When I visited Lincolnshire earlier in the year I went to see the church of St Michael at Swaton.
Having been warned that the church is kept locked and that a key holder needs to be located I approached the small village with trepidation. Friends had told tales of not being able to gain access and having to stand on upturned flower pots to peer in through the windows, but I managed to obtain the huge key from a lovely lady at the tearooms just down the road and having turned the locks – top and bottom – on the old wooden church door I stepped inside.
St Michael’s dates back to the Normans. William the Conqueror gave Swaton to Wido de Credon, a King’s thane and it is thought that a church was built here soon afterwards. There was rebuilding in 1230, but it is the extensive alterations that were undertaken in 1320 that interest me most as the church was, at this time, in the possession of Alice de Lacy.
At the back of the church is an effigy of a lady.
The information leaflet in the church says: “The effigy of a lady with a sleeping dog at her feet is dressed in 13th century costume and is therefore older than the nave. It may commemorate the wife of Gerard de Camville, Lord of the manor of Swaton in the first quarter of the 13th century.”
The wife of Gerard de Camville was Nicholaa de la Haye. She was the daughter of Richard de la Haye and Matilda de Verdun who had been given Swaton as a dowry by Henry II after it had passed back into royal possession. Nicolaa was the hereditary custodian of Lincoln Castle and after her husband’s death she became the constable in her own right and held the castle against a siege for King John. She was buried at Swaton Church so it seems reasonable to assume that the effigy is hers. But experts claim that the style of the effigy is from a later date.
It shows a lady whose head is resting on a double cushion and up until around 1300 it was usual to have only a single cushion. Her feet rest upon a dog, which looks a little like a spaniel, and up until the beginning of the 14th century it was more usual for the feet to rest on a lion. The style of dress, with the tightly buttoned sleeves, which can be clearly seen, would also date the effigy to the early 1300s.
It has been suggested that the effigy could be that of Nicolaa’s granddaughter, Idonea de Camville who married William Longspee (2), or her great granddaughter, Ela (or Emma) Longspee.
Amongst the entries relating to Alice de Lacy’s lands after the execution of her husband in 1322 is one dated 10th July at York. It reads:
Grant to Alice de Lascy, countess of Lincoln and Salisbury, late the wife of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, and her heirs, that she may enter upon and hold the manor of Avington, co. Berks, upon the death of Emma de Lungespeye, who holds it for life of the inheritance of the said Alice, and which upon the death of the said Emma ought for certain causes to pass into the king's hands. By K. This Emma de Lungespeye was a cousin of Alice's mother. She would have been an elderly lady by this time and had no children so it is possible that when she died, possibly in 1331, her body was buried in her family's church and Alice commissioned an effigy.
Or could the effigy be Alice herself? She was buried at Barlings Abbey in 1348. It isn’t known whether there was an effigy on her tomb there or who might have commissioned it although it was not unheard of for effigies to be commissioned by people in their own lifetimes. It is an outside possibility that Alice had the effigy carved during her lifetime and that it was intended for her own tomb. Perhaps it was rescued from the abbey church at the Dissolution and brought back to Swaton from Barlings? It seems unlikely.
It is also unlikely that the effigy is of Alice’s mother Margaret Longspee (de Lacy). She was buried at Lacock Abbey which was founded by her ancestor Ela Longspee and although her tomb may have born an effigy it is very unlikely that this is it.
Perhaps Alice commissioned an effigy of her ancestor Nicolaa de la Haye to be placed in the newly refurbished church to mark the site of her burial. That would explain the discrepancy between the date of Nicolaa’s death and the date of the carving.
I don’t think the identity of the lady can ever be certain but I’m sure there must be some link with Alice de Lacy. After her husband, Thomas, earl of Lancaster, was executed as a traitor in 1322 most of her lands were confiscated, including the ones that she held by right through her mother’s family, but she asked for permission to grant the church at Swaton to Barlings Abbey:
dated at York, 16 July, 16 Edward II, by Alice de Lacy, countess of Lincoln and Salisbury,to the abbot and convent of St. Mary’s, Barlinges, of the manor of Swaveton, co. Lincoln, and the advowson of the church thereof, with knights’ fees, homages and services of free tenants, free fair, free market, and free warren, for the good of the souls of Edward I and Eleanor his wife, Henry de Lacy, sometime earl of Lincoln, and Margaret his wife, her father and mother, Edmund her brother, her ancestors and heirs.
It seems that the church of St Michael was special to Alice as a place that had been in the possession of her mother’s family for generations. I enjoyed seeing it for myself and if you’re in the area do take the trouble to locate a keyholder and go to look inside. It’s well worth seeing and you will also find the remains of a medieval wall painting of the wheel of fortune – fortune that was not always kind to Alice de Lacy.