Remembering in a Forgotten Place: the standing gravestones at the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy

 Dr Yvonne Inall, a member of our team working on the Deep Time study recently visited the Medieval village of Wharram Percy. Yvonne examined some very interesting gravestones in the local churchyard and took some great photos:

It was a wet and windy February day on the Yorkshire Wolds, atmospheric conditions for a visit to the churchyard at the deserted Medieval village of Wharram Percy. I travelled out to Wharram with a group of archaeology students from the University of Hull. An invitation to join their field trip offered an opportunity to examine some of the gravestones in the southern churchyard.
The standing gravestones date mostly to the nineteenth century, a time when cemeteries were beginning to move away from churchyards to the establishment of Victorian garden cemeteries.
While the gravestones are of modern date they are the latest in a long tradition extending backwards in time, an unintentional commemoration of past graves, long lost and forgotten, the dwindling population of the local parish, memorialised in a place which itself was fast disappearing into a forgotten time.
Wharram Percy was an established settlement from the late Saxon period (ninth to tenth centuries) which peaked in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries, when it was home to a small farming community. However, a combination of plague, the declining fortunes of the Percy family and the rise of wool over arable crops in the local economy saw the village population shrink from hundreds to a few dozen people, and down to a single farmstead in the sixteenth century.

The gravestone of Francis William Raikes, a county court judge, who was the last individual to be buried at St Martins in 1906
The gravestone of Francis William Raikes, a county court judge, who was the last individual to be buried at St Martins in 1906

The small St Martin’s church saw the passage of Wharram’s inhabitants through these tumultuous centuries. The church went through a dozen distinct architectural phases from the tenth century onwards (some incorporating medieval gravestones removed from the churchyard), reaching its final form during the eighteenth century.

Photo of University of Hull students on their fieldtrip to Wharram Percy
Photo of University of Hull students on their fieldtrip to Wharram Percy

Up until the late seventeenth century, prominent members of the community were buried within the church nave as well as in the churchyard. By the sixteenth century, when the village was abandoned, the churchyard was densely filled, with some newer burials overlaying forgotten predecessors. Hundreds of medieval graves were excavated at Wharram Percy by archaeologists between the 1960s and 1970s, confirming the longevity of burial practice on the site as well as offering unique insights into the lives and deaths of the local population.
By the late eighteenth century, when the earliest of the standing gravestones was erected, it seems new interments were being accommodated only in the southern churchyard. However, excavations revealed that the first burials in this area took place in the pre-conquest period, perhaps as early as the tenth century, when the church was still in its early form.

The gravestone of Francis Monkman, who died in 1853 and was buried at St Martins in 1858
The gravestone of Francis Monkman, who died in 1853 and was buried at St Martins in 1858

The modern gravestones, which can be seen when visiting the site today, emphasise the place of the departed in the memories of those who buried them. The surviving inscriptions declare the stones are ‘in memory of’, or ‘sacred to the memory of’ a husband, a wife, a child, some bearing touching testament to the desire of the bereaved to be reunited with their loved ones in the next life. Some offer added commemoration for other family members who had died previously, but who appear to have been buried elsewhere, thus unifying them in memorialisation.

Under the auspices of English Heritage the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy is currently maintained as a publicaly accessible site, and some damaged gravestones were restored in the 1970s. Yet, weather and time are eroding the stones and their commemorative inscriptions are slowly fading into the past, those who remembered their departed in this forgotten place speaking now only with muted stone voices.

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