Curator's Choice: Exhibition of monastic life

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The Independent Culture
The mystery surrounding this object is that while it's been identified as a double-heart coffin and was found here at Beaulieu Abbey in about 1873, it wasn't actually found in the church - where you expect a coffin to be buried. Instead it was discovered outside the foundations of what used to be the abbey's great gatehouse, which today is part of the Palace House. They were extending the house in the 1870s when it was recovered and what surprises us is that there is no firm evidence as to whose hearts it may have contained.

It is suggested that one of the hearts belonged to a man called Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the youngest son of King John, who died in 1272. Although Richard was buried at Hailes Abbey, it is said that he ordered his heart to be buried at Beaulieu. Unfortunately the only reference we have for this is from Francis Baigent, a famous Hampshire antiquarian, in an exhibition catalogue from 1904 but he provides no source for it. The whole thing is quite intriguing.

There was a belief in monastic times that distinguished people could be buried in different places because the souls of the departed derived greater advantage from the prayers of several congregations. Heart coffins were used particularly in the years of the crusades in the Holy Land. They had no means of preserving the whole body but it was fairly simple to preserve the heart, so the body would be buried at the place of death and the heart would go to the place the person wished to be associated with.

Sue Tomkins is the archivist and heritage education officer for the Exhibition of Monastic Life, John Montagu Building, Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, Hants (0590 612345), open daily 10am-6pm

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