The Easter Sepulchre Ceremony in England
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|The sleeping soldier on the left, guarding the
tomb of Christ, was sculptured in the early 1300s. He is one of four soldiers
(the same numbers as in the mystery plays).
You will find him at Heckington church, Lincolnshire. He was paid for by Richard de Potesgrave, the rector 1308-49, whose tomb also lies in the church..
Above our soldier is a spectacular stone structure, built for one purpose: to provide an alcove to act as an 'Easter Sepulchre'.
As we will see, most Easter Sepulchres were wooden affairs; but in this part of the world there is a group of early Easter Sepulchres, all beautifully sculptured.
The Easter Sepulchre at Heckington. At the foot, four soldiers sleep; to the right and left of the recess, the Mary's and angel; at the top, the risen Christ, with kneeling angels.
|The ceremony at the Easter Sepulchre is found
in the 'Use of Sarum' (a popular set of church services), and the other
It was common in English parish churches by the later middle ages.
Perhaps the ceremony spread into parish churches from Abbeys and Cathedrals (the earliest English reference is in the Regularis Concordia, a mid-tenth century monastic document). By the early thirteenth century the Easter Sepulchre is occasionally mentioned in parish church inventories, though is probably not common that early.1
But finding out exactly what happened in a parish church at Easter is not so easy (Continental practice was different and is not reliable as a guide). The fullest, and much-quoted, account is for an Abbey (at Durham) (more...). But that tells us little about the normal English hamlet served by a single priest and a clerk.
Old chest, possibly an English Easter Sepulchre. Photo of 1895, present whereabouts uncertain.
Left panel, probably deposition from the cross, damaged; central panel, resurrection; right panel, Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen.
Not visible: left end, Christ bearing his cross; right end, Christ before Pilate. More details...
Link to Barningham, Suffolk, possible remnant of old
Easter Sepulchre (Simon's Suffolk Churches) After
clicking on the picture, scroll down the page to find the image.
Link to Easter Sepulchre at Cockfield Church, Suffolk (Margery Kempe site)
However, the broad picture is clear.
On Good Friday there would be the ceremony popularly known as 'creeping to the cross', when parishioners would make their way on knees to a cross and kiss it. This might be a cross specially kept for the purpose, or the altar cross.
Afterwards the priest and his assistants, bare-foot, would ceremonially wrap the crucifix in fine fabrics, and place this representation of the dead Christ in a 'sepulchre', together with a pyx containing the consecrated host (the wafer, which had been consecrated the previous day). The door or curtain of the sepulchre would then be shut. 'I am counted as one of them that go down into the pit' was the responsory in the Sarum Use.
The sepulchre seems always to have been on the north side of the altar.
Usually the actual sepulchre would be a wooden coffer or chest. There is just one possible survivor of a simple English wooden sepulchre of this kind, shown to the left. But there are doubts about it. (more...). There is also a possible fragment at Barningham, Suffolk. All the others have gone.
The sepulchre would be surrounded by 'lights' (candles), often paid
for by gilds of parishioners, or from money bequeathed for the purpose.
It would be covered by finest cloths, as befitted the body of Christ. At
Long Melford, for example, an inventory of 1547 lists:
Quite often this wooden sepulchre was placed on a tomb with a flat surface, especially provided for the purpose.
At London, St John Zachary, in 1531 Elizabeth Reed left money for a
tomb 'at the north ende of the high awter ... which tombe doth serve
at Esther tyme for the botom of the Sepulchre of our Lorde Jesu Criste'.
At Stanwell, Middlesex, Thomas Windsor stated in his will of 1479 that he should have a tomb that 'may ber [bear] the blessed body of our Lord, and the sepulture at the time of Estre to stand upon the same'. 4
The pictures to the left show typical tomb-tops on which the Easter Sepulchre would rest. Confusingly, these days the tomb-top is itself often referred to as the Easter Sepulchre.
At Long Melford it is the tomb of John Clopton, who died in 1497, which supported the sepulchre. This is the only parish church where a contemporary recorded the pre-Reformation church ceremonies, including the use of the Easter Sepulchre (more...).
Coity, Glamorgan, probable Easter Sepulchre of about
1500. Note the instruments of the passion carved on the front.
|At some churches a wooden framework might be
used to carry the draperies and candles over the wooden chest. Churchwardens'
accounts sometimes show these being erected before Easter and dismantled
aftewards. In many cases they were fine affairs, gilded and painted, with
statues of angels. None of these frameworks have survived.
Two possible survivors of an alternative arrangement - a free-standing, wooden Easter Sepulchre - are shown on the left. In both cases they consist of a decorated chest.
