(Hickling gallery & ‘To Do’ list at the bottom of this page)
“He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (Psalms 91)
This is the dedication at the beginning of Bernard Heathcote’s book, ‘Vale of Belvoir Angels’ and whilst the question of whether these carvings are angels or not is debated, Angels they are in the popular mind. It is possible that the carvings depict what is known as a ‘spiritus’ which represents the soul ascending to heaven; either way, for most this translates as ‘Angel’.
In his extensive survey of the Belvoir Angels, Mr Bernard Heathcote records the earliest known Belvoir Angel in Melton Mowbray in 1681, the earliest in the Vale of Belvoir in 1690 in Redmile and the latest recorded Belvoir Angel in Old Dalby in 1759. He records 328 examples of which the largest number, by far, are in Hickling (33) and Nether Broughton (34).
Characteristics of a ‘Belvoir Angel’
There is a very distinct character about the stonemason or craftsman behind the Belvoir Angels. It is possible that he was illiterate or, at best, semi-literate – spelling mistakes and inconsistencies are common. Engraving typically moves from left to right with little sign of any planning or measuring – words that have been missed out are simply squashed in to roughly the right place; when space runs out the letters become smaller and fall out of line.
Each one is different and they all have a very vibrant, direct appeal to them.
Belvoir Angels are characterised by:
- One or two angels with down-turned, feathered wings
- Symmetrical triangular angel shape
- Stylised head & wings – front-facing
- A ruff around the angel’s neck
- They are not ‘prettified’ – some are quite sinister looking …
- Swithland Slate
- Often carved in relief (like wood carving)
- Often include stylised hour glass, skull, crossed bones symbols
- The reverse often left as rough-hewn
- The designs remain largely unchanged over a 60-year period
Many of the Belvoir Angel headstones are carved in relief (like wood carving); the stone is chipped away from the background of the design so that the angels are proud of the surface; the design stands out from, rather than being inscribed into the surface of the slate. This technique is much more time-consuming and takes a great deal of skill – it was probably only affordable to the more affluent middle-class families emerging after the Civil War of the 1600s.
There are several local variations on the Belvoir Angels theme (and angels were a universally popular motif nationwide, anyway) but the distinctive Belvoir Angel is remarkable in that the carvings remained largely unchanged in style and technique for a full 60 year period; it is highly likely that they are all the work of one individual or family of craftsmen whose work was locally recognised as distinctive with a signature style not to be copied by other craftsmen.
There are a number of gravestones in Hickling churchyard where the lettering closely resembles the Belvoir Angel stones but without the angel engravings; they are all very low to the ground and could be either; earlier stones (in other words the style that the Belvoir Angels were based upon) or they are Belvoir Angel headstones which have lost their decorative upper parts.
When surveying the Belvoir Angels it is recognised that many examples will have been completely lost over time or have simply deteriorated to the point that they are no longer recognisable. Others have lost some of their original depth and clarity, or they have lost bits of their slate or been moved – but it is remarkable that so many have survived for over 300 years.
It does seem safe to speculate that whoever he was he must have lived close to Hickling and Nether Broughton because of the density of examples in this small area.
Who carved the Belvoir Angels?
By the mid-1750s it became common for stonemasons to date and sign their work but no one has been able to identify the craftsman behind the Belvoir Angels with any certainty.
Bernard Heathcote speculates that the Belvoir Angels stonemason/s could be earlier generations of the Wright family; John Wright is recorded as a mason and brick worker in Hickling between 1790 and 1830 and an old gravestone has been uncovered in the garden of his old home, Cobblestones. However, (at this time) there is no record linking earlier generations to these headstones. Interestingly, Mr Heathcote’s book records a number of Belvoir Angel headstones dedicated to members of the Wright family in Nether Broughton churchyard (1719-1733) – we hope to explore this in more detail, shortly.
Another route to explore includes wood carvings resembling the Belvoir Angels which we believe can be found in Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire; an origin in wood carving does make some sense and we intend to look into this possibility further.
Anecdotally (but certainly not verified), the story goes that the Belvoir Angels were carved by a father followed by his son – examples stop abruptly in the 1750s. It is said that there are remarkably similar engraved headstones in a small area in North America, possible Massachusetts (and nowhere else in the world) leading to an idea that the son emigrated and continued working, using the traditional unchanged Belvoir Angels style, for a short time in America.
David Lea refers to this (p.29) and he provides a link to the Farber Gravestone Collection – we are exploring this resource but haven’t confirmed any link yet. We would like to hear from you if you have any information that might help with this.
& some thoughts to ponder:
- We understand that there is a Belvoir Angel headstone propped against the Church Wall in Eaton with no names or dates; this has led to the thought that it may be either a template that local stonemasons could copy from or a sample stone, used to show individuals wishing to commission a headstone. The repetition of verses across the Vale may support this (Peter Hammond).
- This also led to the thought that stencils may have been used; if so, these would have defined the size and shaping of the lettering and then anything that didn’t fit would have been squashed in where possible (Peter Hammond).
- That the stonemason originally worked with wood – there are examples at Grimsthorpe Castle which may help with this. Some of the incredibly time-consuming relief work may support this idea (Carol Beadle).
- That the top and bottom sections were carved in advance (possibly years ahead) and then the middle sections completed when the headstone was ready for use; this could explain the irregular sizing and spacing (Stephen Cresswell).
