The Tomb of Sir Ralph Woodford

The tomb of Sir Ralph Woodford in St Mary's, Ashby Folville, has survived in a remarkably good condition.  It is one of the finest examples of its kind in Leicestershire and is the only shrouded figure on a Leicestershire or Rutland monumental slab.

The slab was engraved in about 1485.  It is on a low tomb against the north wall of the chancel of the church and is an alabaster slab measuring 87" by 40.5" bearing an effigy of a nude man.  The figure is clean shaven, in an open shroud knotted at the head, a fold drawn across his middle by the right hand.   The right arm is hanging down with the palm extended, palm outwards, and the lower part of the shroud falling behind the figure but partly enveloping the left foot.  The feet rest on a collared greyhound facing to sinister.

The slab was obviously laid down during Ralph's lifetime as the date of his death has been added in another smaller hand.  The wording of his will rather suggests that the tomb was in existence prior to April 1485.  The back slab of the tomb, which is of a yellowish coloured stone, is adorned at the top with a sculptured achievement, quarterly 1st and 4th (Sa) three leopard's faces (or) jessant-de-lis (arg) (the arms of Woodford of Ashby Folville), a cross moline (gu) (the arms of Folville) with a helm and mantling and crest, two lions gambs erased (or) (Woodford).

Over the head of the effigy on another folded scroll is the Latin text of Job, Ch 19 v.25/26:

CREDO Q(UO)D REDEMPTOR ME(US)
VIVIT ET NOVI(SSI) MO DIE DE
TERRA SURRECTUR(US) SU(M). ET IN
CARNE MEA VIDEBO DEUM
SALVATORUM MEUM

Beneath the figure's feet on a fourth scroll are the English verses:

OF ERTHE I AM FORMED & NAKED
TO ERTHE I AM TURNED ALL NAKED

John Nichols (History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester) misses out the second sentence of the Latin text and the entire English couplet in his description of the tomb.

The marginal inscription begins in the top right-hand corner and reads outwards:

HIC IACENT RAD(ULPH)IUS WODFORD ARMIG(ER) CO(N) SANGUENI(US) / ET HERES ROB(ER)TI WODFORD MILIT(IS) VIDEL(I CE)T FILI(US) THOME FILII ET HEREDIS P(RE)DICTI ROB(ER)TO WODFORD & ELIZABETH UNA FILIA(RUM) WILL(IELM)I VILLIERS / ARMIG(ER)I UXOR P(RE)DIC(TI

The arms of Woodford quartered with those of Folville with two 'woodmen' as bearers, above the tomb
The arms of Woodford quartered with those of Folville with two 'woodmen' as bearers, above the tomb
Despite Nichol's comments to the contrary, the nude body is clearly male.  Nichols suggests that it is an effigy of a princess without a head!   The head is now clearly engraved on the slab and cannot be a re-cutting of the original design as there are no signs of wear to have necessitated such a process.   The treatment of the hair, whether it is meant to be short or long, would of itself establish that it must have been added since Ralph's time.

While instances do occur of figures entirely shrouded, there are no examples known where part of the body is left uncovered but the entire head is shrouded.  It is unthinkable to argue that the monument could have been delivered with such a glaring error as the omission of the head of the subject.

A further theory is that the design was set out on a slab in the first place in some form of black pigment.  The design was then approved by Ralph and the engraver began his work but forgot to complete the head; but as all the lines were filled up level with pitch after engraving, the omission escaped detection at the time.   By 1800 when Nichols was compiling his work, the original setting out of the head had worn off and at some date between then and the present day, another engraver completed the figure.   Excavations below the Woodford slab in 1871 revealed the remains of two skeletons.

Jon Denton (see source reference below) writes:

'Ralph Woodford placed considerable importance on preparing for death and commemoration within his own lifetime.  The selection of imagery for his commemorative media must, therefore, be attributed to his own tastes and concerns.  The liturgical vocabulary and location of the tomb demonstrate a considerable understanding of the content and mechanisms of the religion that he practised.'


Sources:
BL, Cotton Claudius A XIII f.3 (The Woodford Cartulary)
F.A.Greenhill, The Incised Slabs of Leicestershire and Rutland, LAHS, 1958.
Jon Denton, Image, Identity and Gentility: The Woodford Experience, in The Fifteenth Century: Of Mice and Men: Image, Belief and Regulation in Late Medieval England, Editor, Linda Clark, The Boydell Press, 2005.