1627 Knight’s Tomb in Jamestown conserved

Since late last year, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have been excavating the Memorial Church, built in 1907 over the foundations of three 17th century churches, the earliest being the 1617 timber-frame church in which the Jamestown colonists held the first representative assembly in English North America in 1619. (The second was built in 1640, the last in 1680.) The site was excavated in 1901 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (today known as Preservation Virginia) before construction of the Memorial Church. The foundations of the 1617 church were discovered in that dig, but archaeological priorities and methods were different then, and the APVA team poured concrete between the remains of foundation and wall thinking it would keep them intact. Archaeologists today are removing the concrete (no small task — some sections are as much as five feet deep) to uncover elements in the soil that their predecessors wouldn’t have noticed or cared about but that contain potentially significant information about the construction of the 1617 church.

Knight's Tomb in the chancel aisle of Memorial Church. Photo courtesy Historic Jamestowne.One of the aims of the new excavation is to conserve a unique ledger gravestone (a marker that lies horizontally covering the full length of a grave) known as the Knight’s Tomb. Moniker notwithstanding, there is no knight, or anyone else for that matter, buried under the stone. There was originally, but sometime in the 17th century it was moved to the chancel aisle, just inside the doorway of the brick church, and recycled as a paver. It is the only surviving ledger stone in the United States.

The slab is six by three feet in dimension and has inset carvings which once held brass plates that identified and glorified the deceased. You can see the bolt holes that once affixed the plates to the stone. In the upper right hand corner is a shield, whose brass inlay would have been a family crest. Across from it is a scroll, and in the middle is a knight in plate armor standing on a rectangular pedestal which likely contained the full funerary inscription.

Because of the loss of the brass plates, researchers aren’t certain who the knight in question was, but there aren’t a ton of candidates. There are in fact only two knights who were buried in the 1617 church: Thomas West, Lord De La Warre, who died on the transatlantic voyage and was buried in Jamestown in 1618, and Sir George Yeardley, who actually managed to land in the Americas alive and well. He was Governor of Virginia during that first General Assembly meeting held in the original church in 1619. He died in 1627 and was buried in the church.

“When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died, you want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living,” said [Assistant Curator with Preservation Virginia Hayden] Bassett. “They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here.”

Bassett said after searching through the journals of both men’s extended families, he thinks Preservation Virginia may have found mentions of the stone by Yeardley’s step-grandson Adam Thorowgood II, whose mother married Yeardley’s youngest son, Francis.

“What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb,” Bassett said. “We believe that might reference this stone.”

Gravestone conservation expert Jonathan Appell begins to remove the Knight's Tomb from the cement. Photo courtesy Historic Jamestowne.It was unearthed by the APVA in the 1901 dig. Its brass plates were long gone by then, and the stone was broken in several fragments, all of them quite large, one of them the full bottom half of the stone. They decided to keep it pretty much where they found it, moving it just a foot south. To seal it in place and fill the joins between the fragments, the team poured Portland cement around it and into the cracks. People loved their Portland cement back then because it’s so hard and durable, but as a preservation material it’s unfortunately terrible. The contrast between its hardness and the more porous, softer period materials causes moisture problems and puts undue stress on the historic structures.

The Knight’s Tomb is no exception. To ensure its long-term health, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists knew they’d have to get it out of that cement trap and into the hands of modern conservators who use materials that can be reversed should they cause problems down the line. On April 10th, conservator Jonathan Appell of of Atlas Preservation, an expert in the conservation of historic monumental stone memorials and gravestones, began the difficult job of releasing the ledger stone.

The cement around the edges of the gravestone was hand-chiseled away. Thankfully, the people who installed it in the floor of the Memorial Church in the early 20th century did not set it in a bed of Portland cement. Instead it was placed on slate shims over a mortared brick base, so once the cement was removed from the sides and under the edges, the stone could be pried off its base relatively easily. Once the Portland cement was gone, the stone came up in the same fragments it was first found in back in 1901. Very carefully and painstakingly, the team moved the stones up wooden ramps onto a platform where the detailed conservation will take place.

