I recently visited the Holy Ghost Parish Church at Crowcombe in The Quantock Hills, Somerset. The Carew Chapel contains some fine hatchments.

Besides church architecture the fixtures and fixings provide us with clues to social history. Human social history evolves and changes along with practices and customs that come and go. Hatchments are an area of social history that started in the 17th C with the practice becoming increasingly rare over the 20th C. They are a good source for studying the local gentry.

They are usually painted on canvas or wood. The size generally varies from 3 feet to 6 feet square and they are set in the shape of a lozenge.[i] The frame is wood and painted black. Sometimes the emblems of skull and crossbones or hourglass are painted on the frame as a memento mori.

The practice of creating funeral hatchments started in the mid-17th C. When an entitled person died (i.e. someone with a coat of arms), the hatchment was quickly created and hung over the door of the house. It would be used in the funeral procession. Afterwards it would either be placed in the church straightaway or hung back up over the house door for up to a year, before being placed in the church. The custom varied in different places. Sometimes a duplicate was made to be hung over the door as a sign of the household being in mourning.[ii]

So, what can hatchments tell us? It is both the background and the coat of arms that provide information. The background colour determines whether the deceased was, married, a widower/widow or a bachelor/spinster. Besides the coat of arms, symbols provide clues – e.g. ribbons for a woman or a Death’s Head or skull if they were the last of their line.

The conventions around hatchments are:[iii]

First of all, I need to explain dexter and sinister – these are the right-hand side and the left-hand side of the hatchment. They do not mean the right and left when looking at the hatchment but as if the deceased person is holding the shield. It is their right and left looking out at us.

  • Male or female – Arms on a lozenge mean that the deceased is a woman. Arms on a shield may mean a married man, married woman, widower or a bachelor.
  • Married man whose wife survives him: (a) background: dexter (right) is black and sinister (left) is white. (b) Coat of Arms: dexter belongs to the man and sinister to his wife. If he has had more than one wife, the sinister side is divided to accommodate the relevant coat of arms of the wives.
  • Widower: whole background is black (as spouse(s) pre-deceased them).
  • Married woman whose husband survives her: dexter (right) is white and sinister (left) is black.
  • Widow: black background and her husband’s arms are shown – with possibly ribbons above but without crest or appendages.
  • Bachelor: the background is black and no division on the shield with other arms.
  • Spinster: the background is black, a lozenge in place of a shield and there is no division with other arms.
  • An heiress (to the family arms) will have her small shield in the centre of her husband’s arms. Her son, as representing both families can divide his shield into 4 quarters. The first and last showing the arms of his father, the other 2, the arms of his mother’s family.

However, be aware that different practices occur!

Below are photos of some of the hatchments from the Carew Aisle (as the chapel is known). I have done my best to put an interpretation on some of them without knowledge of the person they represent.

Figure 2: This is a hatchment of a man whose wife survives him. The left-hand side (sinister half) is white – the wife is still alive. The dexter half of the background is black (the husband is dead). The right and left is not taken as looking at the hatchment but looking out from the coat of arms.

Figure 3: Hatchment for a widower. The coat of arms is divided by 2 other arms probably depicting 2 wives who predeceased him as the background is black.

Figure 4: This is possibly the achievement of a bachelor/unmarried son. It’s simplicity makes me wonder if it was a son that died young. There is no division of black and white on the background and the sheild is not sub-divided. The muzzled, argent, bear rampant sable is that of the Bernard family. ‘Argent’ is the tincture of silver. ‘Sable’ is the black tincture of the bear.[v] There are winged cherubs on the frame with crossbones. However, there is no helmet or crest above the shield, although there are robes. The Death’s Head at the base suggests the end of the line.

Figure 5: This hatchment is for a wife who leaves behind a husband as depicted by the background of half black and white. There are no ribbons but a winged cherub tops the coat of arms. The bear is on the sinister side and the dexter side depcits the arms of 3-lions (the 3 lions are the arms of the Carew family of Crowcombe). It breaks the tradition of a lozenze for a woman, although the shield is drawn simply, the surround looking ribbon-like. The white part is behind the arms of the living.

Figure 6: The hatchments bear the motto of the Carew family of Carew Castle and Crowcombe – J’espere bien– I hope well.

Thomas Carew of Crowcombe court built the current chapel in 1665. The memorials and hatchments are for the Carew and Bernard families of Crowcombe Court. The hatchments date from the 18th C.[iv]

Without knowing who the hatchment is for and details of their life we can read something about them in the images. The Crowcombe hatchments are particularly well painted and provide an interesting aspect of local social history.


[i] J. Tindale, The Language of Hatchments <https://www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/Items/Wiltshire/Wiltshire%20-%20The%20Language%20of%20Hatchments.pdf> [accessed 29 February 2020].

[ii] Tindale, The Language of Hatchments.

[iii] Tindale, The Language of Hatchments.

[iv] ‘Crowcombe, Church of the Holy Ghost’, Britain Express < https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/somerset/churches/crowcombe.htm> [accessed 29 February 2020].

[v] ‘Bear’, Heraldsnet.org < https://www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker/Jpglossb.htm> [accessed 29 February 2020].


‘Bear’, Heraldsnet.org < https://www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker/Jpglossb.htm> [accessed 29 February 2020]

‘Crowcombe, Church of the Holy Ghost’, Britain Express < https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/somerset/churches/crowcombe.htm> [accessed 29 February 2020]

Tindale, J., The Language of Hatchments <https://www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/Items/Wiltshire/Wiltshire%20-%20The%20Language%20of%20Hatchments.pdf> [accessed 29 February 2020].