The North and South choir aisles in York Minster contain an overwhelming number of funerary monuments. The crowded South aisle contains more wall-mounted memorials in marble and stone, dating almost in equal measure between the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, than the North aisle. The manner of their display is a scramble for wall space. In one section, for example, an early 17th century monument commemorating the life of politician William Gee (d. 1611) (and his two wives, Mary and Thomasine; each of whom are knelt in prayer) is squashed between two modest neoclassical, mid-19th century funerary monuments to one Henry Wittham and the Rt. Hon William Wickham, respectively.
Monuments and memorials in the Minster’s North choir aisle are organized with a little more planning (or at least their placement gives that impression). By and large, the monuments of the North aisle similarly commemorate the deaths of important 17th, 18th and 19th century figures with strong York connections. Unlike the south aisle, however, there are a few earlier monuments. Two 16th century brasses to Bishop John Hatton (d. 1516) and Dean Bryan Higdon (d. 1539) are presently wall-mounted together on the North wall opposite the steps into the central choir; their brass inscriptions recorded but lost. One of the Westerly most monuments set into the North wall is a small recumbent effigy to the 14th century Prince William of Hatfield (d. 1337), second son of Edward III (William died when he was 1 year old; unusual therefore his effigy presents a much older boy closer to 8-10 years). Taking the examples of the aforementioned brasses and the strange effigy of the young Prince, there is a greater variation in monument types on this side of the choir.
18th, and particularly 19th century, wall mounted funerary monuments are still present in greater number along the North wall than there are the presence of any other monument type. These are overshadowed (‘literally’ – depending on where the sun is in the sky when you visit) and their formal display interrupted (their collective organisation still sensibly upheld), however, by much larger, different monuments. There are two colossal 18th century, monumental sculptures. Brasses, and effigies of different types; recumbent (from the 14th century Prince William of Hatfield to three mid-19th century in date), the comically reclined (Archbishop Richard Stern ((d. 1683)) and those knelt in prayer. But through this hodgepodge of vastly different examples, one thing appears to run consistently, monument-to-monument, irregardless of the century in which the deceased lived: Architecture. In the 17th century monument to Sir Henry (d. 1624) and Lady Ursula Bellasis, the pair kneel in prayer under their own painted niches which at once open up to us another plane of being; the architecture of the Minster extended into and beyond their monument. Even the 19th century funerary monuments have exceptional sculpted architecture, as do the brasses. The North aisle is extended and intruded countless times through the manipulation of space in a variety of remarkable monuments.
Recently I have been captivated by the large tomb in the North choir aisle to Thomas Savage, Archbishop of York between 1501 and 1507. A larger monument houses his effigy; his memory a chapel unto itself. The Earthly remains of Thomas Savage concealed within the closed tomb, under which his recumbent effigy is immediately representative – framed within the sanctuary of his large tomb, surrounded by angels, itself another concealed layer within that of the Minster. Since the early medieval period, followers of recognised religious figures (esp. saints) were particularly fond of wrapping their beloved deceased up in ‘spiritual layers’ and decorating the surroundings of their translation or resting place.
Savage’s was not a tenancy of great length and indeed, he did not leave a significant mark on the history of the Minster, nor on it’s fabric. York was presently a poverty-stricken city, enduring a period of economic decay that was showing no signs of improving. Through this period the Minster remained an institution of great wealth, providing much custom for local trades and craftsmen. Some decades later, Dean Higden (d. 1539), a member of the Minster’s richer clergy (whose brass monument, previously mentioned, is mounted on the wall opposite Savage’s tomb) is recalled as being attended to the Church on a Christmas day by a large group of associates in exquisite dress. Thomas Savage will have come to York in the years before at a time of great struggle. Although it seems hard to find evidence of his actions during his tenancy to reflect the social and economic mood of the time.
