to the Queen herself, and might have been a gift from the Queen to her close friend. If the fine embroidery was done by Elizabeth's own household, it is a charming thought that Blanche herself may have worked on the lovely flower motifs.

The Altar Cloth was framed in 1909 and is there on the wall to be seen by any visitor. 

So the mystery of the empty tomb? There is no mystery at all, merely a change of plan. But how fortunate we are in the Welsh Marches to have this representation of Queen Elizabeth and her life-long confidante, Blanche Parry. 

And the final words of the epitaph on Blanche's Bacton tomb? 'Always with Maiden Queen, a Maid did end my life.' 
A most suitable memorial.

My novel of Katherine de Valois, The Forbidden Queen, will be released in the US in February 2014.  Visit my website or follow me on Facebook to keep up to date with events and the release of The Scandalous Duchess the magnificent love affair of Dame Katherine de Swynford and John of Lancaster, in the UK in March 2014.


  1. Anne, thanks for this post. It reminds me of how many treasures lurk in English and Welsh parish churches. I've often stopped by a church and discovered someone I knew only from the history books. It is always a delight.

    I also look forward to your next book on Katherine Swynford -- though I may have to hold off reading it because I want to concentrate on the 12th century at the moment. I'm working on a book about Balian d'Ibelin and the Holy Land, and the story of Katherine is likely to distract me! I became interested in her long ago with Anya Seaton, but that book is dated and Katherine deserves a new biographical novel. Hope you are kind Edward of Woodstock, however. I believe he and John of Gaunt were very close, and that he is not so dark as often portrayed.

  2. That must have been a very special moment, standing so close to such an intimate thing as the tomb of such woman and the image of Elizabeth. It must have gvein you shivers.
    G x


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