Meet our Unknown Lady - and discover her identity

by Dr Marianne M Gilchrist and Jane Owen

The Unknown Lady

For over 200 years, the stone effigy of an unknown mediæval lady has lain in the South transept of Hull Minster. She was found during renovation work in 1821 by the Churchwardens, Anthony North Somerscales and Bethuel Boyes. She had been used as builders’ spoil to brick up one of the old chantry chapels off the South transept. Her hands are pressed together in prayer, perhaps holding her prayer book or a heart. For a long time, she was identified as Eleanor Box, the widow of a Mayor of Hull, from the 1380s – but her style of dress does not fit that time. With few records of the period still intact, how could Hull Minster’s researchers try to find out who she could be? 

Costume Clues 

The clothing the effigy is wearing can tell us roughly when she was carved. She wears an outer garment, a gown, with a belt, decorated with either embroidery or embossed metal or leather plaques. The sleeves are narrow, with deep cuffs. Beneath the gown, she wears an under-dress, called a kirtle, which can be seen through the v-neck opening of the gown. Her head-dress is simple: folded and pinned linen veils over netted hair. This is typical of the mid-15C (1440s-60s). We can see similar costumes in paintings of the time by Rogier van der Weyden and the van Eycks, and on the brass of Margaret Byll (1451) in the South Choir Aisle. This means we can rule out Eleanor Box, whose clothes would have been more like those of Emma de Selby, from late 14C, as can be seen on her tomb in the South Choir Aisle. So, are there any other possibilities?


The Latin inscription displayed with her only records her discovery by the Churchwardens 200 years ago, and gives us no clues. The carving shows her as a young woman, but that does not necessarily mean she died young. It was common to depict people in the prime of life. Most tomb figures were not portraits, and might be ordered from sculptors miles away who had never seen the subject.

Chantry Chapels 

The lady was clearly of high social status to be able to afford a monument of this kind. Tombs with effigies were often associated with chantries where Masses and prayers could be said for the people depicted and their families after death, to help their souls travel through purgatory and reach heaven. They would have left payment for a priest or priests to conduct these services, and sometimes even for a special chantry chapel or altar, with furnishings. The effigy would probably have been painted in life-like colours, to help focus the prayers, as if the real person were lying on their tomb. On the anniversary of their death, a service called an ‘obit’ would be held for them, which was like a re-enactment of the funeral, with candles and prayers, and might also mark the giving out of alms/charity in the dead person’s name, if they had arranged this in their will.

We know the names of some of the people who endowed chantries at Holy Trinity in 15C.  Some were women – mainly wealthy widows of mayors and merchants. Can these give us some possible candidates for the lady’s identity?

A few names of female benefactors stand out: Joan or Jane Gregg (1438) – but the tight sleeves on the dress suggest a later date; Marion Barnard (1458); Agnes Bedford (1459); Margaret Darras (1481) – although the dress would be old-fashioned for this date, it must be remembered that sometimes tombs were carved during the subject’s lifetime: if her husband had died first, she might have had it made then. John Alcock, Bishop of Worcester, founded a chantry in the South Nave in 1480s, in memory of his parents, but again, there would be the same costume question as for Mrs Darras.

Agnes Bedford is a strong candidate: but do we have any other evidence about Bedford family memorials in the Minster? An examination of stained glass in a different area of the church may help us. 

The Vestry Glass 

In the former Vicar’s vestry, nine panels of stained glass were to be repaired and restored. Detailed photographs were taken before the move and a survey was completed. The panels had been pieced together from fragments of stained glass from different parts of the church from different time-periods. The earliest are late 14-early 15C, and the latest are 17C Flemish panels. All are set within 19C surrounds with Tudor roses. Some of the heraldic panels were easy to identify: the arms of Kingston-upon-Hull; the arms of the Earls of Northumberland (Percy quartered with Lucy); the arms of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford (despite some damage and botched repairs in the past). But one shield had never been definitely identified. 

