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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: The Chantry Tomb AKA The Watching Loft

Written by Robin Gibbons, posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

  At the east end of the Cathedral, between the Latin and Lady Chapel is a curious wooden structure on top of a stone tomb. It may remind you of a tiny medieval church, there’s nothing like it anywhere else, it is certainly one of our curiosities, but what is it? Why is it there?

The watching loft  Often called the ‘watching-loft’ because people thought it had something to do with clergy being on ‘guard’ over the shrine of St Frideswide, making sure nobody stole the pilgrims offerings or even the bones of the saint herself!

  However good research suggests that is rather fanciful for several reasons.

  Let’s start by looking at it, the stone tomb below and the oak structure above. Close your eyes and imagine it totally built in stone; suddenly you realise that it is a single object, with three layers, an altar tomb, a canopy above it with niches all round and the wooden structure also with niches and carvings. The style is completely mid 15th c ‘gothic’ except for the door which is 17th century.

  We see something found in many medieval churches and cathedrals, a tomb with a ‘chantry chapel’ directly above. A ‘chantry’ is a kind of holy ‘trust fund’ to ensure that a priest said mass and prayers for the people and family whose tomb it was, to ensure that they got into heaven. This stopped at the Reformation but the objects remained. For us the big question is, whose tomb was it, and why was the top half made in wood?

  Luckily we have some answers, the late Fr Jerome Bertram of the Oxford Oratory in St Giles wrote a scholarly article setting out theories for the structure. (This is found in ‘Oxonienis, The Tomb Beneath the Loft, 1998). Bertram was an expert in heraldry and medieval funeral brasses, portraits of the dead made out of latten or brass that were engraved and then set into a stone slab. Many of these were removed over time; all that is left is an outline and slight recess where the brass once was. If you look inside you can see two outlines, a lady with a headdress and another, male in a long robe, with three heraldic shields, so obviously very important people. But only one is buried there, for in the 19th century the tomb was opened and the bones of one person, a lady, 5’6” were found. What happened?

 Fortunately Dr Bertram’s research actually gives us a family name, Danvers, one of whom, Sir Robert, was a High Court Judge. This family had extensive lands and connections with many families in Oxfordshire. Sir Robert’s first wife Agnes died in 1447 and was buried in St Bartholomew the Less, Smithfield. He then married Katherine, a widow, who came from a good family in Great Hasley in Oxfordshire. She died in 1462, and after a lot of detailed investigation the conclusion reached was that “…the balance of probability must therefore be that the brass figures on the tomb in Christ Church commemorated Sir Robert Danvers and his wife Katherine, made soon after her death in 1462”.

  The explanation for one body and the wooden structure seems to have been that the memory of Katherine faded. Robert, instead of being buried with her, as the brass matrix suggests, asked to be interred with Agnes. Since her three children were the heirs, the possibility is that they didn’t want to spend a huge amount on a tomb for their stepmother! So instead of stone, wood was used. We cannot be certain, but everything points in this direction, and it adds a touch of human pathos to the monument.

Watching loft interior  What else can we say? The idea the top part was a watching chamber can be disputed, the shrine of St Frideswide was probably where the Montacute Tomb now stands in the next bay down. If that is so, it is impossible to look out of that side, the steep staircase makes a substantial gap and the wooden paneling is too high for anybody to comfortably watch out of either side. It is also unlike any other medieval watching chamber.

  It has been called the shrine, but history tells us that Frideswide’s shrine was definitely another structure, though it is possible that vessels and vestments for Mass and other precious objects from the shrine could have been stored inside.

  A singing loft is a strong possibility, the remains of three seats (sedilia) for ministers cut into the tomb on the Latin Chapel side suggest sung Masses were celebrated both here and in the Lady chapel, so a small band of singers up above, would have been very useful for the singing.

  Was it a chapel? I think we can say yes, the stairs are very worn suggesting lots of use and into the pillar on the east wall is a groove suggesting an altar was fixed up there. The whole architecture of the wooden framework is so like a chapel even to the wooden ceiling.

  It’s one of our mysterious objects, a tomb, a loft chapel, a storage space and a singing gallery, but not really a watching loft, with the bones of lady, alone without her husband!  



About the Author

Robin Gibbons is a chaplain for the Eastern Catholic Community of Melkites in the UK. He was a Benedictine Monk, artist and University Academic specialising in Liturgy and the Arts, latterly Director of Studies for Theology & RS at the Continuing Education Department Oxford. He is our Catholic Honorary Ecumenical Canon at the Cathedral.