Cadaver Tombs

Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire.

Photograph: J. Goddard. 2001.


Tomb of Sir George Shirley

Erected in 1598 to George Shirley, the grandson of Francis Shirley Esq. of Staunton who purchased the Priory Church from the crown after the dissolution as a family burial place. This monument is massive, the largest of the three to George, his father John and grandfather Francis, and shows George's family in typically Elizabethan fashion. This monument and the one to his father John were made by Richard and Gabriel Royley of Burton on Trent.


From the online guidebook of The Story of St. Mary and St. Hardulph Church:

This colossal monument runs almost the full height of the north wall. Starting with the achievement of arms at the top over two coffered arch recesses housing the main figures of Sir George Shirley his wife with two babies in cradles and two sons and a daughter behind. The whole ensemble stands on carved columns enclosing an alabaster carved skeleton or cadaver at the base, symbolizing in a rather grandiose morbid way, the end that awaits even the most illustrious mortals. The translated latin inscription makes interesting reading, telling us also that the poor wife died in childbirth at the age of 29.


Photograph: J. Goddard. 2001.


At the base of the tomb is a marble skeleton, (not a cadaver) lying on a chest woth a scrolled pillow and foot rest. The skeleton is not bad but the cervical vertebrae of the neck are very wrong (too big) and the fibulae in the lower leg are also quite unusually bowed. There are eyeballs in the sockets which give the whole thing a rather comical air! It can be assumed that the sculptor was not familiar with the anatomical details of real human skeletons.

With thanks to Jonathan Goddard.



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