- There is also a thought that the number of angels reflects the number of people buried; this comes from the ‘spiritus’ theory where the Angel is a representation of the spirit leaving the body; thus 1 angel = 1 burial and 4 angels = 4 burials. This doesn’t account for names added later, though. An idea for testing out (Bob Trubshaw).
- Note: spelling and grammar weren’t really a fixed thing until much later (for example, Johnson’s dictionary/Georgian era onwards). Spellings which we now see as mistakes aren’t necessarily a sign of illiteracy – accepted forms were very different in the 1700s anyway and people often simply wrote phonetically (even names) without causing offence.
Variations on the Belvoir Angels theme
The 60-year period covered by the Belvoir Angel craftsmen saw a huge change in techniques and styles; the introduction of ‘books of emblems’ aimed at stonemasons and furniture-makers and giving detailed examples of designs and calligraphy meant that styles became fashionable nationally rather than locally and engravings became lighter and more intricate. In contrast, the Belvoir Angel headstones emerged clearly from earlier styles of the 1600s which were shorter and squat with relatively crude lettering; over the 60 year Belvoir Angel period, the engravings stayed firmly in this earlier, cruder styling.
The highest quality period of headstone carving is seen in the mid-1700s – early examples in the late 1600s are very crude in comparison. Hickling churchyard contains many examples of Swithland Slate headstones outside the ‘Belvoir Angels’ tradition (see David Lea book for more on these). For example, the work of William Charles of Wymeswold in the mid- to late-1700s whose angels tend to be more chubby-faced (for example, in Hickling churchyard he engraved the headstone for Ann Orson in 1759).
Swithland Slate headstones.
Swithland Slate has been quarried from Slate Pits since Roman times – quarrying ended in 1887 after a slow decline and the slate pits are now disused and largely water-filled. Swithland Slate is a term used to describe early Cambrian-era slate found in and around the Charnwood Forest area in Leicestershire which forms a compact area of unusual geology in relation to its surroundings (see David Lea p5).
Swithland slate varies in colour through blues, greens, greys and purples with some areas being clearly identifiable by a predominance of one or other of these shades. It is a very hard slate and ‘does not have a well-developed cleavage’ (David Lea p7) making it hard to split into thin sheets – roof tiles tend to be thicker and heavier (than, for example, Welsh slate) but it is ideal for headstones.
(Article put together from local resources and with gratitude to the sources referenced, below)
Heathcote book scans Bernard Heathcote made an extensive survey of the Belvoir Angels with his late-wife, Pauline and these have been collated in to a comprehensive book recording their finds – unfortunately, this is now out of print and copies are almost impossible to get hold of; nevertheless, we have been able to include the Hickling pages here* (link, above). We are indebted to their research.
(*extracts reproduced in accordance with copyright and orphan works licensing regulations and are for not-for-profit research purposes only)
Belvoir Angels, A Field Guide by Nigel & Barbara Wood (2011, Langar cum Barnstone Heritage Group)
Please click on the front page image (left) to explore Nigel & Barbara Wood’s excellent field guide to the Belvoir Angels.
Our thanks to the authors and the Langar cum Barnstone Heritage Group for their permission to publish it here.
Angels on their shoulders, with a shapely old yew for company by David Powell (2020)
Please click on the front cover image (right) to open his wonderful chapter on the Belvoir Angels. Our thanks to David for his permission to publish it here.
Please contact us if you are interested in the full book and we can put you in touch with the author.
Belvoir Angels, A Grave Story – a talk given by Peter Hammond (Feb 2020).
This talk was originally given in February 2020 – please click on the image (left) to read a review published in the Notts Family History Society Journal (July 2020 Journal vol. 16 no.7). We are very grateful to the Notts FHS for their permission to publish it here.
A Belvoir Angels Database:
We are very grateful to all those who have worked for many years on this project and whose research has led to an up-to-date database of the surviving Belvoir Angel headstones – thank you!
Ann Schmidt ~ Pauline and Bernard Heathcote ~ Alan Murray-Rust ~ Rod Gill ~ Nigel Morley ~ Alan McWhirr ~ Peter Hammond ~ Jane Fulford
The big advantage of a database project is that it can be updated and amended over time. Please contact us if you have new data or information to contribute and we will pass it on to the researchers involved.
‘To Do’ List – we hope to:
- Research the Wright family in Nether Broughton and then Hickling to see if we can confirm them as the stonemasons responsible for the Belvoir Angels.
- We understand that wood carvings at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire are the same as the Belvoir Angel headstones: we would like to look into this further.
- Follow-up the possible American Belvoir Angels and try to establish a connection (if one exists …).
- Collect all the epitaphs across the 300+ Belvoir Angel headstones; analyse how often and when epitaphs were repeated and try to identify any patterns.
- Organise a Belvoir Angels day for anyone interested in their history.
If you can help with any of these areas, please contact us.
We are currently working on:
- individual pages for each of the Hickling headstones – these should follow shortly.
- following-up the Everard, Son & Pick/Ashmall correspondence.
The Belvoir Angels gallery is a simple photographic record of the gravestones loosely arranged from the west to the east in direction; most of them occur to the south of the churchyard around the south porch area. We are currently in the middle of recording the graveyard in detail – when this project is complete the Belvoir Angel gravestones will be included with transcripts and family histories as well as precise location markers.
Please note: this is a large gallery and may take a little while to load to your screen.