Introducing the Bosses of St Mary’s

Dr Jennie England is a medieval historian who completed her PhD at the University of York.

She is St Mary’s Heritage Learning Officer, responsible for developing a wider understanding of St Mary’s magnificent collection of bosses and the historical context of the church and its community.

Before joining the team at St Mary’s in 2019, Jennie curated an exhibition on Exeter Cathedral’s Anglo-Saxon forged charters, entitled ‘Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter’.

Her doctoral research was on the 12th-century abbeys of Westminster, Winchester, and Gloucester, with a particular focus on how the communities re-wrote their pasts to protect their present.

Jennie is passionate about delivering heritage learning programmes which are accessible and inclusive.

Stories in the ceilings

The ceiling of St Mary’s church in Beverley is home to over 600 Tudor and medieval carvings. These carvings are set at the intersections in the ceiling’s architecture, and are known as roof bosses, from the Old French word boce, meaning ‘bump’ or ‘swelling’.

Roof bosses are a relatively common feature in European medieval churches, but St Mary’s bosses are remarkable for their number, style, and intriguing subject matter.

The bosses are around a foot square in size, and each is unique. There are flowers and fauna, mythical beasts and figures, funny motifs and moralistic warnings, as well as characters from history and the Bible.

Central to St Mary’s bosses is that each is telling a different and deliberate story, and that these stories were designed to have an effect on those viewing them from below: some bosses were designed to educate, some to instruct, and some to entertain.

Most of St Mary’s bosses are from the Tudor period, and we know that those in the church’s nave in particular were made in the 1520s, just on the cusp of the English Reformation. The stories in the bosses can therefore reveal the ideals and imaginations of those living in Tudor Beverley, and so provide insight into a hugely significant moment in England’s history.

In addition to their historical importance, one of the greatest joys of St Mary’s bosses is how they have inspired and excited viewers in the 500 years since they were carved. Visitors never fail to be engrossed by the curious subjects in the ceiling, and the closer we look, the more we find that the stories we can see are not so different from stories we might find in our own lives today.

Until recently, the future of St Mary’s roof bosses was in doubt. Areas of the church’s stonework is in a desperate state of repair, and the bosses were particularly at risk due to crumbling stonework in the north nave clerestory. However, in Spring 2019 St Mary’s was awarded a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £421,400. Thanks to this grant, essential repairs began this January and are expected to be completed in September 2020.

An additional aspect of the Heritage Fund project is the launch of a new education and outreach programme themed around St Mary’s heritage, and the roof bosses in particular. It is hoped that through this programme new audiences will discover the wonderful history of the building, and the stories that can be found in its ceiling.

© jinxsi1960, one of the photographers featured in our gallery on flickr. Click the image to visit the gallery.