When I am researching for a novel I often come across the strangest of things. Recently, I was delving into the origins of wax effigies and found that their history stretches much further back than the person we all immediately think of with waxworks – Madame Tussaud. Heaps of small Egyptian, Greek and Roman wax figures have been found in the form of dolls or small statues, and the Romans had a tradition of taking a wax cast of a deceased person’s face – this would be worn by professional mourners at the funeral, then handed down the generations to be brought out on special occasions. This funereal rite seems to have filtered down into the Middle Ages when life-size effigies would often be displayed on top of the coffin or tomb of royalty and the wealthy. Then there was the Catholic tradition of preserving saint’s bodies in wax, like the little known one of Saint Victoria which is on display in a glass case, within the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome — she supposedly died in 306 AD
The earliest surviving royal effigy left to us in England is that of Edward III carved from wood, at this time wood and boiled, shaped leather would create a base that would then be covered with painted plaster to give a good likeness of the face. Later, effigies would be of cloth stuffed with straw, the hands and face would be created from painted wax, the mould having been taken from the person’s face either in life or as a death mask. The effigy would look eerily lifelike, especially when dressed in the dead person’s clothes. Westminster Abbey still owns a startling number of these funereal effigies dating back to the 14th century. The last of these likenesses to actually be carried in a funeral procession was that of Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham, the illegitimate daughter of James II. She now stands on display in Westminster Abbey alongside her little son, the three-year-old Marquess of Normanby: a tiny poignant figure dressed in sumptuous garments, which include a unique tiny corset, and a beautiful golden velvet coat slit at the back to take a child’s walking reins. Many of the effigies would have been commissioned by the person in life, and would have cost a fortune to create. The Westminster Abbey effigies have been restored in recent years – at one time the effigies had been so neglected they became known as the ragged regiment and were a macarbe Victorian obsession, Virginia Wool gives a great account of visiting these relics, writing to a friend —
“… Yesterday I did a very melancholy thing—which was to take my working women over the Abbey. Only one came!—and we solemnly went round the Chapel and the waxworks together, and saw the mummy of a 40 year old parrot—which makes history so interesting …”
Elizabeth I’s original funeral effigy had deteriorated so badly by 1760 that it had to be remade. Many of these figures are disconcertingly lifelike, and their spookiness extends to the fact that they often have real hair and are dressed in the deceased’s clothing. You can now see all these amazing effigies in their new display in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery at Westminster Abbey — see video below.
Of course, it was Madame Tussaud who made the art of the wax effigy famous, although there were a myriad of lesser known waxworks before her who recreated tableaus of royalty, the famous and the infamous to thrill the curious masses.
You can actually visit one of the most fascinating of these effigies for free, and she is well worth going to see. She is tucked away in the pretty Norfolk village of Stow Bardolph, which lays just off the A10 a little way beyond Downham Market on the way to King’s Lynn. Sarah Hare died of septicaemia in 1744, aged 55, legend has it that
“Sarah liked to sew on a Sunday and as a punishment pricked her finger and died”.
In general, a woman like Sarah would have passed forgotten into the dust of history, but Sarah assured her memory by insisting that her likeness should be made in wax for posterity. This spinster daughter of Sir Thomas Hare of Stow Hall, must have had a premonition of her death, as in August 1743 she wrote:
“I desire six of the poor men in the parish of Stow or Wimbotsham may put me in to the ground, they having five shillings a piece for the same. I desire all the poor in the Alms Row may have two shillings and sixpence each person at the grave before I am put in. This I hope my Executor will see firstly performed before Sunset…..I desire to have my face and hands made in wax with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment in a picture hair upon my head and put in a case of Mahogany with a glass before and fix’d up so near the place were my corps lyes as it can be with my name and time of Death put upon the case in any manner most desirable if I do not execute this in my life I desire it may be done after my Death.”
We do not know if the wax impressions of her hands and face were taken in life or after her death, but her wishes were most certainly carried out. Sarah Hare has the honour of leaving us the only such wax mortuary statue of its kind outside of those at Westminster Abbey. Within the tranquil coolness of the Holy Trinity church at Stow Bardolph, Sarah Hare’s likeness has sat for 275 years in its mahogany cabinet, waiting for the occasional visitor to open the doors and gaze upon it. Having seen it myself, I would say that nothing can prepare you for coming face to face with this unnervingly honest likeness of a woman who died nearly three centuries ago. She is as vivid as the day she was first stood there, and the whole experience is rather ghoulish if not a little frightening, opening the doors of Sarah’s cabinet is most certainly not for the faint hearted, and is a great way to give small children nightmares for life. I am in no doubt that a local child or two has been brought up in the fear of Sarah Hare coming to get them in the middle of the night if they were not good!
If you do decide to take a trip to Stow Bardolph I can highly recommend the Hare Arms for a fortifying pint or two of Dutch courage before you venture off to visit Sarah, and as Nick Ross used to say on Crimewatch “don’t have nightmares “;)