The Tale of The Terracotta Tombs of Oxborough and East Anglia.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I have recently written an article for our village magazine on the terracotta tombs of Oxborough, that was a very brief article, limited to 800 words, so here is the full, unedited version. It is a hefty 4,500 word read, so not for the fainthearted.


The sleepy Norfolk village of Oxborough lies a few miles southwest of the bustling market town of Swaffham, and is just a short stroll across the fields from where we now live. This rural, unpretentious cluster of houses gives no hint that it too was once a thriving medieval market town with a port, seven guilds and a gallows. In the late 15th century Sir Edmund Bedingfeld inherited the Oxburgh estate (not a typo, the hall retains a more ancient spelling) from his grandmother and decided to move the main branch of the family from its ancestral lands in Suffolk, building himself a new stately home in Oxborough. Sir Edmund was somewhat of a high-flyer at court, although he had supported Richard III during the War of the Roses, he was shrewd enough to quickly switch his allegiance to the new king after Richard’s demise. It was Henry VII who ennobled him and honoured the recently completed Oxburgh Hall with a royal visit. The house was extravagant and costly – with moat and curtain wall; Sir Edmund had obtained a license from the King to crenelate the building in a defensive style, but it was all purely for opulent show. Constructed entirely in red brick, an expensive, rare material in medieval England as bricks had to be imported from the continent, and thus were usually reserved only for grand royal buildings, Sir Edmund was certainly out to make a status statement with his new home. The fact that enterprising Dutch immigrants had recently set up brick making workshops in the east of England, to capitalise on the region’s lack of natural freestone, would have lessened the cost slightly, but it was still a sweeping declaration of grandeur, and became the architectural trendsetter for the coming Tudor age. However, it is not Sir Edmund Bedingfeld’s residence in life that I am concerned with in this article, but his residence in death.

Over 100,000 visitors pass through the gates of Oxburgh Hall each year but very few even notice Saint John’s church, which hugs the northern edge of the National Trust car park, fewer still venture inside. At first glance it might be assumed that the half-ruined church may have been a victim of the reformation, or Cromwell’s army… maybe a stray WWII bomb… in fact, the nave was destroyed in 1948 when the church tower and spire came tumbling down during high winds. The chancel survived, and by some miracle so did the adjoining Bedingfeld chapel, along with the exceedingly rare treasure it holds. Beyond the al fresco remains of the nave, a humble wooden door opens onto a sight which would be extremely unusual in a major English cathedral, let alone this little parish church. The Bedingfeld chapel is dominated by a pair of large, extremely ornate, Italian Renaissance style terracotta chest tombs. Internally constructed of brick, the tombs were then overlaid with terracotta panels covered in intricate mouldings and carvings, the likes of which one would only usually see in continental Europe. One tomb forms a triumphant entrance screen, whilst the other divides the chapel from the chancel. They are by no means unique in England, as there are at least six similar tombs still in existence, all situated in East Anglia, plus shattered remains that suggest there were others, but the Bedingfeld tombs are by far the very best example you will see this side of the English Channel. So, how did Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, and his wife Margaret, end up being laid to rest in such splendour, indeed one could say, in tombs fit for a king? Well, extraordinarily, few actual facts are known about the tombs; the craftsmen who built them left no signatures (although you can still see their fingerprints left in the clay) and it isn’t even completely certain who lies within them, although it is generally accepted that it is Sir Edmund and Lady Margaret. I was intrigued to find out all I could on these mysterious monuments, and with a bit of detective work I managed to piece together a rather interesting story of how these tombs came to be – and if it wasn’t for Michelangelo’s broken nose, they might very well not be there at all.

