Who was Maximillian Norreys?

This article is proof again of the amazing research capability afforded by the modern internet. A few days ago, I really only had a few pictures I had taken of his tombstone, and only knew a few minor facts about the man. But I had the sense there was more to the story – why was he buried in Jersey? And why in such a prominent way? And why did Jean Chevalier so persistently use his tombstone as the location reference for important burials within the church during the Civil War?  I never could have imagined what I would find when I started digging into the family of Maximillien Norreys.  More than mere answers to these questions…

When Richard Lane was a young boy growing up in Northhamptonshire, England, a man about my son’s age (mid 30’s) fell fighting in France for the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I in France. Nearly 60 years later, Richard Lane would be interred next to this young man under the floors of St Helier’s church in Jersey.  But who was this young soldier, Maximillien Norreys?

Correction: I have subsequently found convincing evidence that the key dates used outside of Jersey regarding of the life and death of Maximillien Norreys are incorrect: He was born in 1566 and died in 1591.  I have not adjusted the article below, because its more fun if  leave it as originally written and refer you to the follow-on article: Maximillian Norreys: argumentum, quod vita est, quod fit, dum nos faciens ad alia factus consilia!

The youngest child of a family of close friends with Elizabeth I, and the youngest brother of Jersey’s “first lady”, Maximillien was laid to rest with honor in the floor of Saint Helier’s Town Church in 1593. His is the oldest surviving memorial at that church. 50 years later, the dramatic Latin-engraved memorial in the floor was used as a repeated “landmark” by Jean Chevalier regarding the locations of a spate of similarly honored burials documented in his mid-1600’s diary.  The author of my book (and the man whose grave site I seek) was among that group.

In his story of Richard Lane’s funeral, Jean Chevalier describes the burial location thus:

“…when the sermon was over, the body was interred at the end of Saint Helier’s church, facing the tomb of Maximillian Norreys.”

The tomb Chevalier refers to was marked by a 3-panel tombstone currently displayed on the wall of the “mortuary chapel” (or North Chapel). These stone memorial panels are inscribed in rows of Latin text spanning their combined width, and measure at total of  63″W x 17″H.  The stone panels themselves are not uniform, but are of increasing widths (19″, 21″ and 23″, left to right).  This is the oldest known memorial stone at the church, but no record of its original location seems to have survived.


The Norris (Norreys) Family and the Tudor Monarchy

In circa 1557, Maximillian was born into a noble family with longstanding and close connections to the highest tiers of the English Monarchy. His grandfather’s generation served as personal grooms to a series of Tudor kings and queens in the generation before Queen Elizabeth I.

The most notable of this generation was Maximillien’s grandfather, Sir Henry Norris, who was personally and tragically involved in one of the greatest historical melodramas of all time – the marital chaos of King Henry VIII.

For those colonists not familiar with this rather exciting page of English history, the alphabet soup in this monarch’s troubled genetic pantry was desperately short of “Y”, causing him to flit through a series of wives who might bear him a son.  Initially, the charismatic but execution-prone King was a staunch supporter of the Roman Catholic Church.  But when his first wife bore him only a single surviving girl (among a series of unviable children), Henry decided he had earned God’s disfavor by marrying his brother’s widow and sought an annulment.  When the Pope was unwilling to grant this, Henry VIII responded by renouncing papal authority over the Church of England and instead placed himself at the Church’s head.  Thus he was finally able to legitimize his secret marriage to the former Queen’s lovely courtesan, Anne Boleyn.  In 1533, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a slightly premature girl, named Elizabeth – “Elizabeth I” to be  precise, but more about her later.

If you would like to understand Queen Elizabeth I and her amazing role in history better, there are two movies about her very much worth seeing:  the 1998 “Elizabeth”, and the 2007 sequel “Elizabeth, the Golden Age”.  Cate Blanchett does a wonderful job in both.

But before young Elizabeth was 3 years old, a series of miscarriages led her son-deprived father’s flitting affections to the next in his sequence of six wives.  Sensing an opportunity, charges of treasonous adultery were brought against the Queen by an ambitious rival of her influence, based initially upon a too-familiar statement by the Queen to “gentle” Sir Henry Norris.  Norris was a close friend of Henry VII (and served as a groom to him).  He was also a leader of a faction supporting Anne Boleyn’s influence in English affairs.  All five men were convicted of the flimsy charges and beheaded in May 1536. According to Sir Robert Naunton, Queen Elizabeth I always honored the memory of Sir Henry Norreys, believing that he died “in a noble cause and in the justification of her mother’s innocence”.  Anne Boleyn professed the same innocence on her soul in a Eucharistic ceremony before she, too, was beheaded for the same “crime”.

Maximillien Norrey’s Father and Queen Elizabeth I

Maximillian Norreys’ father, Henry Norris (1st Baron Norreys) helped watch over young Elizabeth I after the execution of her mother. In 1554, he was assigned to guard the 21 year old Elizabeth I, and due to his father’s loyalty to her mother, Henry Norris became a lifelong part of Elizabeth I’s “inner circle”.  Later in life, Henry and his wife received Queen Elizabeth I at the family estate many times spanning at least the years 1566-1592 (the last only 11 years before her death at age 70).  At the table during these visits were the Norris’ 7 children; one daughter in the middle of six sons.

When 33 year old Queen Elizabeth I visited the family estate in 1566, she was eight years into her reign, and had come to knight young Maximillian’s father.  What am impression that must have made on all of Sir Henry Norris’s 7 children,  from John, the eldest (at 19), down to young Maximilian, age 9! In their adulthood, all of the Norris sons became soldiers (and several, lauded military leaders) in Queen Elizabeth’s armies.  All of Maximillien’s older brothers were eventually knighted for their accomplishment in that service.

