arts and design

Desecrated and hidden for centuries, priest's effigy is restored to glory


His stone face was smashed in by Henry VIII’s soldiers during the Reformation. His alabaster hands, once clasped in prayer, were cut off and the angels who cradled his head were decapitated. Afterwards, his shattered form lay hidden for centuries behind an old pipe organ, unseen, forgotten and enveloped in dirt.

Now, in a find that conservators have described as “exciting beyond our expectations”, this desecrated effigy – believed to be of a local priest, John de Belton – is being unveiled for the first time in a medieval church in Derbyshire.

The newly discovered monument dates back to 1350, making it the earliest alabaster effigy of a priest that is known to exist in the UK. It also has more medieval paint on it than any other effigy of the era, including significant traces of gold, as well as exotic minerals such as cinnabar and azurite.

“He would have been a very bright, blingy type of statue when he was first made – so far, the conservators have found dark red, bright blue, black and green paint as well as gold,” said Anne Heathcote, the church warden of St Wilfrid’s in Barrow-upon-Trent, who made the discovery. “He is wearing priest’s robes, which have been very finely sculpted by someone who was obviously a master sculptor.”

While serving the parish in 1348, De Belton is thought to have lost his life to the Black Death. “We have two Black Death pits in the churchyard and because it’s a Knights Hospitaller church, we think that the Hospitallers looked after plague victims and buried them. That was part of their job.”

St Wilfrid’s church by night.
St Wilfrid’s church by night. Photograph: Ian Hodgkinson/PictureIt Media

After the Reformation, the effigy was hidden behind box pews and then, in the 18th century, a pipe organ. Heathcote is one of the few people who ever knew of its existence: “I’ve known it was there forever – since I was three or four years old. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were church wardens before me, and I used to climb behind the church organ as a child. I could see there was a statue of some sort there, but I didn’t take much notice of it – I didn’t know what it was.”

Then out of the blue, four years ago, she received a phone call from the Church Monuments Society. “They said: we know from a Victorian book that recorded monuments in churches, that you’ve got an effigy of a priest in there.” She confirmed this was the case and sent them a photo of the statue by email. “It was filthy but I immediately got an email pinged back, full of excitement, saying: this looks like a very important effigy. I was dumbfounded.”

After managing to raise £10,000 to clean, analyse and preserve the statue, she is finally ready to unveil it to the rest of the village this week – but is unable to open the church, for fear that doing so would spread Covid-19.

Considering that De Belton may have been infected by the Black Death in the course of his duties, she finds it “very ironic that we’ve put him back there in full view, as good as we can get him, in the same year we’ve got another pandemic.”

His death, and his effigy, could potentially be seen as a warning to villagers: “Don’t mess with the plague.”

But she also believes the discovery of the effigy carries a message of hope: that this pandemic, too, will be over one day. “Quite a few people in our village have NHS rainbows in their windows that say: don’t forget storms pass. And it’s true, they do. And when they do – when this pandemic does – we shall celebrate with a vengeance in the church.”



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