28 May 2023
How the identity of the Stanley
effigy in Lichfield Cathedral has
long confused many historians
The Stanley effigy is in a niche in the south choir aisle of Lichfield Cathedral, close to the entrance to Saint Chad’s Chapel and the vestry, and opposite the monument to Bishop John Hackett.
The Stanley effigy has been described as ‘the most curious monument in the cathedral.’ Historians have acknowledged that identifying this tomb presents ‘many difficulties,’ and several historians believed they had managed to clear up any questions about its identity.
When I was in Lichfield Cathedral a few weeks ago, visiting the ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition in the Chapter House, I also photographed the stained glass windows in the Chapter House.
The image of the Stanley family arms in one of those windows reminded me to return to the Stanley effigy and to explore the conflicting claims to identifying the person represented on this 16th century, pre-Reformation tomb.
My search also reminded me of some interesting genealogical connections between the Stanley family and the Comberford family.
The Stanley effigy in the south choir aisle depicts a knight naked to the waist. The lower part of the figure was clothed with a deep skirt painted with the arms of the Stanley family, the legs were in armour, while under the head was a buck’s horn, with a similar horn beneath the feet.
However, the effigy was severely mutilated by Cromwell’s Puritan Parliamentarians during the sieges of Lichfield in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, making it difficult for historians in later generations to identify this member of the Stanley family with certainty.
A brass plate in the niche above the effigy identifies this as the tomb of John Stanley, son of Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe. But this appears to be a Victorian addition, and so is not conclusive evidence of the effigy’s subject.
More recently, however, despite the Victorian inscription, historians have identified this as George Stanley (ca1440-1509) of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, High Sheriff of Staffordshire (1473) and a younger son of Thomas Stanley of Elford.
Yet, antiquarians in the 18th century identified the effigy with Sir Humphrey Stanley (ca 1455-1504) of Pipe, and, since the mid-19th century, the monument has been ascribed to Sir Humphrey Stanley’s son, John Stanley of Pipe, who died in 1515.
However, prior to any of these claims, the monument was long identified simply as ‘Captain Stanley,’ who for some unknown offence had been excommunicated, and who, after penitence, had been buried in the cathedral on condition that the evidence of his punishment should appear on the effigy on his burial place.
During the Siege of Lichfield and the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, the Roundheads defaced and mutilated the Stanley monument to such an degree that many later doubted the story of a Stanley who was buried depicted in such a humiliating state of punishment.
Shortly before the Civil War, Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686) made a coloured drawing of the effigy for Sir Christopher Hatton (1605-1670). Dugdale had many links with south Staffordshire and was also the father-in-law of the Lichfield-born antiquarian Elias Ashmole (1617-1692).
According to Dugdale, Hatton foresaw the Civil War and the destruction of churches, and commissioned Dugdale in 1641 to make exact drawings the monuments in Westminster Abbey and the principal churches in England. Dugdale’s drawing of the effigy in Lichfield Cathedral shows the stone figure of Stanley bareheaded and bare-chested, flanked by two bucks’ horns, wearing a skirt decorated with heraldic arms and armour on his legs.
But Dugdale’s depiction of the monument was long-lost, nor did he not offer a definitive identification of a Stanley family member.
The Revd William Stukeley (1687-1765) was an important antiquarian in the early 18th century, pioneering the scholarly investigation of the prehistoric sites at Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire. He published over 20 books on archaeology and other scholarly topics.
Stukeley included the Stanley tomb among the ‘remarkable subjects’ things he had seen in Lichfield Cathedral during a visit in 1715. He recalled: ‘ As you walk down the south isle the first figure in the walk at a the wall of the choir lieth one Capt. Stanley, said to be of the house of Derby, he was a stout and valiant man and is said to have challenged any may to fight with him, not excepting the king, for which insolency the king commanded him to be stripp’d naked from the waist upwards, and to go so till he should repent of that rash challenge; but tho’ the king took pity on him to see him go naked and order’d him to wear cloaths again, yet he refused and went so as long as he lived, and so is he figured on the tomb naked from the waist upwards.’
However, once again, Stukeley does not definitively identify this Captain Stanley, and he places him in the Derby branch rather than the Elford or Pipe branches of the Stanley family.
At the end of the 18th century, the Welsh antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), in his Journey from Chester to London (1792), identified this tomb with Sir Humphrey Stanley (ca 1455-1504) of Pipe.
Pennant, in his description of the tomb, wrote: ‘I find a Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe, who died in the reign of Henry VII, who had a squabble with the chapter about conveying water through his lands to the close … so probably this might be the gentleman who incurred the censure of the church for his impiety.’
Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe was a grandson of Sir Thomas Stanley (died 1463) of Elford. Sir Humphrey was knighted by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and was three times sheriff and several times MP for Staffordshire. However, when he died in 1504, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, and not in Lichfield Cathedral.
