At the heart of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, standing close to the banks of the River Ribble and overlooking Pendle Hill, is the church of All Hallows, Great Mitton. Within its walls is a remarkable collection of effigy graves, dating from the 16th to early 18th Centuries, all commemorating members of a local family whose fates were intertwined with some of the major political and religious upheavals of those centuries. Their elaborate graves also reflect the changing fashions both in clothing and in funerary architecture from the Tudor period through to the Stuart and early Georgian periods.
All Hallows is a very old church – its first incumbent was recorded in 1103, and the earliest parts of its surviving fabric date from about 1270. A medieval stone cross, a rare sight today, stands in its churchyard. Both its west- and east-facing faces have images of the crucified Christ. Although these crosses were typically destroyed in the iconoclasm that followed the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, this one is a rare survivor. The cross head was discovered near the church in 1801, and was erected in the churchyard on a new base in 1897.
Clearly, whoever had been tasked with the job of demolishing the cross could not bring themselves to destroy the cross head with its images of Christ. Many of those who resisted the Protestant Reformation resided in this part of the world – many of the Catholic Church’s martyrs were Lancastrians, and a great many old houses in the area contain a hidden ‘priest hole’ where Catholic priests could be hidden if government agents paid a visit.
The church’s interior benefitted from the plundering of dissolved monastic sites after the Reformation – the beautiful 15th Century wooden screen at the front of the church came from nearby Sawley Abbey.
Behind the screens, to the left of the main altar, is a small chapel that was added to the church in 1594 by Sir Richard Shireburn, head of the prominent local family the Shireburns, of nearby Stonyhurst Hall (now Stonyhurst College, an independent school). Such private chapels set aside for the burial of members of a wealthy family are not unusual in England; rather like a grave site adorned with an impressive memorial or mausoleum, a private chapel showed off a family’s wealth and prestige.
The Shireburn family – sometimes spelled Shireburne, Shireborn or Sherborn – lived at Stonyhurst Hall, a mile or two from the church at Great Mitton. They were a wealthy family, descended from the first Norman nobles to live in the area in the 11th Century, and had blood links to many of the area’s other powerful families, such as the de Lacys, the Bayleys, the de Mittons, the Towneleys and the Stanleys. The Stonyhurst estate was in existence from at least as early as the 1200s, and successive generations of the Shireburns added to Stonyhurst Hall and its grounds.
Sir Richard was the first Shireburn to be buried in the new chapel after his death, shortly after the new chapel was completed. He is buried alongside his wife Maud (named as Isabella in some records), and the pair’s grave is marked by an elaborate alabaster effigy tomb. Sir Richard had been knighted in 1544 for his military service in Scotland, while he was still in his early twenties. He was later a Member of Parliament (representing Preston twice, and Liverpool once) and a justice of the peace, and was close to the Earls of Derby, one of the most powerful families in the north-west of England. Richard and Maud’s tomb is beautifully carved, and decorated with heraldic images that reflect their noble ancestry.
Sir Richard’s son was also called Richard (it seems that at least one son in every generation of Shireburns at this time was called Richard). This Richard’s memorial is not an effigy, but a large plaque – made from alabaster, like his parents’ effigies – on the wall depicting Sir Richard junior (who died in 1629) and his wife Catherine, kneeling in prayer, plus smaller images of their children. Two of the children are pictured in a bed, suggesting that they died in infancy. All of the figures are wearing fashions typical of the early Stuart period, and the plaque itself is of an early 17th Century style commonly found in churches across England.
Beneath the alabaster plaque remembering the younger Sir Richard and his family are four stunning marble effigies, all dedicated to family members who lived in the turbulent second half of the 17th Century. All of these monuments date from 1694, although some of the people they commemorate died many years before this. The effigies, which are of a very high quality, were carved by William Stanton of Holborn, and cost the Shireburn family £253. All three of the men commemorated by the effigies were named Richard Shireburn – they represent three generations of the family and the epitaphs on the tombs give an insight into their political views and allegiances.
The first of these Richards, who died in 1668, was the son of the couple depicted on the wall plaque. This Richard was head of the Shireburn family in the turbulent middle years of the 17th Century, when civil war tore apart England, Scotland and Ireland. The detailed epitaph beneath his effigy notes the achievements of his ancestors, and highlights his relation to the powerful Stanley family through his mother’s side. Richard’s epitaph also proudly states which side of the English Civil War he stood on: “He was an Eminent Sufferer for his Loyal Fidelity to KING CHARLES I of Ever Blessed Memory.”
The Royalist Richard’s son was also named Richard, and like his father he suffered for the faction he supported. In 1688, the Catholic king James II, who had succeeded his brother Charles II three years earlier, relinquished the crown to his daughter’s husband William of Orange in an event now described as the Glorious Revolution. However, the exiled James still had many supporters – known as Jacobites – and it was only in 1745 that the Jacobite cause was finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Richard Shireburn was a proud Catholic and Jacobite – the epitaph on his tomb describes how he died in Manchester in 1689 “in Prison for Loyalty to his Sovereign.” His epitaph also describes some of the charitable work he carried out in the local area, including the foundation of almshouses in the nearby village of Hurst Green, and a number of yearly gifts given to various townships around Lancashire. His effigy lies next to the effigy of his wife Isabel – it was Isabel who commissioned the four marble effigies in the chapel before her own death in 1693.
