THE SOUTH CHOIR AISLE RECESS TOMB & THE SANCTUARY SEDILIA OF HOLY CROSS
Two of the most attractive features of Holy Cross are the sedilia on the south side of the sanctuary and the recess tomb (at present labelled as an Easter Sepulchre) in the South Choir Aisle, a few feet east of the altar steps. Both were probably carved by the same mason, using alabaster (calcium sulphate) -sometimes called gypsum – a soft, easily worked stone, during the first half of the fourteen hundreds. The two items appear to be part of the same structure and share features in common (their vaults are very similar) and each retains a great deal of original medieval colour, with dark red paint predominating on the sedilia and a mixture of reds, greens and gold on the tomb.
As wills in the Registers of Bishops of Exeter of the time clearly show, some of the fifteenth century clergy of Holy Cross -and other priests associated with the church – were wealthy people in their own right in medieval terms (they didn’t have to forfeit any worldly goods when they joined the chapter of Holy Cross – it wasn’t a monastery) any one of perhaps a dozen of them would have been well able to leave sufficient money to finance a project such as the building of an elaborate tomb combined with very well appointed sedilia – and providing the latter for the College of Priests would have earned them a very substantial reduction of time spent in Purgatory!
The Recess Tomb
No inscription remains to identify its occupant, but traditionally the tomb belongs to one of the Deans of Crediton (the head of the Collegiate Church was given the title Dean by Bishop Stafford of Exeter from 1409). It seems to the writer that tradition has it right and that the tomb is the resting place of either one of the first Deans of the Collegiate Church or an early Precentor or Treasurer, certainly no lay-person would be buried in such a prestigious position – just feet from the high altar.
The vault of the tomb recess is very richly carved in lierne style, it is beautifully coloured in deep red and is almost complete (although all the small bosses have been destroyed) the inner walls of the recess, also in red, have the tracery of seven Perpendicular windows carved on them, five on the back panel and one at each end. The face of the memorial up to frieze level and beyond (the upper part of the tomb and the canopy of sedilia probably reached the same height when complete, but the damage to both has been such that we can only guess at what this was) has a series of projecting uprights, and is coloured gold, red and dark green and niches between the uprights below the recess probably contained small paintings of saints which were whitewashed over at the Reformation. The groups of figures in the frieze above the recess, although very battered, can each be identified:
Recess Tomb & Sedilia Guide
Why were the tomb and sedilia so badly mistreated?
Both tomb and sedilia were badly damaged in the Reformation, almost certainly sometime during Edward VI’s reign, between 1547 and 1553 (when Mary came to the throne on 6th July, 1553, the church reverted to hard Catholicism ). The rapid advance of Protestantism was entering its most fundamental phase when the town bought the church from Henry VIII just before his death in 1547. Radical priests under Edward VI who became king in April of that year taught their flocks that graven images in paintings, on statues, on brasses or drawn on glass, were against the Second Commandment (thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image)
For 350 years the townsfolk of Crediton had been almost completely excluded from the area of the church east of the wooden screen which then divided the nave or parish area (this was Crediton Parish Church until the 1540’s) from the Collegiate Church, the preserve of priests.
An initial look by the townspeople around this eastern area would have revealed dozens of images in obvious contravention of the Second Commandment in paintings and carvings on tombs, displayed on altars, on bosses, in stained glass and many other places, and it was over the six years from 1547 to 1553 that iconoclasm peaked. In Crediton and elsewhere an enormous number of English parish church treasures were either damaged or lost – anything which carried an image of a human being, especially one of a saint or Our Lady, was likely to be vandalised.
Later acts of vandalism on the south choir aisle tomb and the sedilia were the carving of graffiti -mostly just initials and dates, some of which are very deeply cut. The earliest of these are from the C17th.
Alabaster, until the early years of the last century, was thought by some superstitious people to have medicinal properties. Pieces were knocked off church tombs and other features, ground to a powder and used in an ointment or poultice for sore legs or breasts. It was sometimes even taken internally. I think it unlikely, however, that the missing parts of our tomb were pulverized to sort out the medical problems of Crediton!
Three inventories were made for Holy Cross in the first sixty years of the 1500’s, a partial one in 1524, well before the Dissolution of the Collegiate Church, one in 1545 (at the Dissolution) and another one in 1559, when Elizabeth 1st took ever the throne from Mary. Comparing these three lists one begins to realise just how much our church lost, particularly in paintings, plate, jewellery and embroidered clergy vestments.
For many years the tomb was described as an Easter Sepulchre. It is very unlikely that this was ever part of its function.