The period of history labelled “the Italian Renaissance” began in the 14th century and its influence would span Europe over the following 300 years or so, marking the transition from the Middle Ages to our modern age. Originating in Tuscany, with its heart in the city of Florence, the movement gradually spread to Venice, and throughout, what we now know as, Italy before spreading into the wider European continent. Built on the back of vast mercantile wealth, the Italian Renaissance was a cultural, political, scientific and intellectual explosion, patronised by the newly wealthy, ennobled classes who were keen to demonstrate their prosperity in a way that set them apart as an elite. Artists and craftsmen were in unprecedented demand to adorn houses and churches with Renaissance art, and this unquenchable lust for large sculptural works soon caused a shortage of materials and labour, which forced the artists to seek a cheaper, more available, easily workable medium – the answer was terracotta. Many Florentine sculptors became great masters in this clay, producing remarkable, life-size statuary, friezes, busts and decorative work, which were moulded, sculpted and exquisitely painted to great effect. During the French expeditions into Italy, in the mid-1490s, King Charles VIII of France became greatly enamoured with the art he saw there and invited many Italian artists and poets to the French court, most notably Guido Mazzoni, a Renaissance terracotta sculptor of great renown. Mazzoni’s French workshop produced a life-size figure of a kneeling Charles VIII, with accompanying angels, for the king’s tomb, and Mazzoni worked extensively for the prominent French cardinal, Georges d’Amboise, along with creating many other funereal works for other wealthy members of the French court. This patronage of Italian arts and culture by the French noblesse continued through the reigns of Charles VIII’s successors, and saw the movement contagiously spread throughout the other royal courts of mainland Europe. Courtiers were falling over themselves to employ Italian craftsmen with commissions to enhance the facades of their great houses and fill their fine palaces with sublime works of art; to adorn their chapels and churches with religious icons and ensure their standing throughout posterity by way of magnificent monumental tombs.

When the young Henry VIII came to the throne of England in 1509, he was extremely eager to bring his medieval kingdom up-to-date and to be taken seriously as the monarch of a major European power equal to any. He desperately wanted to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that he and his court were just as sophisticated and grand as they were and, with all the great European monarchs now patrons of the arts, young Henry aspired to emulate them. It is likely that Guido Mazzoni had already visited the English court in Henry’s youth, at the invitation of his father, King Henry VII. There is a terracotta bust known as the Laughing Boy, in the Royal Windsor Collection, which is reputed to be of the seven-year-old Henry VIII, the work is attributed to Mazzoni, and there is evidence that a similar bust of Henry’s sister, Mary, also once existed. Henry VIII was already a bit of an Italophile when he came to the throne, many of his tutors had been to Italy and experienced the Renaissance at first hand, and English courtiers who visited France as diplomats and ambassadors were greatly enamoured with what they saw emerging of the French Renaissance. It is easily forgotten that in the early years of his reign Henry VIII was a fervent catholic, completely devoted to the pope, so much so that in 1521 he was awarded the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X. Henry and his then bride, Catherine of Aragon, were a fledgling royal couple who both passionately enjoyed finery and display, they were eager to encourage wider European political and economic involvement and so Henry’s court warmly welcomed foreign ambassadors, merchants and craftsmen, emphasised in 1509 by an early royal proclamation of Henry VIII’s which said:

“all manner of merchants, denizen and strange, clothiers and artificers and folks of all manner of mysteries and occupations, crafts and merchandises, freely, quietly and peaceably and without fear of forfeit… should be welcome to work in England.”

The already celebrated Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano was one of the first to take up Henry’s invitation. Renowned for his explosive temper, the immensely talented Torrigiano had been forced to flee Florence for breaking his fellow student’s nose in a disagreement over the quality of Torrigiano’s work – the fellow student in question was Michelangelo (the result of this brawl can be witnessed to this day in portraits of Michelangelo, his misshapen nose is most evident, and possibly could be claimed by Torrigiano as one of his early works). The banished Torrigiano wandered Europe working as a sculptor when he could, and a hired soldier when there were no art commissions to be had, which was not unusual as another of Henry VIII’s Italian artists, Girolamo da Treviso, also doubled as a military engineer for the king. Henry VIII commissioned Torrigiano to create terracotta busts of his father Henry VII, the king himself and other courtiers. The king also commissioned Torrigiano to build the grandest tomb and altar England had ever seen to house the remains of his parents. Mazzoni had originally been commissioned for this work, the design to be based on Charles VIII of France’s tomb mentioned above. Mazzoni is thought to have sent drawings for the proposed tomb, plus a terracotta model of the envisaged monument, as this was standard practice for such a large commission. Torrigiano was the sculptor eventually picked for the project, working from Mazzoni’s design but tempering it more to English tastes. Torrigiano also created a magnificent tomb for Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. The tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, stately in its black marble and gilt bronze, was the grandest, most decorated tomb England had ever seen. Originally set amidst its own chapel, which Torrigiano adorned with an equally magnificent altar of terracotta, white marble, and gilt bronze, it was described by the 16th century historian John Leland as ‘the wonder of the world’ and would have been ultramodern at the time. This ostentatious Renaissance style ignited a trend amongst Henry’s competitive courtiers.

Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s number one courtier at the time, commissioned another renowned Florentine, Giovanni da Maiano, to work on the construction of his new house, Hampton Court. Maiano came from a very well-established family of Renaissance sculptors and artists, and was a close associate of Holbein the younger, working with him on decorations at Greenwich Palace in 1527. Maiano created 8 terracotta roundels to adorn the facade of Hampton Court; his fellow Florentine, Benedetto da Rovezzano, created another 12; traces of further terracotta embellishments have been found at Hampton Court, showing it originally had terracotta window elements, too. Wolsey also commissioned the pair to create him a tomb so elaborate it would rival Henry VII’s, meanwhile, Henry VIII was planning his own tomb with Torrigiano. Henry may have only been 27 when he began designing his valedictory monument, but this was a new age of great wealth, where men of importance were not going to leave the design of their final resting place to be decided by others. Like the great Egyptian pharaohs of ancient times, these powerful, wealthy men were intent that their earthly glory should be everlasting, enduring way beyond the end of their own, physical existence. They were also very aware that disease or battle could snatch them from this world at any moment, so it was important to be prepared to ensure that their presence in death would be as prominent as their presence in life. At this time, Torrigiano also created a tomb for the then Master of the Rolls, Dr John Yonge. This elaborate marble and terracotta wall tomb dating from around 1520 can still be found in the former Rolls Chapel in Chancery Lane, London and was the first entirely Renaissance-style monument in England. As work was beginning to pour in, Torrigiano returned to Italy to recruit more labour from Florence, he promised that great riches could be made from his seemingly endless aristocratic commissions in England. It was also around this time that Henry VIII held his famous summit meeting with Francis I of France, at Balinghem, in the Pale of Calais, which was still regarded as English soil at the time. This momentous event, which would become known as the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, was a lavish conference designed to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings; each king was there to out dazzle the other with the opulence of their courtiers, tents, clothes, entertainment, feasts… Henry went out and out to flaunt his Italianate taste, and the fantasy palace he had built for the event was contemporarily said to be so magnificent that it was worthy of the recently deceased Leonardo da Vinci himself. The demand for craftsmen was so high in England that it became impossible to fulfil the need by bringing the labour over from Italy, so Flemish and English artists were recruited to work alongside the Italians, learning the Renaissance style and techniques from them.

Sir Richard Weston, a member of Henry’s privy chamber and one of his most trusted diplomats, commissioned a new house to be built for himself, Sutton Place, in Guildford, Surrey. This house is now heralded as displaying the earliest traces of Italianate Renaissance design elements in English architecture. In 1518, Weston had been a member of an embassy sent to visit Francis I in Paris, so he was most probably influenced by the masses of Italian Renaissance-style architecture he saw there, and it is even possible he met Leonardo da Vinci, who was at this time living at Amboise. Weston also attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and so would have been very much amidst the English court’s growing adoration for all things Italian, too. Work on his grand house began in the early 1520s and, with some very minor exceptions, stone was not used in the building or decoration, it was all created purely from brick and terracotta. There is no conclusive evidence, but it is suspected that it was Giovanni de Maiano who designed and built Sutton Place. Around the same time, another courtier, Sir Thomas Lovell, commissioned Torrigiano to make a bronze relief medallion of his profile to adorn the gatehouse at his home in East Harling in Norfolk. Originating from Barton Bendish, Norfolk with lands in the next village of Beachamwell, Lovell was the direct neighbour of the Bedingfelds at Oxburgh Hall. He was closely associated with Torrigiano, being an executor of both Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort’s wills, and supervised the erection of their tombs. Meanwhile, another courtier, Sir Henry Fermor, was building East Barsham Manor in Norfolk, using brick and terracotta throughout, as was Henry, 1st Lord Marney at his Essex domicile, Layer Marney. It is impossible to say if all of these building projects were being carried out by the same architect and workshop, but it is thought that Girolamo da Treviso, who acted as the king’s architect, had an involvement in the construction and artistic elements of them, this is purely conjecture though, and the true master craftsmen behind these houses remains a mystery, although there are various elements of design which suggest that they were all created by the same architect, builders and workshops. It is possible that Norfolk’s long-lost Kenninghall Palace, prized mansion of the Duke of Norfolk, built between 1505 and 1524, was an earlier showcase of Renaissance architecture in England, foreshadowing and maybe influencing the builds of Sutton Place and Hampton Court, but there is little remaining evidence to state this categorically. The Rectory at Great Snoring, Norfolk; West Stow Hall, Suffolk; and Cressingham Manor, Norfolk also have terracotta architectural elements contemporary to this period. This design style probably climaxed in the building of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace in the late 1530s. Built to reflect the grandeur and power of the Tudor dynasty, Nonsuch Palace was constructed decidedly with an eye to rival Francis I’s Château de Chambord. As a brand-new palace built from scratch, which would have cost millions to construct in today’s money because of its countless rich ornamentations and numerous elements of Renaissance design, the emphasis was on the Italian influence throughout. Sadly, this palace was demolished by Charles II’s mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess Castlemain, after she had been gifted the palace by the king. Heedless of its history, the countess pulled it down in the 1680s to sell the building materials in order to pay off her gambling debts. However, archaeological remains show that terracotta was used extensively within the building elements and decoration of the palace. It should not be forgotten that all of these red brick “prodigy houses” of the Tudor dynasty, Oxburgh Hall was most probably the very first, certainly pre-dating Kenninghall and Hampton Court.

