On Wednesday 10th February 2016, Derek Cutts, Chairman of the Medieval Antiquities Society gave a fascinating illustrated talk to the Glendale Local History Society on the Grey tomb in Chillingham church with reference to other 15th century alabaster monuments in the north of England.
The extensively decorated and elaborately carved tomb is that of Ralph and Elizabeth Grey, with their animals at their feet, in the south chapel of Our Lady in Chillingham church, founded in the 12th century. The tomb is unusual in that the effigies are made of alabaster while the tomb chest is of sandstone. The remains of Ralph Grey lie in a vault beneath the tomb. The sandstone headboard features a central image of an angel and two each side are further angels lifting the souls of Ralph and Elizabeth to heaven. The fine canopy work features military themes with family heraldic badges. There are also images of saints in niches. At the bottom end of the tomb a late 16th century obelisk sits on a blank space where originally it is thought that vertical columns most likely supported a canopy that no longer exists.
Ralph Grey lived from 1406-1443. He married in 1410 Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Fitzhugh who was born at Ravensworth, Yorkshire, and died in 1445. Lord Fitzhugh of Ravensworth was a close companion of Henry V, who made him a member of the Order of the Garter. The Greys also had Royal connections. Ralph’s father Thomas Grey (1384-1415) was born in the middle gatehouse of Alnwick Castle. He became Sheriff of Northumberland from 1408-09 and Constable of Bamburgh. In 1408 he was granted a papal license to enlarge the chapel or build a new one in his castle at Heaton. He married 1408, Alice Neville, daughter of Ralph de Neville, KG, 1st Earl of Westmoreland, whose wife was a descendant of Henry II and of Edward I.
Ralph held a considerable lands in north Northumberland including Wark Castle (manor and town), Coupland in Kirknewton, Learmouth and Presson in Carham, the manor and town of Doddington and the manor of Wooler. The total value was £21. 15s, a paltry sum even in those times, so he made much of his income from service. He became Keeper of Roxburgh Castle from 1439 before leaving with Richard Duke of York for France in 1441. Following battle he was held captive by the garrison at Nantes and died in 1443. Most of his remains probably stayed in France although his bones were packaged up and returned to Alnwick where his inquisition was held.
Following Ralph’s death Elizabeth married again and she is probably buried near the seat of her second husband in Gloucestershire. None of her remains were found in the Chillingham tomb.
Ralph was succeeded by his son Ralph Grey II (1429–1464) who was the first of the Greys to actually live in Chillingham. He became a Knight of the Shire for Northumberland in 1449 and was elected MP at Westminster Palace in 1454. He was Sheriff of Northumberland from 1455–56 and 1459–60 and Keeper of Roxburgh Castle 1454–58. He transferred his allegiance between the Yorkist and Lancastrian sides on several occasions for greatest financial benefit. In 1462 he assisted in the capture of Alnwick for the Yorkists and was made Constable, and he assisted in the taking of Dunstanburgh in the same year. In 1463 he changed sides again and surrendered Alnwick to Queen Margaret. He fled to Dunstanburgh in 1464 where he was taken prisoner. He was brought before Edward IV and executed.
Ralph I’s brother was William Grey, who educated at Balliol College, Oxford, later became Chancellor of the University. He was Treasurer of the Exchequer and was installed as Bishop of Ely on St Cuthbert’s Day, 20 March, 1458. He died and was buried in Ely in 1478 near the shrine of St Etheldreda.
The tomb was probably arranged by Ralph Grey II between 1448 and 1462. It is likely that William Grey was also involved. It was probably constructed in two phases, firstly the two alabaster effigies and later the tomb chest in sandstone. He is portrayed wearing his armour demonstrating his military importance. The coats of arms illustrate his family connections. Such tombs were often constructed to remind surviving and later generations of the family to pray for the souls of the dead so that they would not remain long in purgatory. The burning of candles near the tomb was also thought to help so a hearse was used to support candles over the tomb. The angels flanking the headboard of the tomb are portrayed carrying the souls of Ralph and Elizabeth up to heaven. It was also important that the incumbent should have paid off his debts or made such provision in his will.
Tombs can be dated by the headgear and hairstyles of the effigies. Prior to 1400 the males wore helmets. Female heads were normally shown supported by cushions. This tomb is unusual in that Ralphs head is also on cushions rather than a helm. Up to 1540 male hair was cut short – later the fashion was for hair to be worn longer. Elizabeth’s hairstyle is typical of 1450.
The Church at Chillingham is open 7 days a week for anyone interested in visiting it and viewing this tomb for themselves.