Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Hatchments in Sussex

In these days when half the congregation at a funeral won't be wearing a suit, let alone a black tie, the way our ancestors carried on seems somewhat bizarre. Death was a serious business involving processions of black-clad mutes, horse-drawn hearses with black plumes, miles of black crepe and months of formal mourning.
Many churches still have reminders of old funeral practices hanging on the walls in the form of hatchments, the diamond-shaped painted panels with the coats of arms of local families.
Hatchments were erected over the main entrance of the home of the deceased, remaining there for a year after which they were transferred to the church and the family could finally put their deep black mourning clothes back in the wardrobe until next time.
The word hatchment is a corruption of achievement, the technical term for the full heraldic works of shield, helmet, crest, supporters, and any coronets or other items depending on rank.
Coats of arms usually come in two halves, the arms of the holder on the dexter side and those of his wife on the sinister side. "Dexter" means right and "sinister" means left, of course, but because they are relative to the person holding the shield, for the viewer dexter is on the left and sinister on the right of a hatchment. Conventionally, if the husband died but the wife was still living, the dexter background would be painted black and the sinister white, and vice-versa. Hatchments of people with no 'other half', that is, the unmarried and widowed, were all black.
Hatchments appeared in the British Isles, Belgium and the Netherlands in the 17th century and continued into Victorian times.They were painted on wood or canvas in a wood frame, usually by the same itinerant craftsmen that did pub signs.
The tiny church at Burton Park has two hatchments for male members of the Biddulph family that lived in the big house next door. One has the shield surrounded by ribbons – the ribbons were often knotted for the arms of women.
Other fine examples are at Tortington, Warminghurst and Aldingbourne, the last having been beautifully restored recently.