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The Two Burials of Sir Giles

During the medieval era it was not such a strange idea for a noble person to be buried in several different places upon their death, so today here's a piece about two very different old churches in the south-west of Mercia.

Little Malvern Priory, as it is known today, was once the centrepiece of a Benedictine monastery nestled at the foot of the Malvern hills. Founded in 1171, the priory was originally dedicated to St Giles and it is thought that a much older pagan site may have existed there as there was once a substantial spring in the grounds. With the cliffs of Black Hill on one side and miles of forest on the other, there was little to support the monastery other than it's fish ponds so it is suspected that the priory made it's profit from pilgrims “taking the waters” of this holy spring. St Giles is the patron of the crippled and the disabled so this may be why the church was dedicated to him, as a draw for those seeking respite from their pain.

The priory was revamped in 1483 at great expense but just fifty years later it was to no avail as it was dissolved by Henry VIII along with most other monasteries in England. Strangely, a report from that time claims the priory was on the verge of collapse anyway with just six monks left and the church literally falling down. It is suspected that the source of the spring, and their income, was diverted leading to it's dilapidation. It is here that the fate of one of it's most legendary occupants becomes a mystery.

Sir Giles de Berkeley was a knight during the reigns of Henry Plantagenet and Richard “the Lionheart” I. A son of one of the most powerful families in England at the time, he went with Richard on the Third Crusade and fought in the Siege of Acre, sustaining some serious wounds. After returning home with the rest of Richard's dejected army his injuries plagued him, rendering him a wreck with barely a couple of years of life left in him. Sir Giles travelled to the priory of his namesake St Giles at Little Malvern to bathe in it's mineral rich waters, in an attempt to alleviate the pain he was enduring, and as his end loomed he began to donate and bequeath substantial sums to the monastery. He died there in 1295 at the age of 54 and was interred in a tomb at St Giles – mostly.

The knight's home estate was at the village of Coberley near Cheltenham and it was here that his heart lay – literally. By another coincidence the church here was also dedicated to St Giles, and as the main benefactor Sir Giles should have had pride of place upon his death. Instead, his heart was removed from his body and sent from Malvern to Coberley where it was interred in the south side of the sanctuary. Not only that, but his warhorse Lombard was allowed to be buried in the yard directly in line with his master's heart. His beloved steed served him bravely during the Crusade and as a mark of his elite status was allowed to lie in consecrated ground. This is an extremely rare event and almost harks back to pre Christian warrior burials, where high status nobles and chieftains were buried with their mounts.

So a heart and horse burial at St Giles is odd enough but the Berkeleys remained a powerful presence at Coberley. Giles's son Thomas became a renowned knight and fought alongside the victorious Edward III at the Battle of Crecy, he and his wife are buried – all of them – in a fine tomb with life sized effigies of them wearing outifits accurate for the time, with Sir Thomas in the armour he wore at Crecy. Next to them is a tiny effigy of a little girl in similar attire to Joan, Thomas's wife, and this is thought to be one of their daughters. Despite Lady Joan being entombed next to her husband, she actually outlived him and remarried, giving birth to three sons. One of them, weirdly, was Richard “Dick” Whittington, the legendary “Thrice Lord Mayor of London Town” and subject of a thousand Christmas pantomimes. I doubt that the Lady Joan had Barry from Eastenders in mind when wondering how her famous son would be commemorated!

The whereabouts of the body of Sir Giles de Berkeley today is unknown, as the priory collapsed a lot of it's features were lost but he could be somewhere in it's foundations. The head of a knight's effigy was found during restoration work but the arms the broken body was bearing did not quite match up to the Berkeley design. They are not that dissimilar from the Gifford family that experts deduced him to be bearing though, so the Victorians could have got it wrong. A visit to Little Malvern priory is highly recommended in a few weeks as it is an absolutely unique little church now absolutely packed with history and interesting features, as well as being absolutely charming. Look out for theornate floor tiles from the 1400s. The heart tomb is there for all to see at Coberley along with a stone marking the resting place of Lombard, but please observe decorum when visiting as you have to enter through a private arch and courtyard.

Little Malvern Priory

Floor tiles dating to the 1400s in Little Malvern Priory

St Giles Church at Coberley

The tomb of the heart of Sir Giles de Berkeley

Closer view of the heart tomb

The grave of the warhorse Lombard

Memorial to Lombard

Tomb effigies of the Berkeley family

Sir Thomas and Joan Berkeley, showing the classic crossed legs pose that causes so many arguments among history fans

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