The Mysterious Shield

The glass shield in question shows the impaled arms of two families. Impaled means the shield is divided vertically, to represent a marriage, with. On the husband’s side (dexter – the carrier’s right, viewer’s left), it is red with three small double-headed eagles, which now appear to be yellow or gold, on a white or silver diagonal band (gules, a bend argent, on which three eagles displayed or); on the wife’s side (sinister – the carrier’s left, viewer’s right), it is white or silver (argent), with three dark blue cups. Even the Reverends Collier and Lawrance, in their article “Ancient Heraldry in the Deanery of Harthill” for the Yorkshire Archæological Journal (1922), were unable to identify it, and thought the cups might be spinning tops!  

However, it can now be identified, and opens up an interesting history of the lost Bedford Chantry and possibly the unknown lady. 

The three eagles may now appear to be yellow or gold, but this is against a basic rule of heraldry: metal-on-metal (such as gold on silver) and colour-on-colour are very rarely allowed. It is more likely that the eagles’ original colour has faded – and the yellow underpainting suggests they were probably green. This suggests the husband was from the family of Strother of Wallington, in Northumberland, although modern heraldry usually shows the eagles with a single head. The fact the arms are not local to Hull or East Yorkshire may be another reason why they have not been identified before.

So, who is the wife? The three open cups appear dark blue – but this is a substitute for sable (black): black does not work well in stained glass, because light needs to be able to shine through for the artistic effect. These are the arms of the Hebburn family of Newton-by-the-Sea, again near Newcastle. Since at least 18C, they have been drawn as lamps, rather like a modern tea-light, with a small flame proper (i.e. in natural colours) within them, but before then, they were just cups. So, can we identify a marriage between a Hebburn woman and a Strother man, with a Hull link that would explain why they are in a window in the Minster? 

The answer is ‘Yes’ to both. One woman was a distinguished member of the merchant communities in both Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Kingston-upon-Hull in the first half of 15C. She was born Agnes Hebburn; by marriage, she became Agnes Dalton, Agnes Strother and, finally, in Hull, where she died in 1459, in her late 60s or early 70s, Agnes Bedford.

Biography of Agnes Bedford, née Hebburn

Agnes was probably born c. 1390, one of at least 5 children (3 sons, 2 daughters) of Robert Hebburn of Newton-by-the-Sea (1350-1415) and his wife Agnes Carnaby (d. 1424).  She was the elder of the girls. Her father was from an established family in the Northumbrian gentry, and had increased his estates through inheritance from a cousin in the 1380s. He was also a merchant, exporting wool and hides from Newcastle. He became assessor of taxes in Newcastle, and later collector of pontage and pavage (tolls for the upkeep of bridges and pavements). After Henry IV seized the throne – during Agnes’s childhood – Robert became more politically active, serving Newcastle as Sheriff, MP, and, in the last year of his life, as Mayor.

Agnes grew up in a wealthy family, then, and was expected to marry well. She was sought ought by up-and-coming young merchants. Early in 1411, she married Richard Dalton, a protégé of her father. However, a rival, William Moreton, also claimed her hand. The Bishop of Durham had to send commissaries to judge who had the rightful claim! Richard, like his father-in-law, served as controller of customs, MP and Sheriff. After Robert Hebburn died in 1415, Richard helped administer his estate and arrange a marriage for Agnes’s younger sister, Margaret. It is unclear if or how Richard was related to the Daltons of Hull, but he certainly had Yorkshire connections, as Agnes inherited silverware from Father John Dalton (d. 1433), priest of All Saints, Peaseholm Green in York – perhaps his brother or uncle. She also kept in touch with other members of the Dalton family there. Richard died c. 1421-22, leaving Agnes a widow with at least one surviving child, John, under the age of 10.

As the owner of a substantial amount of property in Newcastle, Agnes did not remain single for long. John Strother of Wallington was old enough to be her father, and had a similar career, as Sheriff, MP and Mayor. He was a very wealthy and influential landowner and merchant, with holdings in at least 10 villages and a lot of property in Newcastle. His first wife, Eleanor, had died, and he had no surviving children, so perhaps hoped that a new wife might give him an heir. However, the marriage lasted only a couple of years: John died on 11 March 1424/25. While his share of the family estates passed to his brother William, Agnes was left a very substantial jointure. She was still in her thirties, and her son John Dalton was still a child, at most an adolescent. 