But what of the terracotta tombs? Unfortunately, before his great house at Layer Marney was completed, Henry Lord Marney died, followed within two years by his son and heir, John. Lord Marney’s daughter, Grace was married to Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, son of the founder of Oxburgh Hall, and he happened to be an executor of both Henry and John Marney’s wills. With work still ongoing on the house at Layer Marney it is conceivable that with a workforce of skilled terracotta craftsmen on site the idea may have been proposed to construct a pair of grand, Renaissance-style terracotta tombs for the Marneys. These seem to have been the first terracotta tombs constructed in the set of East Anglian terracotta tombs that are still in existence. Built in around 1525, they are contemporary with the Bedingfeld monuments, with which they share many similarities and are almost certainly by the same craftsmen, of course Sir Edmund Bedingfeld is the link between the two sites. His mother Margaret Bedingfeld had left directions in her will for a chapel to be added to the village church at Oxborough, within which her and her husband’s remains would be laid to rest, and so it would seem that the terracotta workers who created the tombs at Layer Marney were also commissioned to build the Bedingfeld tombs. Yet again, it is impossible to say who was behind the construction of these monuments, all that is definite is that the same moulds seem to have been used on the Layer Marney and the Bedingfeld tombs. The Bedingfeld tombs are adorned completely in terracotta, although they would have been painted black and gilded to resemble marble and bronze. There would undoubtedly have been effigies on top of the tombs, akin to the Layer Marney ones, possibly built from terracotta, but these are long gone. In their original painted state these Oxborough tombs would have been striking to behold at the time.

At Bracon Ash, some 30 miles east of Oxborough, there are the fragmentary remains of another terracotta tomb thought to hold the remains of Roger Appleyard. The Appleyards were a prominent old Norfolk family and had various family connections with the Bedingfelds. Roger Appleyard died in 1528, and it is thought his wife, whose family also had connections by marriage to the Bedingfelds, commissioned the tomb. All that remains today in the church at Bracon Ash is part of what would have been the canopy of the tomb, which is now set around a doorway. It seems to have been cannibalised in the 18th century, to make a grand entrance to the Berney Mausoleum. What remains of it clearly shows that it, too, was made by the same workshop as the Oxborough and Layer Marney Tombs. The Marneys, Bedingfelds and Appleyards were all fervent Catholics, as was Sir Edward Echyngham, who also lies in a terracotta tomb in the church of Barsham, Suffolk. Sir Edward was one of Henry VIII’s sea captains, his first wife was Mary Bedingfeld, Sir Edmund’s sister, so yet again there is a clear connection to the Bedingfeld family, it is also evident that this tomb was created by the same craftsmen around the same time, as he died in 1527. All that is left of Sir Edward’s monument is a terracotta tomb chest, which was probably once far grander, with a canopy and effigy. Originally, it stood in its own chapel as the Bedingfeld monuments do. The chapel was demolished in the late 18th century, and the tomb moved to its present site within the church.

The next surviving terracotta tomb lies in the Church of St George, Colegate, Norwich. It contains the remains of Robert Janny, who died in 1530. In life he was one of the wealthiest citizens of Norwich, and its mayor twice. The tomb is uncanopied and the craftsmanship is poor compared with the previous tombs I have discussed, it is not as elaborate or as high status as the noblemen’s tombs, but as the final resting place of a man who started life as a grocer, it is most definitely a statement of the wealth this man acquired in life. If nobles like the Marneys, Bedingfelds, Echyngham and Appleyard could be buried in a tomb inspired by a king’s, then Janny was laid to rest in a tomb inspired by the last resting places of the noble elite who surrounded him. There is one more surviving example of this 16th century East Anglian terracotta work, it stands in Wymondham Abbey and is traditionally believed to be the remnants of the tomb of the abbey’s last abbot, Elisha Ferrers, but I disagree with this conjecture, as Ferrers did not die until 1548, which falls way outside the time period for the erection of these terracotta monuments, as you will see below. The terracotta at Wymondham looks more as if it were originally created as a sedilia rather than a tomb, and it is possible that Abbot Ferrers commissioned the original structure for the abbey, hence his name is associated with it. Exceedingly ornate, with barrel work and mouldings reminiscent of Oxborough and Layer Marney, this example is clearly by the same workshop.

