Leicestershire Slate Gravestones  July 2020.

It was early July, and a Sunday afternoon churchcrawl in Leicestershire. My last visit to this county saw very little open; which I wasn’t surprised at to be honest with Leicester  itself being locked down due to high infection rates at the end of June. I had wanted for some time to visit the villages close to the area that Swithland slate was quarried; this slate being used on gravestone throughout the area for many years.

 Therefore, this was to be a trip where I was primarily concerned with the church grounds; if any churches were open then great! As it turned out, every church that I visited that afternoon was closed, part of a sequence which saw me visit 35 churches without finding a single one open.  This page will just be concerned with the gravestones. A niche market I know, but I will try and make this as interesting as I can!

Swithland slate was quarried from medieval times until the 19th century. It was used as a roofing material and for gravestones; being very hard wearing. It was quarried from several different sites in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire; with this slate falling out of favour as a roofing material, being replaced by Welsh Blue slate, which was easier to work with.

The church grounds in this area are filled with slate gravestones, with the earliest dating back to the mid 1670’s. It is fascinating wandering around church grounds; looking at the evolution of the skill and technique of the stonemasons. The early gravestones here are crudely carved; lettering only with no symbols or other embellishments. Words are sometimes erratically spaced with some words started on one line and finished on another. Some words are misspelled and some letters are reversed!

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Rustic 17th century grave at Swithland.

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Thomas Boney and his five wives! Newton Linford

A gravestone in Swithland church grounds, to one Arthur Gilbert, who died in 1683 at the age of 83 is crudely carved; with a mixture of small letters and capitals. It is almost as if the carver did not have a grasp of the written word, no matter how skilled they were in other areas of their craft.

Nearby at Newton Linford, there is a grave which has carved at the top ‘HICK JAcet John Bony and his five wives’.  Ignoring the really interesting fact that he had five wives, it is worth noting here that the person carving the memorial had meant to say ‘HIC IASET’ here lies!

Mention was made of letters being reversed, mainly ‘R’s ‘N’s and ‘D’s. Is this always due to the carver involved not having a total grasp of reading and writing. If yes, then these are fascinating little historical records of a time when few could read and write.  I am not convinced that this is always the case though. In Stamford, in Lincolnshire, in the early 1600’s; Tobias Norris I set up a bellfoundry in the town. He was an educated man and was a church warden at St George church in the town. Despite this though, he regularly inscribed the bells that he cast with some letters reversed! This does not seem to be here the act of a man who did not know what he was doing.  Perhaps it is more likely that this was simply his mark! This is how he did things! Perhaps they sometimes did it this way and we have just unlearned their ways!

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Cherubs and mermaid at Swithland

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Images of mortality and resurrection at Anstey

Within a few years, the people involved had grown more skilled at their craft.  A grave dated 1690, again at Newton Linford, just has the basic details of the name of the deceased and the date of death, but this time in a long handed, flowing calligraphy script. Relatively rustic still compared to what was to come later, but a definite advance!

Moving forward 60 years or so, this craft had advanced greatly. A gravestone dated 1754 to one William Wesley, at Swithland is elaborately carved, both in terms of the calligraphy but also in the symbols that accompanied it; on this grave, beautifully carved cherubs heads are at either side of the top of the stone, with what appears to be a mermaid head in between.

The increased skills of the carver, combined with the ease of which this slate could be carved, gave more scope for personal information to be included. The grave to Wesley has the following inscription on it… “Weakness and pain for years I bore, Whilst I was here a guest, And of the Lord I did implore, Who took me to his rest”.

So, we have an evolution of the gravestone, from its very basic, humble beginnings to something that could be viewed as a little work of art. Moving on to nearby Anstey; we see stones which, as well as being a memorial to the deceased, send out a message to those looking on.

One has two human skulls as the centre piece; skulls were an often used symbol for the mortality of Man throughout the country. A symbol of death! Man is mortal and will die. However, there is more to this than simply that.  Also present is a trumpet and a large human bone. The trumpet was an often used symbol of the resurrection.

 The large human bone is another symbol of death, but used in conjunction with the trumpet it is liable to be more than that. Medieval belief was that the skull and the large bones such as the thigh bones had to be kept for the body to be resurrected on the final day. That is why the skulls and thigh bones were kept and stored in bone crypts; kept with great reverence. Used together then, we have two symbols of the resurrection.  Two angels, beautifully crafted with great detail in the wings, symbolise the flight of the soul to heaven.  The message being told here is that yes; the person has died but they have lived a good Christian life and will be resurrected on the final day. This is a testament to the faith of the deceased and a message to the onlooker to live their life in a similar fashion, as in those days of low life expectancy, each day could be your last!

Close by is a gravestone with a carving of an urn on it.  This time the message to the onlooker is in text rather than symbol form. It reads ‘eternity how long life how short’. To the side it reads ‘Hear, read meditate and pray’.  Again a gravestone giving instruction on how we should live!