His son and heir John Stanley, who also lived at Pipe, married Margaret Gerard and died in 1514, leaving two infant daughters and coheirs, Elizabeth and Isabel. From there, the genealogy of the Stanley family is confusing, and there are confusing and conflicting accounts of intermarriage with the Heveningham family, who eventually inherited Pipe Manor.
The Revd Stebbing Shaw, in his History and Antiquities of Staffordshire (1798), said the arms on the base of the tomb show ‘the arms of Stanley impaling or, three chevronels gules (Clare).’ This would mean that the person in the effigy married a woman from the Clare family. However, Sir Humphrey Stanley married Ellen Lee from Stone and was buried in Westminster Abbey, not in Lichfield Cathedral. In addition, the sketch of Stanley’s body in Shaw (vol 1, plate XXIV, after p 246), does not match Dugdale’s drawing.
Dugdale’s drawing was found in the 19th century among papers belonging to the Earl of Winchelsea. It showed the figure’s skin was bare, and that the skirt had the Stanley coat-of-arms. However, this discovery did not clear up the difficulty about identifying the subject of this effigy.
J Hewitt wrote in the Archaeological Journal (volume 24, 1867, pp 222-225) that further investigation showed that the arms of Clare are also the arms of Gerard, and he linked the effigy instead with Sir Humphrey Stanley’s son, Sir John Stanley (died 1514) of Pipe, who married Margaret Gerard, daughter of Sir Thomas Gerard.
Hewitt noted that the monument had long been identified as ‘Captain Stanley,’ who for some unrecorded offence had been excommunicated, and who, ‘after atonement, had been buried in holy ground on condition that the evidence of his punishment should appear on the effigy on his burial place.’
In reality, John Stanley of Pipe, elder son of Sir Humphrey Stanley, died in July 1515 and had never been knighted. However, in the same edition of the Archaeological Journal, a Dr Rock wrote that ‘this Stanley, of knightly rank, had drawn upon himself the greater excommunication through the spilling of blood in Lichfield Cathedral on some occasion … He lies bareheaded and naked as far down as the girdle. His upraised hands, according to the representation given by Pennant, and copied in Shaw’s History of Staffordshire, held a scroll which must have been the document … signifying under the bishop’s hand that, having undergone the canonical penance, the offender was again admitted to all Christian privileges.’
This John Stanley of Pipe, who died in 1515, was an elder brother of William Stanley of Elford, who married Margaret Comberford, a daughter of Thomas Comberford (1472-1532), of Comberford, Tamworth and Lichfield. Margaret’s brother, Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496/1498-1555), married the heiress of Wednesbury, Dorothy Beaumont, whose father was a half-brother of John Stanley (1470-1534), son of George Stanley who now seems, definitively, to be the person represented in the effigy in Lichfield Cathedral.
This George Stanley (ca 1440-1509), who has been identified convincingly in recent decades with the monument, was a younger son of Thomas Stanley of Elford and an uncle of Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe.
Dr Nigel J Tringham of Keele University, the Victoria County History of Staffordshire, and other sources, as well as sites such as ‘Find a Grave’, now identify this effigy with George Stanley. Dr Tringham presented his conclusions in ‘An early eighteenth-century description of Lichfield Cathedral’ (Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, 1986-1987, vol 28, 1988, pp 55-63).
This more recent identification is also the conclusion of P Montague-Smith in his paper ‘The mystery of the Stanley Memorial, Lichfield Cathedral, and its heraldic solution’ (The Coat of Arms, Heraldry Society, Vol V (new series), no. 128, Winter 1983/1984).
This George Stanley was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1473, and Escheator of Staffordshire. He married Eleanor Sutton, a daughter of Sir John Sutton of Dudley and widow of Sir Henry Beaumont of Wednesbury, who died in 1471. Eleanor and her first husband, Sir Henry Beaumont of Wednesbury, were the parents of Sir John Beaumont, whose daughter and co-heiress, Dorothy Beaumont, married Humphrey Comberford of Comberford and Tamworth.
Indeed, this Humphrey Comberford was a brother of Dorothy Comberford, who married William Stanley, a brother of John Stanley, identified by many with the Stanley effigy in Lichfield Cathedral. He was also a brother of Canon Henry Comberford, Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, and Richard Comberford, often (albeit mistakenly) identified as the ancestor of the Comerfords of Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford.
George Stanley and Eleanor Sutton (Beaumont) were the parents of one son and one daughter, John Stanley and Anne, the wife of Sir John Wolseley.
George Stanley died in 1509 and was buried in this tomb in Lichfield Cathedral. However, why he is apparently depicted in a state of penitence and his sin both remain unknown, and the plaque above the effigy continues to identify this effigy as John Stanley, son of Sir Humphrey Stanley.