Dr Emma Wells, on the grand connections in Sheriff Hutton Church

13 miles north of York within the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire the few serrated shapes of a picturesque 14th-century castle ruins punctuate the sky. This stunning backdrop was once one of the grandest castles in Northern England. The second castle constructed in the village of Sheriff Hutton, to its east can be found the local parish church where, inside, lies a small squat alabaster tomb, drawing visitors from near and far. 

Technically, the monument is a cenotaph as it never housed any remains, but history has suggested it was a memorial to Ralph, son of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, who met his maker in 1460. Ralph isn’t the only child of note alleged to be housed within this unassuming rural church. The more common story told, and indeed plastered all over the church dedicated to St Helen and the Holy Cross, is that another monument was for the only legitimate son of King Richard III, Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales, who also died at a young age in 1484. At the east end of the north aisle, originally the chantry chapel of another great local family, the Wythams, stands a small alabaster chest tomb. Ravaged by the effects of inclement weather and damp, it is still possible to identify that the effigy represents a small male child. He is dressed in a furred rob, and dons a soft cap, while the Neville arms can barely be made out but were recorded in 1623.

The apocryphal association with Prince Edward has been debunked—and like so many historical yarns, was likely the result of Victorian-er antiquarian optimism, whose analysis of the Neville heraldry adorning the tomb chest and an analogous panel of stained glass led to the misguided proposition. Still, it is unknown for sure who the effigy depicts. The more convincing identification is one of the children of Ralph, son of Richard Neville, first Earl of Westmorland, who supported his (half) brother-in-law Henry IVs seizure of power in 1399, and held the nearby castle and manor of Sheriff Hutton—and whose son, records confirm, was interred at the church. Or, a son of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, called John, who passed at the age of 12 in 1425.

Few can blame the church for pushing the Prince Edward narrative, as the cachet of housing one of the only tombs within a parish church commemorating a member of England’s monarchy would certainly bring the masses flocking.

Books by Dr Emma Wells

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