The younger Richard Shireburn did not long outlive the father who had died in prison. He died childless in 1690, aged only 37 and the final effigy is a memorial to him.
Because Richard had died without issue, his younger brother Nicholas became the head of the Shireburn family. Nicholas was created a baronet in 1696, becoming Sir Nicholas Shireburn. Nicholas had two children; a daughter, Maria (sometimes referred to as Mary) and a son, Richard Francis. Tragically, Richard Francis died in 1707 when he was only nine years old – meaning that his father was the first and last Shireburn baronet. An elaborate monument was commissioned, with its centrepiece a mourning figure perhaps intended to represent the boy’s mother, Catherine.
More than any of the other memorials in the Shireburn chapel, this monument really emphasises the sense of grief that must have been felt following the death of young Richard Francis. As well as the woman mourning over a grave in the centre of the monument, other carved figures are openly weeping, while many other features of the memorial depict symbols of death: scythes, an hourglass, and an elaborately-carved skull.
The last of the Shireburns was the daughter of Sir Nicholas Shireburn, Maria. When she was 16, Maria – the wealthy sole heiress of her father’s estate – married Thomas Howard, the 8th Duke of Norfolk. Like her Shireburn relatives, Maria was staunchly Catholic and sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. Her husband shared some of Maria’s Jacobite sympathies and was detained in 1722, suspected of involvement in a Jacobite plot, but despite Maria’s efforts to secure their release, their marriage soured and they separated without any children.
It was Maria who commissioned the memorial tablet to her parents Nicholas and Katherine, its inscription paying a warm tribute to “the best of Fathers and Mothers.” Maria requested to be buried in her parents’ grave after her own death.
It was Maria who also commissioned the last of the major memorials in the chapel, to the superbly-named Peregrine Widdrington. Peregrine and his brother William were cousins of the Shireburns (they were relations of Sir Nicholas’ wife Catherine), and were also staunch supporters of the Jacobite cause. Peregrine and William were captured in 1715, following the Battle of Preston where the Jacobite forces had been defeated. William Widdrington was sentenced to death after being convicted high treason for his part in the Jacobite uprising, but this sentence was later commuted. William was stripped of his peerage and estates. Peregrine was also imprisoned and, according to the epitaph on his monument, “lost his Fortune with his Health by a long confinement in Prison.” It is believed that Peregrine and Maria Shireburn may have married in secret some time after the death of Thomas Howard in 1732. The warmth evident in his epitaph, which may have been written by Maria herself, points to a genuine affection between the two: he is described as being “so amiable a disposition and so ingaging that he was Belov’d and esteem’d by all who had the honour and happiness of his Acquaintance.”
Maria Shireburn died in 1754, and as she had no children of her own, the Shireburn estate passed to the descendants of her father’s sister, the Weld family. It was the Welds who offered Stonyhurst to the Jesuit order for their school when they were forced to leave their previous home in Liège. While based in continental Europe the school had provided an education for English Catholic boys who were at that time unable to receive a Catholic education in their own country. Thomas Weld, who donated Stonyhurst to the Jesuits, had been a pupil at this school when he was growing up. The school is still in existence today.
Although the Shireburn name died out, along with the Baronetcy, when Sir Nicholas Shireburn died in 1717, the name is still a familiar one to present-day residents of the Ribble Valley. The almshouses in Hurst Green, first set up by one of the numerous Richard Shireburns, are not original 17th Century buildings, but still retain their original purpose. Also in Hurst Green is the Shireburn Arms pub, an establishment most famously frequented by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien when he came to visit one of his sons, who worked at Stonyhurst College.
The Shireburn chapel at All Hallows offers the visitor a wonderful glimpse into several generations of a single family: their faith, their politics, their achievements, their relatives, and their sorrows. To see so many funerary monuments of such a high quality is always a real treat, but the detailed epitaphs left behind by the Shireburns add an extra richness to the chapel and the many stories that it preserves.
References and further reading
Church of All Hallows – List Entry, Historic England
Cross 15 metres south of chancel, Church of All Hallows – List Entry, Historic England
Churchyard Calvary Cross, Great Mitton, Lancashire, The Journal of Antiquities, 6th July 2017
Matthew Byrne – Great Churches of the Northwest, Frances Lincoln, 2008
Peter J Hills – “The Widdringtons: two Yorkshire Memorials to two Northumbrian Jacobite Brothers,” The Fifteen: Journal of the Northumbrian Jacobite Society, No 9, February 2009
SHERBORN, Sir Richard, History of Parliament Online