Apparently born into a knightly family, as a young man he was a University graduate; spending time studying at Oxford and afterwards in Italy. Before his unusual appointment by the King to Archbishop of York (traditionally Archbishops had previously been elected), he first was Archbishop at Rochester and then London (Rochester, London and York((e) are three of the words interupted by three angels holding heraldic shields, inscribed elegantly in stone above the spandrels and pinnacle of the niche arch). Clearly Savage was a smart, perhaps cunning man. Living the life, from time to time, of a secular Lord. A slippery fish – probably a decent chap. He favoured spending time at his palaces. Particularly his palace in nearby Cawood, where he is said to have often enjoyed hunting. Savage handled the marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon, who would later go on to marry his brother, then to be Henry VIII. Savage’s see as Archbishop of York ended upon his death in September 1507, seven years before the infamous Thomas Wolsey was appointed Archbishop in 1514.
Savage’s is one of only two pre-Reformation tombs to Archbishops surviving. The other belongs to Thomas Scott (who later dropped ‘Scott’ in preference to the name ‘Rotheram’), the fifty fourth Archbishop and direct predecessor to Thomas Savage. It was erected by a close friend in the year of his death. This anonymous friend was an archdeacon at Richmond and chaplain to him at York. Allegedly this man’s name is recalled nearby the tomb (I will have to return to find this). The tomb in the North choir aisle contains Savage’s body. His heart was taken to Macclesfield in Cheshire to be buried where he was born. Savage’s tomb at York is truly eye-catching. I found it pleasantly surprising when I noticed the number of visitors who do sometimes stop and admire its significance.
For a man who left little-to-no mark (as we presently understand) on the fabric of the Minster during his short see, it’s amusing his tomb should be such an architectural delight. Surrounding his recumbent effigy set into a deep, central niche lined with perpendicular traceries is a grand architectural tomb decorated in the perpendicular style. As emulating the decoration of furnishings seen in the transformation of church interiors during the 14th century, such as happened in nearby Beverly Minster (for which tombs such as the Percy tomb and the tomb at the parish church of Bainton ((East Riding)) were a product), the design of Savage’s tomb could also be interpreted as following a tradition of Savage family tomb furnishing originating in Cheshire.
Whilst he may not have added to the fabric of York Minster, he did so in his home town of Macclesfield at the church of St. Michael. Here he acted as donor to the building of a chantry chapel between 1505 and 1507 for his family. Recumbent effigies in this old stone chapel are set in very similar niches within familiar, architectural surrounding tombs to Thomas’ in York. More research needs to be done on the relationship between the monuments in the chantry chapel at St. Michael’s in Macclesfield and Thomas’ tomb in the Minster’s North choir aisle. Some research has been done on the heraldry of the Savage family, and their complex (many of the men being named John, including Thomas’ father), aristocratic heritage.
To stand against the North wall in the Minster and take in Savage’s early 16th tomb is a pleasure. In 1927 the tomb was noted as being in partly good condition. The four quatrefoils underneath the effigy monument were at the time noted as ‘badly in need of restoration’ – and it seems that they have been restored in some way or another. As indeed does much of the stonework on the larger surface of the surrounding tomb. But For as bulky and bloated as it may seem, oddly located next to the stairs that descend into the crypt and the Minster’s Norman foundations, it’s an achievement of late-late medieval style tomb decoration. Take a closer look and see the tiny figures on the points of thee narrow ogee arches on either side of the effigy niche. At least one holds a heraldic shield of the Savage family. Another holds a sword and small, circular combat shield (or what I can only assume is such). In the spandrels above the niche are beasts and angels. The latter swing censers in a fashion seen in the decoration of spandrels across England during this period and frequently in times before the 16th century (Salle, Norfolk, for example).
Savage’s tomb is great because it is accessible too. It is personal. It is the right height that you can stick your head inside the niche and have a good look at his effigy monument (which is believed to date, oddly, to after the build of the surrounding tomb). The Minster staff don’t seem to mind people doing this either. Which is nice I suppose.
Davies, Clarice Stella. A History of Macclesfield. Manchester University Press, 1976.
Dawton, Nicholas. ‘The Percy Tomb Workshop’ in Medieval Art and Architecture in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The B.A.A, 1989.
Drake, Francis. Eboracum: Or, the History and Antiquities of the City of York (…) . W. Bowyer for the author, 1736.
Harrison, F. York Minster. Methuen & Go Ltd, 1927.
Palliser, D. M. The Reformation in York 1534 – 1553. Borthwick Papers. No. 40. St. Anthony’s Press, 1971.
The Church Monuments Society. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. http://churchmonumentssociety.org/Yorks_York_E_Riding.html