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The Funerary Achievement of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Fowlmere

A remarkable set of 17th-century armour from a Cambridgeshire village is now on display in The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The armour, from the Church of St Mary the Virgin in the village of Fowlmere, is a extraordinary surviving example of a 'funerary achievement': armour carried in a funeral procession, and finally hung up over the owner’s tomb to signify the chivalrous and honourable nature of his life. This particular tradition - a notable feature of English churches, not found anywhere else in Europe - dates from at least the mid 14th century, and by the end of the 16th century such achievements were set up and made especially for the funerals of men who had never even been active soldiers. These sets included a helmet (which was often painted) with a wooden crest attached by means of a distinctive spike on the apex of the helmet, sword, coat-of-arms, and spurs.

The Fowlmere funerary achievement comprises a dual set of helmet, crest and sword, and one of these helmets is believed to have been made by the Royal Workshops at Greenwich in the mid 16th century. The distinctive crests in the form of wheatsheaves - were undoubtedly made for the funeral of William Mitchell, MP, lord of the manor of Fowlmere, who was buried in a vault of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in 1745.

Julia Poole, Keeper of Applied Arts at The Fitzwilliam Museum, said 'The Fowlmere achievement is one of the latest known, and is of great historical interest. It is very rare to find a single helmet complete with its funerary crest, but to find a dual set of helmet, crest and sword is extraordinary.'

The Fowlmere funerary achievement is currently on display in the Museum’s Armoury (Gallery 31, ground floor).

A talk about the Fowlmere Funerary Achievement, The Chivalry of Armour, will be given by Karen Watts, Senior Curator of Armour and Art at the Royal Armouries, Leeds,on Wednesday 19 November 2008. This talk starts at 19.30, and is held in the Library of Bellerby's College and Embassy CES Cambridge, Queens Campus, Bateman Street, Cambridge, CB2 1LU. Tickets are £10. For more information, telephone 01763 208442.

28 October 2008

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