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Four winged angels, something that I had not seen before. The photograph on the left is of higher quality and has the 'eye of heaven'. The photograph on the right is from Seagrave a few miles away.

Moving on and the church at Woodhouse, has one of the finest slate gravestones that I have seen in this area, or pretty much anywhere else to be honest! The gravestone dates from 1797 and depicts an angel with four wings. There are two wings on the back as normal and a further two wings sprouting out of the shoulders, these latter wings partially covering the face. The detail on the wings is fabulous and this must have taken many hours to carve. Certainly something that only a person of real means could afford. The angel is pointing at an eye in between the clouds, surrounded by what could be the sun's rays, symbolic of the Holy Spirit descending. This ‘eye of heaven’ design is very rare and is a reminder to the onlooker that God sees everything; so be careful of what you do whilst on earth.

I have never seen an angel styled like this before; but it wasn’t too long before another turned up; it’s like the buses. You don’t get any for 14 years then two turn up together! This second one at Seagrave, doesn’t have the quality of the one at Woodhouse. An interesting little geographical oddity!

The quality of some of the carvings here is just staggering. Some truly fabulous work by gifted craftsmen of their day!  One at Newton Linford is of the very highest quality. On the left as we look at it, are symbols of death. An angel, carrying a scythe, holds a banner which reads ‘Time flies our glory fades and deaths at hand’ Death is at hand, in the form of a skeleton, holding a shovel and an arrow. The shovel is one of the grave digger’s tools, an often used symbol for death. The arrow was a symbol used to show that death could call at any time. Sometimes the skeleton can be seen throwing the arrow at an unsuspecting victim. On the right hand side, another angel carries a cross, and looks back towards suns rays bursting through a cloud, the letters HIS, an abbreviation of the name Jesus written in the cloud. This angel also carries a banner; this one reads ‘The gift of God is eternal life through Christ’.

There are two separate sections here; the left hand side refers to death, the right hand side refers to eternal life should have lived as we are taught, and believing in Jesus.

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Breathtaking quality at Newton Linford.

Quorn has large well maintained church grounds with much of interest for those interested in gravestone symbolism. There were also quite a few people around; these being the first people that I had seen at any of the churches all afternoon, with the exception of a very pleasant old man at Woodhouse, who was tending his wife’s grave. We spoke for ten minutes; and he gave me directions to my next church and a box of very lovely Lindor chocolates (other brands are available).

There are dozens of slate gravestones here with some very interesting designs on them.  As with other church grounds, you could trace the history of the carvers craft just in the one church ground. From a very basic grave dated 1699, simply marked WP, the lettering looking as crisp as it did on the day that it was carved, to very elaborate designs from the late 1700’s through to the mid nineteenth century.

As the nineteenth century drew on, styles changed and symbols went out of fashion; being replaced by text. This made sense as more people could read and write as time wore on.  ‘Be Ye Also Ready’ was on more than one grave; this being the more modern day equivalent of the skull and cross bones symbolism. The message is the same; Man is mortal and will die so live a good life as you don’t know when you will breathe your last!

It is interesting what you can find on some of these old gravestones. On one, still at Quorn, a naked figure is in mourning. They holds on to an urn, which stands on top of a coffin whilst a snake slithers across the bottom of the scene. ‘Ashes to ashes’ is inscribed below.

At Twyford, a tiny depiction caught the eye. An Ouroboros, a serpent with its tail in its mouth, circles a skull and crossed bones.  As mentioned before, the skull and bones is a symbol of mortality; but the Ouroboros is an often used symbol for eternity. This depiction acknowledges that Man is mortal but it also states that the reward for living a good Christian life is eternity in Heaven.

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Left, figure in mourning at Quorn; right Ouroboros, wrapped around skull and crossed bones at Twyford.

There are a few Belvoir Angel stones dotted around the area here and I will be putting together a page devoted solely to these at some point as this site progresses.  The Belvoir Angel stones are fascinating, and again it is possible to trace the evolution of these over the years. There is an angel design, mainly to be found stretching across the top of  the stone, wings unfurled, wearing what appears to be a ruff. These are mainly to be found in the Vale of Belvoir area, hence the name.

On the day that I travelled there were examples at Quorn, Seagrave  and Rearsby, the latter showed to me by a very pleasant lady doing some work in the church grounds, which turned out to be for a murder victim. This was for one Edward Hubbard, who was killed in 1712, at the age of 22. The grave is much damaged and hard to read, but the first two lines of the stone are ’A Fatall Knife His Mortall Body SlewThe murdering hand God’s vengeance will pursue’. A day of closed churches but on much interest in other ways.

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Belvoir Angels. Quorn on the left and Twyford on the right. If you are interested in these gravestones, please click on the photograph immediately above right to be taken to my website devoted to these stones.