BOOKS PART 4 – Hatchments in Britain

When I first started looking around churches in anything more than a touristic fashion, I used to just look at the building itself. It had always been the soaring pillars, gothic archways and general mysteriousness of the building that captured my attention.

It took a while, therefore, before I truly understood what a hatchment actually was. In fact, I think it was my friend John Vigar who first explained exactly what they were used for, telling me that essentially, the hatchment was a depiction of a high status person’s heraldic achievement, which was used at a funeral, and that was carried in front of the coffin. After usage for the funeral, they were hung on the deceased’s front door for some time, and were then hung in the church. The fashion for hatchments first came about in the early 17th century, but they are rarely used today.

The raison d’être for this blog post is, then, to introduce the reader to what I believe is another essential read for the county church crawler. The book is Hatchments in Britain Volume 6: Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Middlesex by Peter Summers. You’ll find a link to the book in the BOOKS link, and by navigating to the second page of the ‘Essex Church Books’ category.

The book lists all known hatchments in the county, but also explains exactly what hatchments actually mean. There is a lot of symbolism and hidden meaning within these devices. There is far too much to go into here, but the colouring of the background, and shape of the arms can indicate marital status, or even a man surviving two wives.

In order to understand much of the detail relating to the individual hatchments, it is necessary to understand some of the terminology used. A start can be made on this Wikipedia page. For instance, dexter refers to the left-hand side of the hatchment as viewed by a third party (or the right-hand side as viewed by the bearer). And sinister refers to the right-hand side of the hatchment as viewed by a third party.

What the book will tell you, however, without too much heraldic knowledge, is which hatchment belongs to which person. The task is made easier when there is text on a hatchment…but even just understanding dexter and sinister goes some way towards identification.

Another aspect of hatchments of which I am fond is their photography, which I will cover in my next blog.

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