Monday, 20 June 2011

Euphemia de Clavering

Her name is musical, her tomb mystical and like most women of her time, high born or otherwise, we know precious little about her. She died some time around 1320. We don't know what she died of but by medieval reckoning she was an old woman, in her fifties. There are records of her having at least fourteen children but with one exception we don't know how many of them survived infancy or what became of them. We know the names of her parents, her husband and one son, but that's about all. There are no surviving descriptions of her, not even stylised eulogies, and her tomb bears no inscription. What did she look like, I wonder? What was her character?

In 1343 her son, Ralph Neville, Second Baron of Raby, enlarged the south aisle of the church of St Mary (formerly St Gregory) in the village of Staindrop (a mile or so from his family seat at Raby Castle) to house his mother's tomb. Her effigy lies inset into the south wall, mounted by an ornate canopy. There are other effigies nearby, including one of a child. They were not re-discovered until the nineteenth century during restoration work in the church. They will also be members of the powerful Neville dynasty, but their names are lost to us.

I like to think Ralph Neville loved his mother dearly. Effigies such as Euphemia de Clavering's are not uncommon in English medieval parish churches but hers is especially finely done. The detail is very personal and moving, from her peaceful countenance, eyes closed, lips slightly apart, to the long lines of buttons on the sleeves of her tunic and the patterning on the band of her headdress. Most touching of all are the reclining angels to each side, their hands stroking her head in gentle consolation.

For nearly seven hundred years she has slept in silent prayer in her alcove. She has weathered the vicissitudes of cold and damp and careless worshippers. She has survived the internecine feuds of her family, the upheavals of Reformation and Civil War and the fluctuating tastes of centuries of church restorers. She has come through all that intact and, with our modern sensitivities to conservation, it is hard to believe she will not now lie there for another seven hundred years and beyond.

There are other, grander tombs in St Mary's, Staindrop, although none so old as Euphemia de Clavering and none as deeply devotional and personal. For all her historical anonymity she has achieved immortality of a sort. It is what I believe Philip Larkin meant by the closing lines of his poem about another tomb: 'to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.'

9 comments:

  1. What a lovely story. You write so beautifully about the angels stroking Euphemia's head in gentle consolation. The photographs are perfect. It made me think of those women lying quietly serene in a multitude of churches with their own untold stories..

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  2. You're very kind. Actually the photographs are rather blurry which is disappointing. A return visit is called for! Since posting I've learned that we do in fact know the names of her other children, but nothing of their lives, many of which will have been very brief I imagine.

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  3. Lovely, many thanks. I have recently discovered she is my 20x G Grandmother and yours is the first image I've discovered.

    seejayess

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    1. Thank you SeeJay and welcome to Dysnomia... I am happy you found my pictures and only wish they were a little less blurry. The church at Staindrop is a very special place that I have paid repeated visits to. I hope you will have the opportunity to go there too, to visit your long distant relative.

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  4. I'm so happy to have found this. I've also discovered Euphemia de Clavering as a relative of mine (my 22nd great grandmother). Thanks so much for posting the pics and story! I'm trying to build on to my family tree.

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  5. I am very pleased you found her Tyler. Her resting place is very peaceful and moving. If you haven't been there yet I hope you will get the opportunity soon.

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  6. May I please use your beautiful tribute to my 17th Great Grandmother in my family ancestry I'm working on for my children?
    I must say you have a beautiful gift for writing. You catch the person's interest and make what or whom you're writing about come alive.

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    1. Thank you Melody. I really should get back to writing here more often. And yes you are very welcome to use anything I have written. I am sorry the photographs are not better quality but please use them too if you wish. I am pleased you have found your distant relative and I hope to are able to visit her in person one day. She has a very beautiful resting place.

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  7. A lovely tribute, you've made her much more than just an effigy in a church. Thank you for sharing it and the photos. Euphemia is my 22 x great-grandmother.

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