The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Pickled Corpse of Danbury Church

We have not always been entirely fastidious in the way that we have dealt with relics of the dead in churches. In fact, some of the accounts of the work of curious antiquarians in the past make the hair stand up on end. Please read no further in this article if you are of a delicate nature or are easily offended. We are relating an account that deals with the disinterment of graves in an Essex church.

I was reading through Brayley and Britton’s ‘The Beauties of England and Wales, volume V of 1803. It dealt with the beauties of Essex, and was giving a description of the interesting church of Danbury when I stumbled over the following description. Of course, it is interesting to know that, at one time, corpses were pickled before burial in Essex churches, but the casual mode of investigation would not be tolerated nowadays; in fact it is more reminiscent of part of an M R James story, or part of a Hammer Horror film, well just the build-up, before Christopher Lee appears, in full costume and make-up, as the vengeful soul.

The article was describing the interesting carved wooden effigies of knights in the church.

“In October, 1779, as some workmen were digging a grave just beneath one of the arches in the north wall of Danbury Church, they discovered a leaden coffin, about thirty inches from the surface of the pavement. This was opened a few days afterwards, through the influence of Mr. T. White, who supposed that it might contain “the body of the Knight Templar represented by the effigy” in the arch above and who, some years afterwards, sent some particulars of the discovery to the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 59. p. 337. from which the following is an extract.

“On raising the lead coffin, there was. discovered an elm coffin inclosed, about one-fourth of an inch thick, very firm and entire. On removing the lid of this coffin, it was found to enclose a shell about three quarters of an inch thick, which was covered with a thick cement, of a dark olive colour, and of a resinous nature. The lid of this shell being carefully taken off, we were presented with a view of the body, lying in a liquor, or pickle, somewhat resembling mushroom catchup, but paler, and of a thicker consistence. The taste was aromatic, though not very pungent, partaking of the flavour of catchup, and of the pickle of Spanish olives. The body was tolerably perfect, no part appearing decayed, but the throat, and part of one arm: the flesh everywhere, except on the face and throat, appeared exceedingly white and firm.

The face and throat were of a dark colour, approaching to black: the throat was much lacerated. The body was covered with a kind of shirt of linen, not unlike Irish cloth, of superior fineness: a narrow, rude antique lace was affixed to the bosom of the shirt; the stitches were very evident and attached very strongly. The linen adhered rather closely to the body; but on raising it from the breast, to examine the state of the skin more minutely, a considerable piece was torn off, with part of the lace on it.

The coffin not being half full of the pickle, the face, breast, and belly, were of course not covered with it. The inside of the body seemed to be filled with some substance, which rendered it very hard. There was no hair on the head; nor do I remember any in the liquor; though feathers, flowers, and herbs, in abundance, were floating; the leaves and stalks of which appeared quite perfect, but totally discolored. The coffin was not placed in a position exactly horizontal, the feet being at least three inches lower than the head. The pillow which supported the head, in process of time, decayed, and the head fell back, lacerating the throat and neck, which, with the face, appeared to have been discolored from the decay of the cloth, or substance, which covered them. The jaws, when the coffin was first opened, were closed, but on being somewhat rudely touched, expanded; owing, as was supposed, to the breaking of some bandage that bound them together. When the jaws were opened, they exhibited a set of teeth perfectly white; which was likewise the colour of the palate, and all the inside of the mouth. The limbs were of excellent symmetry: the general appearance of the whole body conveyed the idea of hearty youth, not in the least emaciated by sickness. The length of the corpse very little exceeded live feet, though the shell that inclosed it was five feet six inches within. When the parishioners, and others, had satisfied their curiosity, the shell, and wooden coffin, were fastened down; the leaden coffin was again soldered; and the whole left, as nearly as circumstances would admit, in statu quo.”

In Mr. Strutt’s letter, before mentioned, and which is dated August the sixth, 1789, are some particulars that render it very doubtful whether the remains thus inspected were really belonging to one of the cross-legged effigies, as supposed. “We dug at Danbury,” says this gentleman, “and found a skeleton of the hero who was buried in the tomb, and whose effigies was the cover of it.” It had been interred in the same manner as those at Little Baddow; that is, without any appearance of wooden coffin, or linen, or any other covering. “I am now convinced,” he continues, “that the mode of burying in pickle, is not so old as the time of the Knights Templars. The body found in pickle ten years ago, was nothing less than one of these old warriors: it lay at some distance from the wall, and was covered with a large flat stone, on which was a crossJleury and formerly an inscription in brass, not unlikely the following, mentioned by Weever: Hic jacet Geraldus quondam filius et Heres Gerardi Braybroke Militis qui obiit XXIX Marcii M.CCCC.XXII. The body had every appearance of youth, and was little more than five feet high; but being probably the son and heir of the above knight, was buried in this expensive manner.”


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