The Pre-Reformation Vestments of Sixhills

In the midst of the gently rolling chalk hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds in eastern England, is the Catholic church of the Holy Rood in Market Rasen. The church was built in 1867 on the site of a church first founded in 1824, which was in turn a successor to a number of smaller private chapels in isolated parts of the Lincolnshire Wolds that had operated in penal times. Among the treasures in the sacristy at Market Rasen, is a collection of orphreys that were taken from late medieval English vestments and are now remounted on a modern cope and two modern chasubles.  I am grateful to the Rev'd Gordon Plumb, for his photographs of these little known examples of late Opus Anglicanum.

The set of cope orphreys are the earliest pieces in this collection and are by far the finest.  Although restored and overworked in some places, they ostensibly date from c.1390-1420.  They are today presented, remounted on twentieth century red cope, but the use of thick bullion braid and panels of a a rich silk velvet, suggests that they had been remounted before, perhaps in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

There are nine surviving panels and they form a complete set from a medieval cope.  Each panel has two figures, a female saint paired with an Apostle and among them are: St Katherine with St John the Evangelist, St Helen with St James the Great and St Paul with St Mary Magdalene.

The paired figures sit under ogee-headed, vaulted canopies, decorated with exaggerated crockets.  Vegetable dyes were used to dye the silk thread and these have faded down, although the greens remain quite vivid, the reds and purples, as it common with such early textiles, have faded to a rather dull brown.

The two chasuble orphreys have been remounted sometime in the past few decades, one is now laid on a red, raw silk chasuble and the other on a backing of gold rayon.  The present backing is inappropriate and does the fine medieval embroidery no favours whatsover.  Again there is evident that the orphreys had been remounted before in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century and we might imagine that when first embroidered in the late Middle Ages they would have been mounted on a backdrop of rich velvet powdered with motifs.  These two orphreys are near-identical and have seemingly been worked from the same cartoon in the same workshop.

The orphreys depict the Crucifixion, with flanking angels collecting the precious blood. 
The cross is mounted on two steps, with the skulls and cross bones of Adam below and above the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a nimbed dove.

Beneath the Crucifixion panels and to complete the length of the orphreys, are two further panels with figures of Apostles.  St John the Evangelist and St Thomas is on one chausble and St Jude and St Philip on the other, identifiable by their usual attributes.   These are set under simple canopies, which are identical on both orphreys.  The style of both the figurative and architectural elements of these orphreys would indicate a date of c.1490-1520 for these pieces.

Given that the chasuble orphreys clearly came the same workshop, probably a commerical embroiderer in London and we can assume that they were ordered together and have remained together for the whole of their history.  That of course begs the question of their provenance? These vestments fragments are known locally as the 'Sixhills' vestments, named after a remote hamlet four miles from Market Rasen.  The hamlet of Sixhills was the site of a Gilbertine Priory, a double house of canons and nuns founded sometime between 1148 and 1154, a remote priory in which Gwladys the daughter of the last native Prince of Wales spent her final years. 

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site of the Priory was purchased by a local gentleman, Sir Thomas Heneage of Hainton (died 1553), who had been a gentleman usher to Cardinal Wolsey and whose monument is shown above.  The Heneages, like many English gentry families, were actively involved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and their fortunes were greatly improved through the purchase of former monastic land.   The site of the Gilbertine Priory was quickly demolished by Thomas Heneage and converted by him to secular use and became known as 'Sixhills Grange'.  Despite the fact the Heneage family had profited from monastic spoil, they remained staunchly Catholic and were penalised in the later sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century for Recusancy.  Perhaps out a a sense of what had been lost at the Dissolution in Sixhills, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Heneage family used the Grange as a centre for Recusant activity and they maintained a private Catholic chapel there throughout penal times.  A succession of priests lived either there or with the family at Hainton hall, their primary residence.  In 1791 with the Catholic Relief Act, the private chapel in the Grange was closed, and a public chapel was opened in a house that is now known as the 'Old Vicarage' in Sixhills.  In the early nineteenth century the Chatelaine of Hainton hall grew somewhat tired at having to travel down the road to Sixhills to hear mass, so in 1836 the chapel at the 'Old Vicarage' was closed and a new one, designed by E. J. Willson, erected in the grounds of Hainton Hall.

We know that these interesting pre-Reformation vestments were used in the chapels in Sixhills, before being transferred to Hainton and then only later to the parish church at Market Rasen. It's rather tantalising to think of where they might have been used when first made in the late Middle Ages. It is possible, even likely, that they had been in the hands of the Heneage family from the time of the Reformation?  Maybe they were spoils from Sixhills Priory, or from a parish church in the vicinity, or perhaps they were just part of the Heneages own chapel stuff in their late medieval house? 


For more on the Heneages of Hainton have a look at the Medieval Church Art blog, where there is an account of the monuments to this important Recusant family in the parish church at Hainton.

On the history of the chapels at Sixhills see: T. R. Leach, Lincolnshire Country Houses and their Families, Part One (Gainsborough, 1991), p. 173

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