Monumental Inscriptions

The Historical Background

Monumental inscriptions, or memorial inscriptions as some would have it, are the incised words on gravestones in a graveyard and monuments and memorials inside a church. The Society transcribes these memorials because they contain details of interest to the genealogist and because wind, weather and the bulldozer would ensure they were lost forever if left unrecorded. However, it is a slow process and takes a long time to record properly even a modestly sized graveyard. Inside the churches are memorials to the good and the great. These may consist of plaques, brasses, windows, sepulchres and, sometimes, vaults in the floor. Outside, in the Churchyard, are the gravestones and vaults of those who could afford a memorial, the oldest generally nearest to the church itself, often on the favoured south side.

In the Christian tradition, the church lies east to west, the chancel being on the eastern end and the nave, with often a tower and a steeple, on the western end. Likewise, graves were traditionally laid east to west. Until the mid-19th Century, headstones were placed looking away from the grave. After that time, and nowadays the norm, most headstones overlook the grave. The presence of a footstone is the most reliable indicator of the actual position of the grave itself, although they are sometimes moved next to the gravestone itself.

The Christian Tradition

Memorials on graves, as we would understand them now, became popular after the Restoration in the 17th Century. The placing of stones on graves, however, has a much longer tradition. Examples of Roman stones have been discovered, some inscribed.

Christian tradition followed the earlier one of placing graveyards near places of religious significance. The reservation of an area around a Saxon minster or a preacher’s cross for the bodies of the dead closely followed the spread of the Christian mission throughout the island. Archbishop Cuthbert (740-760) is said to have encouraged the reservation of such areas. Except where stone was in plentiful supply, gravestones of an early date are rare. Generally, they bear no inscription. Most graves were unmarked or marked with a piece of wood of which nothing now remains. We must also remember that, in the oldest graveyards, bones were cleared to allow for further burials, the bones being carefully deposited in charnel houses within the church itself.

Memorials inside the Church

Memorials inside the church may go back many centuries, although your normal parish church is less likely to have a splendid memorial to a 12th or 13th Century nobleman. Brasses from that period are more common, being more affordable for your local rich lord or merchant. As the flexibility of money built on trade transformed the economy of the 15th Century, so the wealthy could endow their local church with gifts and find a place within it for a memorial to themselves and their families. Most of these early memorials are sparingly inscribed and contain little information for the genealogist.

The Parish Church

Walking into an old parish church is a rich experience. The faith of many men created what we see now, generation after generation changing things a little or a lot according to the fashion of the time. Graffitti in Ashwell’s church in Hertfordshire records despair as the scourge of the Black Death depopulates the parish. In that church a war memorial acknowledges those in the parish who this century died in the two World Wars. Six hundred years separates these events.

The 18th Century memorials to the gentry tend to catch the eye, just as was intended. These memorials, containing eulogies so overblown as to be scarcely credible, do contain lots of information about the family - wife, son, daughter, family relationships. The simpler skull, bones and hour-glass, for example, of earlier decoration, symbols of mortality, gives way to escutcheons, busts and urns. Alabaster, a fine medium in itself, gives way to pink marble from Italy. The inscriptions are often in Latin. The historian of Hertfordshire, J.E. Cussans, (See Hertfordshire Antiquarians) has written commentaries on many of the fine tombs in the county’s parish churches. This is just as well because the “dog” Latin of the 18th Century would have been as unfamiliar to Ovid as it is to your contemporary transcriber. Fortunately, there are some handbooks available to assist the translation of the Latin tags and phrases found.

Depredations of the Past

Parish churches have had to withstand the depredations of past ages. The images and icons of the Church of Rome have largely disappeared, either been removed or damaged where they stood. The start of it was in the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), when images of the old church were ordered removed or removed voluntarily by the Churchwardens. About the same time, church vestments, books and vessels were secreted away or sold to defeat the tax man. The wall painting and the colour of the old churches gave way to whitewash. The screens which separated the nave from the mystery of the chancel were removed and the altar of the Presbyter took its place as the focus for all men’s eyes. The Duchy of Lancaster stood firmest against this movement whilst the churches in the town succumbed quickly to the new fashion. During the Civil War and Commonwealth of the 1640s, the parish church was a rich source of brass and lead for the manufacture of munitions. In our present age, most ancient monuments like the parish church are well cared for. The confident restorations of the 19th Century have been replaced in a more conservative way; great efforts are made to keep restorations in keeping with the original. This may or may not be a good thing, as history will judge, each age having left an image of itself in the fabric of the church.

Depredations now

The past hundred years has not been a good one for the churchyard. When labour was cheap and men still stooped, it was easier to maintain a churchyard. Nowadays, the power mower and the strimmer punch their way between the memorials. When a churchyard is full and no extension is possible, the stones may be removed. There are rules and regulations for this but stones are being removed and churchyards cleared more and more. Some flat stones (sometimes ledgers, sometimes gravestones) are used for paths or as a decorative feature. The Church of St. Michael in St. Albans has a path around it made up entirely of inscribed flat stones. The church of South Molton, Devon, has made a decorative feature of many of its stones, the churchyard being mainly down to grass. But change is normal and we who live through it may well deplore it. However, what we had before was the result of change and we must expect things to change to reflect the times in which we live.

Recently, there has been action from local councils to examine graveyards for loose and unsteady stones. Where found, these have been laid flat. This has caused some annoyance. Often, too, low kerbs around the grave have been banned in case someone trips over them or because they damage the mower or the strimmer. Don’t put toys on a child’s grave, take care over flower holders, these are just two more examples of the rules that may apply. Then there is the damage done to the memorials by some just because they can.


White, H. Leslie “Monuments and their Inscriptions”, Society of Genealogists, 1978

Bailey, B. “Churchyards of England & Wales”, Hale, 1987

Hey, D. “Oxford Companion to Local & Family History”, OUP, 1996

Fitzhugh, T.V.H. “The Dictionary of Genealogy”, Black, 1991

Notes on using Transcriptions

Inscriptions from memorials over graves must be checked against other sources such as the Parish Register. Errors occur in both and discrepancies are inevitable. Many gravestones were erected only after the last event on them was recorded. The fact that a gravestone is inscribed in the same style throughout is good evidence for late placement. The shape or style of a gravestone is sometimes much later than the events described upon it, recording the death of the grandparents, parents and the final interment of the son or daughter. Sometimes an old gravestone is replaced by a modern one.

In Hertfordshire, W.B. Gerish and a team of helpers (See Hertfordshire Antiquarians) recorded the monumental inscriptions for the whole county over six years before 1913. The Society’s transcriptions use Gerish, and J.E. Cussans and the Parish Register as a check for discrepancies. Many booklets contain a list of memorials recorded by Gerish but not found by the Society’s transcribers. Do not assume that the earlier transcribers were always correct because mistakes by them do occur.

A memorial inside the church does not necessarily mean that interment was within the Church. This was relatively unusual and was discouraged. Some memorials record those of the parish buried elsewhere or killed in action overseas. They are, after all, memorials.

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