Although considerably rebuilt in the 16th Century and then further developed in the 19th Century, St Wilfred’s Church at Grappenhall, Cheshire, boasts origins at least to the twelfth century. Inside, as well as an early sandstone font (c. 1120), and the vestigial remnants of a Norman corbel table, the church also contains a remarkable effigy of a thirteenth century knight, identified as Sir William Boydell.
The William Boydell effigy at Grappenhall, Cheshire - a description
The effigy, carved from sandstone, shows a knight dressed in chain mail bearing a shield on his left arm and with his right arm crossing his body as if to draw his sword. His surcoat bears the arms of three mullets pierced (stars with holes in them) on a fess.
The knight’s legs, which are crossed, bear armour of metal strips bound onto the legs with straps. Poleyns are visible before the upper leg, bearing the same armour as the lower, continues under the surcoat.
The knight’s head rests on what resembles a pointed bascinet (when viewed from above); his feet upon what may be a dog.
The knight is identified as William Boydell, Willielmus Boydel, who died in 1277 at the age of c. 47. Suggestions made by Burns (see reference below, p. 108) that crossed legs on such sculptures were representative of a knight having undertaken a crusade have now largely been discounted by scholars.
The effigy of Sir William Boydell - evidence of restoration
Although the effigy appears to be complete, it shows evidence of being restored. The head and right arm of the knight are in a different colour to the rest of the effigy, possibly having been stained; it is known that the effigy was subject to restoration in the 1870s.
A casual glance at reveals a face which is unusual; typically, chain mail would cover the chin of a knight as well as the rest of his head.
Here, the face seems stylistically more akin to nineteenth century taste than to that of the thirteenth. An examination of the side of the head reveals a distinct line, suggesting the original has been removed and replaced with what now survives. The photograph shows the join.
The knight’s sword arm also suggests restoration; the pommel of the sword seems exaggerated (a ‘crusader’ cross) and is deformed, bending downwards towards the body and out of alignment with the scabbard.
The rest of the effigy appears to be original; the body and legs have a remarkable definition, suggesting they have spent most of their life under cover.
Cheshire choice - how did the effigy survive?
A nineteenth century text, The Architectural Antiquities of the Parish Church of St Wilfrid, Grappenhall, Co Chester by Thomas Burns, explains that the church was subject to considerable rebuilding in both the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It is likely that the effigy originally resided in the Boydell Chantry, a small annex on the south wall. This chantry, which once extended from the south wall was absorbed within the church proper when it became an aisled church in the sixteenth century. Above the arches of the south aisle, on the southern side, can be seen the Norman corbel table of the original outer wall of the church.
The church appears to have been extended in the first half of the sixteenth century. One of the pillars in the south aisle bears the date 1539, a period roughly contemporary with the dissolution of the chantries under Henry VIII.
The construction of the south aisle at this time and the political fervour of those days almost certainly led to the destruction of a distinct side chantry at the east end of the nave, incorporating its south and east walls into the new aisle.
It is known that during the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, great destruction was wrought to church sculpture across England; further destruction was wrought under the Commonwealth. Not only were religious icons subject to brutality, family tombs were also defaced.
An example of such defacement can be seen at the otherwise undamaged effigy of Edmund de Thwing (c. 1344) at Sheriff Hutton in in the North Riding.
The Boydell monument may have been deliberately damaged in the same way, in this case losing its face and right arm. The restorer has made sympathetic repairs, suggesting that either he was working from the substantial remains of the original or he was working from his own knowledge of armour in this period.
Although the original distinctive Boydell chantry chapel has disappeared, losing its east and west walls, that section of what would have been its southern wall (facing the graveyard and road) may be original. The window in this wall has been re-set with much of the chantry’s original fourteenth century glass, today one of the jewels of the church and a window of national significance.
Circumstances for the restoration
Both political events and significant rebuilding works define the context for condition of the Boydell effigy prior to its restoration. But when and why was it restored?
Burns tells us “in speaking of the Boydell Chapel, it will be well to make some remarks on the monumental effigy was has lately been restored, and removed from Warrington museum to the north side of the chancel”.
What is not clear from the remark is whether the Museum itself was responsible for the restoration. Warrington Museum itself began in the 1850s, with further development in the 1870s when, perhaps, the effigy was returned to the church as the works were being undertaken (?)
The Historic England listing for the church tells us that the effigy was “found in churchyard and placed in [the] church 1874, [having been] restored”. However, bearing in mind the effigy’s delicate sandstone construction, the crispness of the cutting on what survives of the original suggests either that it was not outdoors for long or that the bulk of it was protected from the elements.
We also learn from Burns (p. 96) that the twelfth century font “was dug up from a depth of between three and four feet below the floor of the nave, and near the second pier from the west” when the church was restored in 1873.
This suggests that at a point long before the nineteenth century, much of the church’s old fabric was deemed out of date.
The physical and circumstantial evidence appears to suggest that the effigy spent most of its life within the church, was probably defaced in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries and then lay in silence as all around it the church was gradually expanded and the Boydell chantry incorporated into the south aisle.
If the effigy was removed to the churchyard at some point, the condition of what survives suggest such exposure was short term. It may have been placed outside as a consequence of renovation works, possibly sometime between the addition of the nave’s clerestory roof in the 1830s and the final restoration of the church in the 1870s.
Sir William Boydell today
Although little survives of Boydell’s original chantry chapel, St Wilfrid’s church, Grappenhall – whether by accident or design – has nonetheless has been resolute in helping preserving the memory of the Boydells.
Restored and now residing in the north of the chancel by the altar, William Boydell’s effigy remains to inspire us many centuries on. Although it now lies opposite the original chantry chapel established in his memory, that chapel is still a defined part of the church; we can still enjoy its fabulous glass and contemplate the family who are commemorated here.
In one small footnote, as we walk into St Wilfred’s today, we also pass through a much-restored fourteenth century doorway. It is thought this may have been an attempt to save money during the works in the sixteenth century and may have been the original external entry to the Boydell chapel, reused as the main church doorway when the walls of the chapel were taken down.
As we enter St Wilfred's Church to see Sir William Boydell in Grappenhall today, we pass beneath the stones which the Boydell family once called their own. We visit our own Boydell chapel to remember the knight it once commemorated, now held safely and secure in a beautiful Cheshire sandstone church.
About the Author, Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a translator and illustrator of medieval literature. His books, including a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are available through all the usual outlets.
Signed and personally dedicated hardbound copies of the book, as well as limited copies of the book's original illustrations and other linocut prints are available directly from Mythical Britain.
More information about St Wilfred's Church, Grappenhall
For details of the corbel frieze and the font at St Wilfred's Church Grappenhall, Cheshire, see the entry in The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland - here
For the Historic England official list entry for St Wilfred's church, please click here.