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Featured Object: Viscera Casket

Posted:
24 February 2015
Posted By:
Susan Harrison
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
kirkham priory

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the charter of freedoms that brought an end to the unlimited power of the monarch and lead towards the establishing of the first English Parliament. And so, for this month’s featured object we have chosen something which is connected to this important historical event. Curator Susan Harrison uncovers more

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In 1931, The Ministry of Works uncovered a viscera casket at Kirkham Priory, the once magnificent presbytery built in the 13th century that became the burial chamber of many of the de Ros Lords of Helmsley Castle, descended from Robert de Ros who was one of the barons who enforced the Magna Carta. The viscera, or internal organs, were buried in separate caskets and at different locations to the rest of the body during this time as a fashionable practice believed to help ensure a greater number of prayers to ease the soul’s passage through purgatory. It began among the elite of medieval Europe with the practice of removing and embalming the viscera for a practical need, to preserve a body for transport home from afar.

Viscera Casket uncovered at Kirkham Priory in 1931

Viscera Casket uncovered at Kirkham Priory in 1931

Few heart burial caskets have been discovered, many were originally buried. Some such as this one from Kirkham were probably designed to be seen above ground.  This casket is made of a finely dressed limestone with a carefully chamfered lid.  It is likely that it was painted and inscribed with the name of the deceased, and sealed to preserve the remains.  It would be expected that it would be placed at or near an altar in the presbytery, which makes its place of discovery more curious as it was found near the Prior’s Lodging.

Division of the body and burial in such esteemed places was an expensive task. Not only was there the task of ablating the organs from the body and preserving them but the cost of commissioning caskets and a tomb, as well as the necessary building work to install them.  Heart burials were therefore a marker of social distinction.

The burial of a founder in a monastery often created a bond between that place and successive generations.  The founding patron of Kirkham Priory in 1122 was Walter Espec. He had also founded Helmsley Castle and went on to found Rievaulx Abbey in 1131.  By descent through marriage his estates passed to the de Ros family who continued patronage of both Rievaulx Abbey and Kirkham Priory.  Further family patronage is evident from the de Ros and Espec coats of arms carved in stone on the impressive gatehouse façade erected in the late 13th century.

This leads us to the inevitable question of whose remains this casket held?  One possible candidate is that of Robert de Ros, Lord of Helmsley, one of the barons chosen to enforce the Magna Carta in 1215.  He died in 1226 and his tomb effigy is at Temple Church, London.  Whoever it was, it's clear that they were important, wealthy and held Kirkham Priory in high esteem.

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  • About the Author

    Susan Harrison
    Susan is Collections Curator at English Heritage, and cares for the collections at Helmsley Archaeological Store.

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