The Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul in Sheffield is undergoing a massive restoration as part of the 2014 Gateway Project. When the floor near the Shrewsbury Chapel was lifted to install new heating pipes, a link to the past was unearthed. A flight of stairs, a rotting door and a nigh empty stone chamber supported by a central pillar: the Shrewsbury Vault, burial site of several Earls by the same name and their families, was rediscovered. But although this is believed to be the site of at least seventeen burials, including the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, who married Bess of Hardwick and was the jailer of Mary Queen of Scots, all but two of them are missing.
This delightful Tudor find raises questions as quickly as excitement: what is the vault’s significance and what exactly happened to the burials? In an attempt to answer these questions, let us venture back to the 16th century…
As Lord of the Manor, George Talbot, the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, was the first of his line to make Sheffield the family home calling it “certen of my best landes”. Today, most of the remaining medieval structures in the city date to his period of control from 1473 to 1538. This includes Manor Lodge, the Old Queen’s Head and Lady’s Bridge. It is of no surprise then that he had a hand in the construction of what would become one of Sheffield Cathedral’s finest attractions: the Shrewsbury Chapel.
George Talbot was a staunch Catholic but managed to remain in Henry VIII’s good graces. While he defended Catherine of Aragon’s honor privately, he supported Henry’s divorce at the Blackfriar’s Trial. While his will ordered a dirge and three masses at his funeral, he helped suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace. It seems like George let no scruples of conscience mix with his objective of maintaining himself as a loyal and successful courtier. He remained one of Henry’s closest councillors and held the post of Lord Steward of the Household for life. Such a position naturally led to an awareness of privileged information and it is from this that we get one theory on the Shrewsbury Chapel’s construction.
Noted Sheffield historian Joseph Hunter, writing in 1819, believes that George Talbot had a “painful apprehension” about the looming suppression of the larger religious houses. Worksop Priory, just south of Sheffield, was a sprawling complex and held the tombs of Talbot’s ancestors including the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Shrewsbury. Rather than see his memory razed to the ground like theirs were bound to be, George chose the parish church at Sheffield as his family tomb. The 4th Earl was buried in his own chapel in March of 1539. The Priory of Worksop was dissolved on November 15th of the same year.
As attractive as this theory is, work on the chapel started as early as 1520 and thus way before monastic suppression was even a thought. It did, however, coincide with the death of George’s first wife Ann Hastings. Thomas Silvester, a priest at the parish church in the 1520s, gives George an update on construction in an undated letter: “…the masons hath takyn downe the wall to the grond and now is preparing the grond and the stone to sett. Owre Lord send us our stone from Roche…”. The chapel was to reach roof level by Easter. Even by July of 1531, George was still receiving updates about escutcheons being installed into the ceiling.
Besides all the exquisite work completed above ground, the chapel contains a modest vault, hidden beneath the floor and accessible only via a brief flight of stairs. Eighteen burials are recorded to have taken place here, including that of the founder’s namesake George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. He, and his formidable wife Bess of Hardwick, famously had charge of Mary Queen of Scots for most of her twenty-year captivity, and he developed so close a relationship with her that there were (unfounded) accusations of infidelity.
But just as when the Shrewsbury Vault was last entered in 1932, only two coffins were visible, neither of them belonging to the 4th or 6th Earls, who are arguably two of Sheffield’s greatest Tudor characters. So, where is everyone? The records are silent. Looking at the 1932 floor plans, the vault perimeter does not reach the area occupied by the 4th Earl’s alabaster memorial. I found several sources that claim George Talbot was buried directly under this spot. Perhaps the north wall in the vault below is, in fact, a dividing wall and sealed off another portion of the chamber once it was filled with burials. An interesting theory, and one which I hope can be tested in the weeks and months to come.
If you’d like to receive updates and pictures as research into the vault progresses, you can find the Friends of Sheffield Cathedral on Facebook.
Mike Glaeser is an American postgraduate pursuing an MA in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed a work placement at Manor Lodge and has an interest in the life of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury. He will be giving a guest lecture on Charles XII of Sweden this fall at the University of New Hampshire. You can read more of Mike’s work on his blog.
Image: Memorial of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury (George Talbot) and his two wives, Shrewsbury Chapel, Sheffield Cathedral. ©Mike Glaeser