Yorkshire graveyard survey:  Memory, commemoration and the country house estate


A sample of Yorkshire graveyards are to be investigated to understand how they have developed, and to identify the changes in monument types, materials, decoration and form of text over time. As such they are fine examples of rural graveyards where the material remains can also be compared with patterns of burial recorded in the parish burial registers.

Initial surveys concentrated on two churchyards near to Castle Howard, a few miles north-east of York. The small, picturesque village of Bulmer has a beautiful small medieval church and an interesting graveyard. This is grazed some of the time by sheep to keep the grass down, and contains a variety of later 18th, 19th and 20th century memorials. The graveyard has been extended over time. There are a few internal memorials on the walls and on the floor of the chancel. Welburn was part of Bulmer parish until during the 19th century when it gained its own church and churchyard. Before then, the residents of Welburn were buried at Bulmer, and we have recorded many gravestones which state that the deceased was of Welburn. Therefore, the combination of the two sites showed the pattern of commemoration in the same block of land (originally one parish but now two) from the 18th century to the present day.

The research examined the ways in which families on the Castle Howard estate were influenced by the country house when creating memorials in the landscape. Some, like the Howard family mausoleum at Castle Howard, are away from the church on private estates, others such as village war memorials may be in public places, and many others may be in the church or churchyard. The graveyards can throw light on the nature, extent and chronology of patronage and independent identity. Some of the memorials to villagers were paid for by the landowners, but most were not. A detailed study will show how affiliation and patronage was used in the villages and throw light on the relationships between village, estate and house.

Some recording work has also been undertaken at Heslington church, another example of a churchyard with high status graves (owners of Heslington Hall), their estate workers and other inhabitants.

Regional level

Within North Yorkshire, Kellington, Riccal, Escrick and Sheriff Hutton have been studied as well as Bulmer and Welburn, and much of the graveyard in the market town of Easingwold has been recorded. Further selective recording in burial grounds in and around Helmsley has allowed regional trends to be identified, and the 2019 Kirkdale Lecture (to be published in the Kirkdale lecture monograph series in due course) places the regional traditions against the national and international commemoration boom and transformations of monumental forms and motifs. This is one of the largest regional collections of archaeologically collected gravestone data in Britain, and it will continue to grow each year.

An important 17th- and early 18th-century regional style has been identified in West Yorkshire. So far the only work on these memorials has been by Peter Brears, who has written 'Heart gravestones in the Calder valley' in Folk Life 19, 84-93.The first planned site is St Mary in the Wood, Morley, West Yorkshire. Here the important use of hearts and cherubs as major motifs can be studied. There are also elaborate initial letters, a feature also noted nearer to York. We will thus investigate the earlier phases of graveyard memorial design, the development of motifs and scripts, and through supplementary documentary research, discover what social classes innovated with this method of churchyard commemoration. Thus questions about the social context of gravestone change, the changing meanings of symbols will be investigated.


This research programme continues to make significant contributions to current debates in historical archaeology, particularly on the the changing role of material culture in an increasingly consumerist culture, and in the study of individual and group identity. It forms part of a larger research programme examining mortuary behaviour in the historic period.


  • York Cemetery has been subject to several research and conservation programmes and provides useful urban comparative data for the surveys undertaken in this project.


  • H Mytum 2007 'Monuments and Memory in the Estate Landscape: Castle Howard and Sledmere'. In: J Finch and K Giles ed(s). Estate Landscapes: Design, Improvement and Power in the Post-Medieval Landscape, 149-174. Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology
  • H Mytum 2006 'Popular attitudes to memory, the body, and social identity: the rise of external commemoration in Britain, Ireland, and New England'. Post-medieval Archaeology 40,1, 96-110
  • H Mytum 2004 Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period. Kluwer Academic/Plenum, New York
  • H Mytum 2000 Recording and Analysing Graveyards. York, Council for British Archaeology Practical Handbooks in Archaeology 15
  • H Mytum 1996 'Intrasite Patterning and the Temporal Dimension using GIS: the example of Kellington Churchyard'. Annalecta Praehistoria Leidensia 28, 363-367.