John E. Vigar MA, FSA Scot., FRSA

Easter Sepulchres

Easter Sepulchre at Brabourne Church Kent

What was an Easter Sepulchre? It was the tomb of an individual erected on the north side of the chancel which over each Easter weekend would be used as a focus for devotion, representing the entombment and resurrection of Christ. It always had a flat surface on which the sepulchre itself would be placed.

In fact, we have erroneously been using the name Easter Sepulchre for many years. What we see today is the stone structure onto which the Sepulchre, a temporary structure, was placed. Only one medieval Easter Sepulchre survives at Cowthorpe in Yorkshire, but it’s of a different type altogether, not for placing on a tomb. It is now commonly accepted that the sepulchre itself was a wooden chest containing either the cross from the main altar or a Consecrated host. It may have depended on the size of the sepulchre as some are so small as to only be able to house a Host.

These monuments were installed in churches from the 13th century until the Reformation, with a peak of popularity in the 15th century. The ordinary church would only ever have one, so it was the first person to the post as it were. The early ones are rarely inscribed with the name of the donor, the later ones usually known.

Forty years ago, Dr Pamela Sheingorn went through medieval wills to list all those mentioned in England and discovered several hundred. There were undoubtedly more that have gone unrecorded.

Once the initial sepulchre had been donated subsequent generations would leave candles and offerings to be used in its ceremonies, so not all mentions in wills refer to separate sepulchres.

Like many medieval church furnishings the sepulchres could be as plain or fancy as money allowed. Most were plain chests covered by an arch or canopy, some of which show evidence of where the wooden structure itself could be slotted.

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