Blanche Mortimer was born around 1316 as the youngest child of Sir Roger Mortimer, an infamous medieval nobleman. In 1347 she died, her passing marked by what is now regarded as one of the most beautiful memorials in a medieval English church.
So well-made is this memorial, at St Bartholomew’s Church at Much Marcle, Herefordshire, that it has only now received its first major refurbishment.
To the surprise of conservator Michael Eastham, they found Blanche’s remains concealed within the monument.
Who Was Blanche Mortimer?
Who was Blanche Mortimer? Her husband Peter Grandison built this memorial, but he is not buried in the same church. We know her memorial as the Grandison Memorial, yet Blanche has gone down in history by her father’s name, not her husband’s. Historical record tells us very little about the Grandisons, but the splendour of her memorial and the stunning beauty of her stone effigy suggest that she was greatly loved.
Blanche’s effigy seems very white and virginal to observers today, but historians note that it would have been brightly painted, in keeping with the lifelike carving of her face and the realistic draping of her gown. “It’s not only the masonry we’re dealing with,” said Richard Morriss, Hereford Cathedral archaeologist, “it’s the paint on the masonry as well.”
Would you like to see more articles like this?
Support This Expert’s Articles, This Category of Articles, or the Site in General Here.
Just put your preference in the “I Would Like to Support” Box after you Click to Donate Below:
“[Over time] Blanche had been almost completely cleaned, moreso than the rest of the monument. There are just small traces of paint in edges and corners,” says art historian Bianca Madden. “Six hundred and fifty years ago it would have been highly decorative.”
Heraldic Badges of Power
“There’s something about it that suggests wealth and power.” Morris says of the monument.
This monument oozes a sense of wealth and power that is much greater than the effect of superb craftmanship or expensive colour. Heraldic shields, badges of power, emblazon the monument.
The use of insignia as both informative and symbolic of power was central to maintaining influence in the medieval era. Grandison’s use of shields on his wife’s tomb is, in essence, a type of propaganda.
The shields of Blanche’s provenance are excessive here; the Mortimer blue and gold occurs eighteen times, many more than her husband’s crest, although her father’s execution as a traitor happened a few years before her death. No wonder she is still known as Blanche Mortimer.
Is this mean to be emblematic of her family’s combined remaining wealth and influence? Or do the symbols, in some way pay, homage to the one-time most powerful man in England, Roger Mortimer V? Certainly Peter Grandison’s own more impressive monument in Hereford Cathedral commemorating his demise in 1358 is exclusively embellished with his own family colours.
Daughter of a Traitor
Blanche was the eleventh and youngest child of Roger Mortimer V, Earl of March. Her birth year was probably 1316 and records show her marriage to local Marcher Baron Peter Grandison happened by 1330. She and Peter had a son, Otto, but the baronial records do not show him as an adult.
The Mortimer family home was at Wigmore just about two miles from Blanche’s grave, but her father spent a lot of time away governing his estates in Ireland. Her parents married in their teens and their first child was born in 1302 when her father was fifteen years old. It seems probable that Blanche didn’t really know Roger Mortimer well.
In 1322 Blanche’s father was imprisoned in the Tower and sentenced to death. He escaped the following year and lived abroad until 1326, becoming the lover of Queen Isabella and complicit in the plot to depose her husband, King Edward II.
Roger became seduced by the power of his favoured position at court and eventually offended so many of his peers that the teenage Edward III plotted with the peers to have him tried and executed in 1330.
A Medieval Monument Full of Surprises
Michael Eastham, conservator of the Grandison Monument, has worked on many such stone memorials embedded in the walls of medieval churches, but this is the first time he has discovered a body enclosed in one. “Over the years it suffered from decay caused by moisture,” he stated, “there are no damp proof membranes. This monument is integral to the wall.”
Archdeacon Paddy Benson explained, “The effigy was removed; the panels were removed and then, to everybody’s astonishment, the lead coffin was revealed. The coffin would normally be below ground level and then an empty box above it in order to display the effigy.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever come across one where it’s been mounted inside the tomb chest.” Michael Eastham said. “A number of clues point to the fact that it is Blanche Mortimer. First is that the style of the coffin is of the right period. It’s also the fact that she wasn’t buried underground, she’s buried in the North wall of this church.”
Why Was Blanche Mortimer’s Body Inside Her Monument?
The “coffin” actually consists of lead sheets wrapped around the remains. It needed some patching, but first the archaeologists used an endoscope to look inside. The team reburied the body in the same grave, as the archaeologists found nothing of great significance.
Experts agree that the body in the Grandison Monument is Blanche Mortimer, and she has now been laid to rest in a reinforced space that will keep her secure, possibly for another seven hundred years. But nobody seems able to explain why she was not buried more conventionally under the floor. We can only speculate what influence the turbulent politics of the time and the Welsh Border territories may have had on this decision.