At Coity, in Wales, the instruments of the Passion are carved on the front face of the chest (scourge, crown of thorns, cock crowing etc), showing its probabe use as an Easter Sepulchre.
The Sepulchre at Copthorpe was given by Brian Roucliff in 1456. It has no decoration on one end and one side, showing that it would have been placed into the corner of the the north and east wall of the chancel - the normal place.
What do these remind you of?
||From Good Friday until
Easter Sunday, the Easter Sepulchre had lights burning in front
of it, and was watched over day and night.
All over England we find churchwardens' accounts paying the costs of the watching. For example, at Lambeth, Surrey, 1521: 'For brede and drynke for the ii men that watched the sepulcre and for Wylliam sexton for ii nyghttes 6d.' 5
Who did the watching? Usually the sexton or minor clergy are mentioned. For example, at Coventry in 1452 the second Deacon 'shal wache the sepulcur on gode fryday all nyght', whilst the first Deacon 'schall wache the sepulcur on Aster evyn tyll the resurrecion be don'. 6
Did lay people generally take part in the watching? We simply don't know.
Daniel Rock, Church of our Fathers, ii, 1905, facing p.399.
|What does this watching remind you of?
Just so. It's very like the watching over the dead before the funeral, which was a regular feature of funerals in the middle ages, particularly for high status individuals.
Even the shape of the two surviving wooden English Easter Sepulchres is similar to the 'herse' used to carry the coffin and support the candles round the body in church.
The resurrection brass of Sir Hugh Johnys (c.1500) at Swansea who was made 'knyght at the holy sepulchre of our lord jhesu crist in the city of Jerusalem'. Resurrection brasses were frequently fixed on the wall behind tombs used to support the Easter Sepulchre.
Malcolm Norris, Monumental Brasses: The Memorials, Vol ii, Fig. 245
|All over England, on Easter
Sunday morning, before mass, before the ringing of bells (according
to Sarum use), but with the church all lighted, the wafer in the Easter
Sepulchre was taken out with great ceremony and placed on the altar, representing
The cross was removed and there was a procession.
Mass was celebrated.
At a few places there seem to have been plays.
|The Easter Sepulchre
ceremony was abolished at the Reformation. It was preached against
and satirised (more...). When Queen Mary reimposed
Catholicism, it was brought back. So in 1554 Long Melford church paid money
'to the joyner for makying of the said sepulcre'. 7
In Elizabeth's reign the ceremony disappeared, probably quite quickly. A survey of Lincolshire churches a few years after her accession 8 shows the various ways in which these wooden structures were got rid of - at Asbye, 'broken and defaced by our vicar', at Birton, 'burnte in melting lead for to mend our church'. At Denton it was sold to man who used it to keep his clothes in.
In Castlebyth, and elsewhere, the wardens reported that they had 'made a communion table' of the sepulchre. New wine, new wineskins.
There was a revival of the practice last century, and it is still celebrated in one form or another in some Anglican churches today. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have retained and modified various forms of the rite.
But today in many English churches you will find the tomb which supported the Easter Sepulchre lying still and silent all year, a quiet reminder of the drama of Easter services half a millennium ago.
1. M. H. Bloxam, Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture, Vol ii, 1882, 104.
2. Dymond & Paine, 47
3 Sheingorn, 227.
4 Bloxam, 105.
5. Sheingorn, 57.
6. Bloxam 106
7. Dymond & Paine, 61.
8. Edward Peacock, English Church Furniture, Ornaments and Decorations, at the Period of the Reformation, 1866, passim.
|Finding out more.
A good overview, with many photographs of tombs used as Easter Sepulchres, will be found in Francis Bond, The Chancel of English Churches, 1916, chapter 9, pages 220-241.
A fine attempt to gather all the English physical and documentary evidence is Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Kalamazoo, 1987, ISBN 0918720796. There is a full and helpful introduction.
Much of the literature on the Easter Sepulchre was collected by Alfred Heales in an article entitled 'Easter Sepulchres: their object, nature and history', Archaeologia, 42 (1869), 263-308. Most later authors have drawn from this very full well.
For a wider description of Easter ceremonies, see Henry John Feasey, Ancient English Holy Week Ceremonial, 1897.
For a discussion of the liturgical development of Easter, see John Walton Tyrer, Historical Survey of Holy Week, its Services and Ceremonial, 1932.
For an excellent edition of Roger Martin's account of Long Melford Church,
see David Dymond & Clive Paine (eds), The Spoil of Long Melford
Church: the Reformation in a
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