Fragments of other terracotta tombs have been found which indicates that there may have been far more of these Italian Renaissance inspired monuments within the churches of East Anglia. The reason these are in fragments, that there are no other examples around, and that many of the above have lost much of their adornments, comes down to the English Reformation. Famously, the once Italophile King Henry VIII fell dramatically out of love with all things Italian when he broke with Rome to marry Anne Boleyn and set himself up as the head of the English Protestant church. By the 1540s the Italian artists and craftsmen who had once been so welcome at Henry VIII’s court at the beginning of his reign were now blatantly persona non grata! Some stayed and found other employment as economical, religious and political upheaval saw the abrupt end in the demand for their work. Under Henry VIII’s reformation, churches once encouraged by him to adorn themselves heavily in catholic pomp were purged of idolatrous practices as sweeping iconoclasm saw the destruction of holy shrines and venerated images. With royal and noble tombs being perfect examples of works of art that combined religious imagery with heraldic devices and inscriptions that flaunt the power and rank of the deceased, and also encouraged prayer for the departed souls within, they became perfect targets for the zealous reformers; acts of public violence against such tombs became rife. After Henry VIII’s death, his son Edward VI positively condoned the wanton vandalism of idolatrous imagery but with conditions, in a proclamation he attempted to preserve the tombs of nobles who had served the state, but in many cases it was too late. Stone tombs were hard to smash, but those made of terracotta were easy to destroy, hence many are fragmentary today. When Mary I came to the throne, she attempted to reverse the damage that had been wrought by statute, in 1553. She halted the destruction and began a programme of restoration for these monuments. Following Mary’s death, Elizabeth I, although a staunch protestant like her brother Edward, brought a complete end to the destruction of any tombs, whether noble or not, by proclamation in 1560.

The use of terracotta as a building material in England covered an extremely short time span, by 1540 houses like Ingatestone Hall were being built, and terracotta adornment, which had been so a la mode for the twenty years previous, had fallen completely out of fashion, never to return. We are extremely lucky that the few terracotta tombs we have today survived. These fragile monuments were miraculously saved from complete destruction in the reformation and then again in the ravages of the English Civil War when tombs such as these would have been key targets for the Puritans. The Bedingfelds were ardent Catholics throughout the reformation, recusants who even had a priest hole installed in their house, and their own catholic chapel built within the grounds of Oxburgh Hall. Refusing to ever sign the Act of Uniformity saw the Bedingfelds fined heavily and threatened with imprisonment. Their unrelenting Catholicism, and royalist sympathies brought them great danger during the English Civil War, and even saw Oxburgh Hall ransacked and partially burnt down… but still the tombs survived, a bit battered but relatively intact. The tombs of Oxborough were also amazingly lucky to survive the collapse of the church tower in 1948, so we are extremely fortunate to have these 500-year-old tombs to still marvel at today.

From the Italian Renaissance influenced tomb of Henry VII, the trend for magnificent, Italianesque funerary monuments filtered down through the nobility until within 20 years a wealthy grocer from Norwich could afford similar adornment for his final resting place. If it had not been for the reformation, if England had remained a Catholic country who knows what our churches would look like today. Such monuments would have been aspired to by the common man, and would have become more affordable, and tombs like those of the Bedingfelds would not be such a surprise upon walking into a quaint little parish church, they would most probably have been commonplace.


I purposely did not insert pictures into this article so as not to interrupt the flow, and the ones included at the end are only of the Oxborough tombs. My hope is that if you have been as fascinated by this history as I have you will set off on your own quest to discover more about the people, places and tombs I have discussed. They are all out there in the land of Google, and most are still in existence to visit, many free of charge. If you made it to the end, I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below and I will answer them as best I can ~ Peggy-Dot x ~

2 Replies to “The Tale of The Terracotta Tombs of Oxborough and East Anglia.”

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