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  • Michael Smith

A Cheshire Church and its Knightly Founder: Sir Hugh Calveley at St Boniface, Bunbury

The church of St Boniface at Bunbury in Cheshire is rightfully a grade 1 listed building. A fabulous fourteenth century collegiate church erected on the site of a much older building, it is a stunning example of Cheshire ecclesiastical architecture, being constructed from the native sandstone which so typifies the county. But what is glorious on the outside is even better inside, as we are treated to a fine alabaster tomb chest of the church's founder, Sir Hugh Calveley.

Much more than just a parish church

It is clear before entering that this church is special. Its great windows immediately create a sense of splendour while its deep red sandstone, worked into exquisite mouldings and finely carved decoration tell us that this is so much more than being "just" a parish church.

Like the best of Cheshire's sandstone churches, it reassures with its warmth and beguiles in its striking contrast with the green of the landscape. Yet St Boniface's also has another trick up its sleeve as you press gently on a small wicket door and crouch to enter the building at its western end.

To do so seems almost to be a deliberate move by the builders; in compelling each visitor to take a natural bow towards the nave on entry, they seem to have had in mind that the visitor must then slowly straighten up to be greeted by what awaits. In this case, a nave of spectacular height and light, at the end of which is the monument to Sir Hugh himself, centrally placed like some form of Egyptian pharaoh lying in his richly-decorated tomb.

A stunning tomb, rich in medieval magnificence

The eye, the visitor - everything - is drawn immediately towards the chancel. Bathed in light, Sir Hugh's monument seems almost ethereal, beautifully carved in alabaster and surrounded by a supremely elegant protective iron framework of contemporaneous antiquity.

Redolent of an earlier version of the spectacular Brereton tomb at nearby Malpas, the sarcophagus is surrounded by niches which originally contained weepers similar to those on that monument. The workshop which produced this clearly had a fine eye for fourteenth century fashion and style.

Sir Hugh Calveley's effigy - astonishing detail to draw the eye

Sir Hugh's effigy lies atop his tomb chest deep in eternal prayer, a dog at his feet while he himself is resting his head on his ceremonial great helm, decorated with a calf's head reflecting his own name. Let us study his form.

We are drawn immediately to the knight's bascinet with its long aventail of mail draped over his shoulders in the customary style. What is most remarkable however is the richly decorated band of flowers and jewels which surrounds his head - jewels which in medieval custom (as referenced in the Alliterative Morte Arthure) were intended to protect him from evil. In all likelihood these were beautifully painted when the tomb was first created although most of the colour has long since disappeared.

We can see too that his bascinet is supremely decorated with trefoils around its (still coloured) rim, revealing its owner as a man of wealth and influence. His armour is also finely observed, both in arm and leg and the highly decorated bands which form the joints and which in real life would most likely have been in polished brass.

Perhaps most remarkable in Sir Hugh's tightly-fitting jupon, which appears still to retain elements of its original polychromatic finish and which clearly shows upon it the family calf motif and the red fess which crossed the shield in the centre.

The decorated belt, typical of the age in riding below the indrawn waist, is meticulously recreated by the craftsman. Although much damaged, Sir Hugh's sword and dagger can also be seen as the eye slowly moves towards his exquisitely formed feet, resting on a dog of great charm.

St Boniface, Bunbury - a collegiate foundation

In the quality of Sir Hugh's monument we see decoration fit for a cathedral, yet here it resides in the Cheshire countryside just a few short miles from Beeston castle on its magnificent crag. The reason lies in the relationship between Sir Hugh Calveley and the church of St Boniface itself.

Although a church has existed on the site since the Anglo-Saxon period and early coffins in the churchyard hint at a pre-1200 Norman predecessor, it was Sir Hugh's decision to endow the site as a collegiate church which led to its rebuilding. As a consequence, the church received its own self-governing community of clergy similar to a cathedral.

With the income the foundation generated, a rich church was possible. Although there has been considerable restoration in later periods, everything is to the highest quality, including a spectacular chancel screen which, almost incredibly, dates from the 1920s.

The church includes an additional tomb to Sir George Beeston (d.1601) in the north wall of the chancel and - a very rare survival in Cheshire - a painted stone screen separating the chancel from the Ridley chapel on the south side. Even the latticework doors to the Ridley chapel reveal an exceptional skill by the carpenters.

One of the finest surviving elements of the church is a fifteenth century parclose screen which was restored by V&A museum staff in the 1980s and has now been moved to protective frames on the south wall of the church. The screen, revealing a number of saints and painted around 1450 gives a hint at how richly decorated this church once must have seemed so long ago.

Sir Hugh Calveley and the Hundred Years' War

Bunbury is situated about five miles away from Beeston castle rising high above the Cheshire plain and originally home of the de Blundeville earls of Chester. Cheshire itself was a county repeatedly shown to be loyal to the king and, as a county palatine, exercised significant independence from London. It was here that the family made their home, at Calveley manor, Bunbury.

Hugh Calveley was an influential figure, fighting in the Breton civil war in the 1350s (including at the Battle of the Thirty in 1351) and later captured and ransomed by Bertrand de Guesclin in 1354. Later, serving alongside the influential Sir Robert Knollys, he took le Puy in 1359 as well as playing a major role under Sir John Chandos at the battle of Auray in 1364 which resulted in Jean de Montfort's accession to the Duchy.

Sir Hugh was later to fight in Spain as part of a free company - an original freelancer. It is testament to his influence and power that he was in command of the rear guard at the battle of Najera in April 1367 and was later sent by Edward, the Black Prince as an emissary to Aragon.

He evaded capture after the English defeat by de Guesclin at Pontvallain in 1370 and was miraculously among just eight survivors following a disastrous storm at sea when over a thousand men and twenty vessels were lost in the channel in 1379.

Although Calveley married Constanza, an Aragonese princess, in the 1370s, the marriage appears not to have been happy and the couple appear to have separated. Sir Hugh died without issue in April, 1394.

An original print of Sir Hugh Calveley

Sir Hugh was the inspiration behind one of my own linocut prints, featuring him in his ceremonial helmet charging on horseback.

The print, 12" x 12" was produced using four different colour plates and printed on a Victorian iron Albion press in Essex.

Only a small number of these images has been produced; you can purchase one, signed and numbered, for your home here.

Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker


Further information

  • Historic England listing for Bunbury here

  • Sir Hugh Calveley history of Parliament page here


About the author

Michael Smith holds a BA (Hons) in History and an MA in Medieval Literatures and Languages from the University of York. Currently a PhD research student working on medieval romances, he is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.

His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018, followed by a translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure in 2021. He is currently crowdfunding an illustrated translation of William and the Werewolf (William of Palerne), a romance written in ca. 1350 for the English magnate Humphrey de Bohun. You can support this book (jacket shown above) and have your name printed in the back as a named patron here


Slide Show depicting St Boniface Church, Bunbury and the monument to Sir Hugh Calveley

Please click on the arrows to navigate from slide to slide.


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