Agnes’s mother had died around the same time, so perhaps she felt less bound to stay in Newcastle when another marriage opportunity arose c. 1429. John Bedford had a similar social profile to her father and previous husbands: one of Hull’s wealthiest merchants, MP and mayor. He was a widower, with several children from his first marriage, probably nearer her own age than John Strother had been.

John Bedford had risen to prominence as deputy to Thomas Chaucer (Chief Butler of England, and son of the poet) for Hull, Grimsby, Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. He worked sometimes also for Henry V’s brother, John, Duke of Bedford, perhaps amused by the coincidence of his name with his own title. Later, he acted as a trustee for William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, Thomas Chaucer’s son-in-law. One of his business partners was John Tutbury, another benefactor of Holy Trinity; a son-in-law, Thomas Gare, was Mayor of York.

John Bedford owned a number of properties, mainly on the High Street. He leased a dock on the river in Trippett, north of the town walls, and had a royal licence to export grain. Like many merchants, he was not above the occasional act of piracy, and in 1437 he was arrested by the Mayor of Hull for an alleged attack on a Dutch ship, apparently as an act of revenge for an attack on one of his own ships.

John Bedford died in spring 1451 – one wonders if it was in the plague visitation that claimed Richard Byll a few months later? – and was buried next to his first wife Elizabeth in the Choir of Holy Trinity. He endowed a perpetual chantry. The fragment of heraldic glass suggests that there may have been a special window associated with it, which would probably have shown the arms of John Bedford and of both his wives – including Agnes’s previous marriages.

Agnes made her will on 14 September 1459 (prob. 18 October). She was at least in her mid-60s, perhaps even in her 70s. The bequests to family and friends give a strong impression of a lavish lifestyle: plentiful silverwear – including coconut cups, mazers, lots of sets of spoons, salt-cellars, goblets, some with gilding; gold brooches and rings; coral prayer beads; pairs of templers – the hair-nets that created the ‘horned’ look of the period – adorned with pearls; richly decorated belts, like that shown on the effigy; saddles and harness; tablecloths; a bed hung with Arras tapestries. She asked to be buried in the South Choir Aisle, before the image of ‘Saint Mary of Pity’ – i.e. a pietà, an image of the Virgin with the dead Christ. This may have been connected with the Guild of Corpus Christi. She had not forgotten her roots, however: she also left properties in Newcastle for her son to use to pay for 'obit' services for her first two husbands at the Church of the Friars Minor (Franciscans) there.

Neither Leland nor Dodsworth (who gives inscriptions of a lot of now-lost brasses and incised slabs), let alone Gent, mention any extant Bedford family memorials, so perhaps these were lost or unidentified at an early date.


The stone effigy which may be of Agnes Bedford was conserved in March and April 2023 by a team of stonemasons from Mattias Garn and Partner, a stonemason studio in York. Specialising in church masonry, they were able to identify the weakness in her arms and provide a bespoke support. They noticed that the dress of the effigy had been repaired several times over the years, with many deposits of old plaster building up in layers.  

When conserving an object the aim is to stop further deterioration and damage - not to restore the work to perfect, as new condition. We believe that the the wear and tear, marks and scratches are part of the history of the  object.  A "shell" coating was put over her entire length. This helps to draw moisture out and protects against plaster or dust from causing corrosion.  It also gives a nice patina to the monument without requiring an abrasive clean.

Come and see what you think!


In the gallery below (works of art from Wikimedia Commons), you will see portraits from the same time-period in the Netherlands and Flanders – places which traded with Hull, and with a similar merchant lifestyle. These give an idea of what Agnes's clothes would have looked like, and how the well-to-do furnished their homes. The goldsmith's shop includes a coconut cup, similar to those mentioned in John and Agnes Bedford's wills, on the shelf near his head, and some coral prayer-beads.


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