You can see some of their hard work explained by Jonathan Appell in this wonderful video on the Jamestown Rediscovery YouTube channel:


That YouTube channel is a gem, very much worth following and/or bookmarking. They have several videos documenting the current excavation of the 1907 Memorial Church.





Unrelated to the church and its tombs, this video about the discovery and conservation of the most complete set of jacks of plate (an armoured vest of overlapping plate sewn onto canvas) in the United States is just plain cool.



10 thoughts on “1627 Knight’s Tomb in Jamestown conserved

  1. Well, if the brass plates did get moved to a black marble tomb, I wonder what happened to that tomb?

  2. Yeardley seems a likelier candidate; the shape of the stone where the arms would have been suggests a plain shield, whereas the arms of the De La Warre family would have been surmounted by a ducal crown, and circled by the belt of the Order of the Garter.

    I wonder what happened to the brasses? In many English country curches today — especially in East Anglia and Norfolk, where the Puritans were strongest — the brasses were destroyed during the interregnum in various spates of iconoclasm, some even done under Parliamentary authority.

  3. The brasses likely melted when the place was burned during Bacon’s Rebellion. The church you’re seeing is a 1907 reconstruction of the 1639 brick church that was built around the 1617 wooden church that Yeardley was buried in. Only the floor survives from the 1617 church as the 1639 church was built around it. The tower dates from sometime in the 17th century. The post- Bacon church itself was a ruin by the 1750’s, pilfered by the locals for building supplies. Only the the tower stood in 1901 when reconstruction began.

    The Puritans weren’t much of factor in Virginia, it was a place to set out the Puritan revolution in the home country.

    As for the marble tomb, the Yeardley’s wanted it built, but we don’t know it was. Jamestown is built on what used to be a low island in a tidal swamp. If a marble tomb was built it’s either sunk deep in the ground, or was hauled off by material scavengers to be part of some planters palazzo on higher ground.

    Knights were about as common as dirt in Jamestown and the Tidewater from it’s founding until the the mid-17th century. I’m descended from one that arrived in 1617. It seems as if every fifth Englishman was a “Sir” in Jamestown in the early period.

    They tended to be a plague of do-less wonders, second and third sons, who by and large wouldn’t do manual labor and caused problems with the Natives.

  4. Any ideas about the curling form over the right shoulder of the knight? Is it a “dialogue” or quote scroll?

  5. @scott – Indeed, it is most likely one of those ‘speech bubbles’ or ‘speech scrolls’ that one occasionally sees on English prints of the time. :hattip:

    The brass could have ended up in the ‘medieval’ chain mail, but even by then it was probably completely out of fashion already, I’d say :giggle:

    Were the complete foundations of all the different churches recorded, i.e. were there relevant differences of some kind, e.g. in shape and size ?

  6. Not necessarily on the chain mail, Paige. The Spanish were in nearby Florida, with mission settlements in Georgia and S.C., the French in Canada, and the Dutch getting set up in downstate NY.

    Chain mail works well for what it’s designed for, slashing attacks from the edged metal weapons of the time. Plenty of Europeans to fight with if you ran across them. The colonists at Jamestown constantly lived in fear of Spanish raids in the early period.

    Two, both the failed Roanoke, and successful Jamestown colonies were set partly as a counter to Spanish power. They’re just north of the Capes on the N.C. coast the Spanish Treasure fleets used as landmarks to make the turn east for the run home from Havana. As the wind in eastern N. America blows from the W.N.W. most of the time, both sites were perfect for sending out privateers.

    What do you need when you board a ship full of men w/ cutlasses? Chain mail or a plate doublet. Privateering was one of the cornerstones of early English colonial policy in N. America.

  7. Another great rabbit hole you open for me to explore. Thanks for a great evening of learning about Jamestown.

  8. I agree with Bruce – thanks for the post, and the videos, esp the video about digital mapping, and the one explaining the jacks of plate.

  9. After removing the grave slab, there are photos of bones and decayed material. I wonder if anyone DNA tested it and if the two known Knights blood line still exists?

  10. Really intersting…for children visiting could you install a Brass Rubbing Area similar to London Brass Rubbing Company..as they could visualise what was on your tombe better.

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