KEVIN GORDON - How to read a funeral hatchment

The Chalvington funeral hatchment
The Chalvington funeral hatchment

There are well over 100 funeral hatchments in Sussex churches although they are often overlooked – to be honest the one in Chalvington Church is so big you cannot really miss it as it takes up most of the west end of the nave wall.

A funeral hatchment is a lozenge (diamond) shaped board showing a coat of arms.

They are usually for a member of the gentry although they were occasionally used for the funeral of a member of the local clergy.

There is sometimes a ‘momento mori’ in the form of a skull at the top or a cherub with a pair of wings representing the soul of the deceased fluttering up to heaven.

At the base of the hatchment, the family motto would be shown within a scroll or the word Resurgam meaning ‘I will rise again’.

If there was a skull at the very bottom of the hatchment, it could indicate that the deceased had no children and his death was the ‘end of the line’.

Members of the royal family would have a crown at the top of the hatchment – at Glynde Church a splendid hatchment is topped with a baron’s crown. I do like Glynde Church - it is one of the only churches in the country to be decorated with wallpaper although when I mentioned this to a lady in the church she corrected me by saying it wasn’t wallpaper it was ‘decorated hessian wall-hanging’.

The funeral hatchment would be either painted on a board or onto canvas stretched over a frame after the death of a local dignitary, usually the local landowner.

The board would be put on the lead vehicle of the funeral procession, this would sometimes be a bier, a wheeled cart carrying the coffin of the deceased.

After the funeral, the hatchment would be taken back to the family home where it would be placed above the front door to show that the house was in mourning.

This would often be for a year, by which time the board would be quite badly weathered and so disposed of.

In December 1852, the funeral hatchment for the Duke of Wellington was placed above the door of his home, Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner.

One correspondent to the Times in 1949 recalls seeing a funeral hatchment above the door of a house in Eaton Square in 1925 and after the death of the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1944, a funeral hatchment was placed over the main gate to the college.

Sometimes, if a funeral hatchment survived, it would be taken back to the church to be displayed as a memorial.

Churches can have several hatchments for different members of the family.

At St Mary’s Church in Eastbourne there are three from the Cavendish family and there are some rather splendid ones in Winchester Church.

Now the interesting thing is that a lot can be read from carefully looking at a hatchment.

If a hatchment has just one coat of arms on a solid black background, it means it was for a bachelor who never married.

But hatchments tend to be split down the middle showing the coat of arms for the husband on the left and the wife on the right.

If the background of the lefthand side is black and the righthand side is white, it means that the wife outlived her husband.

If the righthand side is black and the left is white it means that the wife died before the husband.

The hatchment at Chalvington shows two coats of arms on the right the top one, with a castle and a motto Plus Ultra meaning ‘There is more on the other side’ has a black background showing that she died before her husband remarried.

So when you are next in a church, look out for a funeral hatchment.

By the way you should not mistake a funeral hatchment for the Royal Coat-of-Arms which can look very similar but which are square and show the monarch’s coat of arms.