Intramural burial in medieval churches, some thoughts

Intramural burial of a shrouded corpse in a medieval chapel. The tiled floor of the chapel has been lifted to enable the body to admitted to a shallow grave.  MS M. 28, f.111r Morgan Library

Intramural burial was a common practice in late medieval England, not only for the socially elite on a county or national level but for the local elites too, the leading clergy, townsmen, tradesmen and householders.  As England headed towards the Reformation, the trend seemingly increased, a trend motivated by a complex mixture of ideas.  Among the pressures that led to the rise were the social pressures of fashion and prestige, but there were also more spiritual motivations at work too.  There was a sense that burial in church gave the deceased a beneficial proximity to the holy, the closer the burial of the body to the chancel and the high altar and to the Body of Christ reserved in the hanging pyx, the better.  There may also have been a sense that burial in church, with or without a marker, gave public exposure to the burial place, which would enable a more lasting form of memorialisation than was possible in the anonymity of the churchyard.  Both the proximity to the holy and the possibilities for memorialisation had spiritual benefits for the soul of the deceased, trapped in the pains of Purgatory.  The fashion for intramural burial was in earlier times discouraged by the church, however, by the late fifteenth century it seems to have been encouraged by the local church authorities.  The higher fees charged for burial in church, as opposed to the churchyard, produced a source of useful (and reliable) revenue for the churchwardens’, that could be used to benefit the religious life of the whole community.    

My title parish - Louth, Lincolnshire
The parish church of St James Louth.

In the absence of parish registers, early churchwardens’ accounts give a good indication of the ubiquity of the practice and the sliding scale of fees involved.  Take for example the Lincolnshire market town of Louth, where the churchwardens’ accounts survive from the period 1500 to 1524.  During this period the number of burials in the church ranged from six (6) to thirty-two (32) each year and in that entire quarter century, around two hundred and thirty (230) people are recorded as paying fees to be buried in graves within the church building. Of these twenty (20) are buried in the ‘south kirke porch’ in front of the main church door. I was curate at Louth for a time and walked through that porch every day and it is a tiny space about 16ft square.  It was evident that they were packing them in!   Burials in the church were a tidy source of income for the churchwardens’ of Louth who would receive 6s, 8d for a burial in the church.  It was cheaper to be buried in the ‘south kirke porch’, it only cost you 3s and 8d for the privilege of being constantly trampled under foot.[1]

Heydon, Norfolk
Packing them in at Heydon in Norfolk.  A whole series of medieval and early Modern graves are clustered at the east end of the nave in front of the rood screen.  Close to the chancel and in full view of their neighbours, these are the burials of the social elite in Heydon, the Dynne family and their associates.  

Of course, there were practical consequences to such high levels of intramural burial.  The constant lifting of the floor and relaying of tiles, stones and other pavers to admit burials, must have been disruptive.  Certain areas, in front of the rood screen, in the centre of the chancel, in side chapels before altars, were hotspots for burial, but they were also busy parts of the building, in constant use in the liturgy of the church.  

Cley, Norfolk
The brass of John Symondes at Cley in Norfolk, portrayed in the shroud he was buried in in 1512.

The physical consequences of the usual English practice of burying corpses in shrouds in shallow graves must have created great discomfort for the living.  The putrid smells and effervescence emanating from hundreds of decomposing shrouded corpses must have made some churches in busy and populous parishes, intolerable to linger in. 

Salthouse, Norfolk
The chancel floor at Salthouse in Norfolk, the series if slabs in a line at the centre of the floor are medieval and a post medieval burials with markers, but the undulations and dips of the pavement are almost certainly evidence of grave collapse after the burial of shrouded corpses.  

The physical consequences of solid floors that were supported only by soil and decomposing human remains, must have been felt for generations, as floor levels over burials dropped, slumped and became uneven.  The evidence of the effects of shrouded intramural burial can still be seen today in the undulating floors of some of our medieval churches.     


[1] R. C. Dudding, The First Churchwardens’ Book of Louth 1500-1524 (Oxford, 1941)



4 thoughts on “Intramural burial in medieval churches, some thoughts

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  1. Well that has told me why the floors are so uneven in some churches and some are very uneven I can say, the nave in All Saints Sutton Courtenay comes to mind but I have come across other churches in a similar state. Thanks for telling me this


  2. That was fascinating, thank you. (I just wish my imagination hadn't gone into overdrive about the smells.) I shall look at St James' Church, Louth, with renewed interest when I call in later this week.


  3. I hadn't thought about the smells before! but I will now every time I cross an undulating floor… Is there much evidence for intramural standing burials? That seems to have been the practice at St Cross Holywell; there were long brick channels running the length of the nave on either side. The Victorians had stirred everything up with a stick so it was hard to make much of the archaeology during renovations in 2010-11.


  4. Sorry to set that thought in your heads Elaine and Anna, it is not a pleasant one. Anna, as for your question of standing burials, I don't know. There are only two genuine intentional standing burials I can think of, one is Judge Spelman at Narborough in Norfolk and the other is the more famous one of Ben Jonson in Westminster Abbey. Spelman was buried upright behind his monument and his remains were discovered in the nineteenth century. Anna the channels in St Cross, are they above or below ground, trying to visualise. If they are below ground are they not just deep vaults for the burial of a number of coffins in a stack capped by a ledger slab. These were common.


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