An utterly unexpected discovery…

One of the joys of this particular research project has been the number of times I have found myself sitting stunned at an unexpected enlargement of the story. Generally speaking, little would normally survive from an obscure life lived well before there was anything but the most tenuous of colonial toeholds in the new world.  So, this quest is largely an effort of digital archaeology – digging to find scraps and references that can be correlated and used to turn hypotheses into theories. And over time, theories into accepted facts. If you are lucky. And persistent.

Only in movies do you plow through the information jungle and run headlong into a stunning 2-and-a-half story marble monument on the floor of Westminster Abbey. It just doesn’t happen. And if it does, it is never something that is self-evident – conclusive in its nature.  But it happened.  And in this case, the monument I collided with includes a finely detailed, life sized sculpture of the man who moments before had been little more than a biographical paragraph.  Unbelievable.

Should it prove to have been sponsored by her (still only a strong theory), it is difficult to imagine any clearer evidence of the importance of the Norris family to Queen Elizabeth I than the stunning monument at Westminster Abbey.  And, the configuration of the monument provides an indication it was created while Queen Elizabeth I still lived.

In sculpture effigies, a deceased person who is depicted lying in repose is called a “gisant”.  Similarly, a deceased person depicted kneeling is called a “priant”.  Among the figures of the monument, there is only one that is not praying, which would (by that logic) have been Edward Norreys (3rd son) who died in 1603.

In fact, the two years preceding Edward Norris’ death is the only window of time a single member of the family survived (it is unknown when Lady Catherine died, but her depiction in the monument suggests she did not outlive her husband).  And the  4 years leading up to that window were years of great loss in the family.  In that time (1597-1601) the family lost 4 members – capped with the death of the family patriarch, Sir Henry Norris,  in 1601. This sudden reduction of the Norris family to a single surviving son must have been a shock to Queen Elizabeth I (who would die herself at the end of that same 2 year window).  This rapid decline of what might have seemed her lifelong extended family certainly have provided sufficient motivation for the creation of such a monument.

Westminster Abbey Memorial to Henry, Lord Norris
The stunningNorris memorial in St Andrews Chapel at Westminster Abbey, London.


Located in the St Andrews Chapel at Westminster Abbey, the marble monument is an grand feat of marble sculpture.  Imposing in its stature, it rises 24 feet high, and is capped by the figure of the greek goddess “Pheme” (fame) – a symbol of renoun.  The monument includes life sized effigies of Lord and Lady Norris lying in repose, flanked by the kneeling, life-sized effigies of all of their sons, clad in 1500’s armor – including their youngest: Maximillian.


Two of the six effigies of Lord Norris’s sons in the family memorial at Westminster Abbey. If they are arranged by age, the man at the rear is Maximillien Norreys, who lies buried under the floor of the St Helier Town Church in Jersey

Monument to Lord And Lady Norris in Westminster Abbey

Death and Burial of Maximillien Norreys

In 1593, Maximillian was serving under his acclaimed brother Sir John Norreys in the aid of Henry IV during the ongoing religious wars in France. In September of that year, Maximillian was in Brittany when he died due to wounds received in battle at age 36.  I have not yet been able to confirm that he was brought back to Jersey wounded and died here of those injuries.

But why was he buried in Jersey?  He could have easily been taken to his home in England for burial in Oxfordshire (just to the west of London), where his parents lived.

Personally, I think it unlikely the son of a prominent family would have been buried in a church he had no relationship to. It is my hypothesis that Maximillian had become a member of the St Helier community.  He is not known to have been married and might have settled here to live near his sister, Catherine, who was the Governor’s wife.  Perhaps evidence can be found to confirm that he was a member of the community and parish of St Helier in his adulthood? Research for another day!

It can be reasonably speculated that a significant advocate for his funereal arrangements was his older sister, Catherine –  the wife of the Governor of Jersey, Anthony Paulet.  The family’s importance in Jersey, and its longstanding connection to the ruling queen Elizabeth I would seem to provide more than enough “clout” to justify the rare honor of burial within the church.  But it would make even more sense if Jersey was his home, and more so if he had been a member of the congregation of St Helier’s town church.

So where is the actual burial site?

The original location of the tomb of Maximillian Norreys within the church is not known.  Made of caen limestone (vs more durable granite), it was reported the monument was eventually showing significant wear.  The momument was taken out of the floor to preserve it.  Unfortunately, records indicating the tomb’s original location have not survived, if they ever existed.

Monument for Maximillian Norreys, St Helier Town Church

Given the stature of the Norris family, and that Maximillien was the brother in law of the Governor of Jersey,  it seems reasonable to assume he would have been buried at a location of at least reasonable visibility and dignity.  So, although it cannot be ruled out, it seems less likely his grave would have been situated among the walkways of the nave in the west end of the church. If the grave had been placed in the west end of the church, the area adjacent to the north entrance (near the current baptismal fountain) might seem be a more likely candidate.

Given the stature of the family, perhaps it is somewhat more likely for it to have been located  in the center or the east (altar) end of the church, in an open floor area or in an aisleway (given the wear it endured).  An example of such an honored burial is Major Peirson’s tomb, which would be placed in the center of the church nearly 190 years after the interment of Maximillien Norreys.

Given Jean Chevalier’s account of the burial of Richard Lane “at the end” of Saint Hellier’s church (and possibly the “high” end of the church, according to a more recent review of the translation), this inconclusively seems to indicate the east end of the church.   Imagining that if the burial location had been near side walls of the church, or at the head of either the north or south chapels, we might expect Chevalier’s wording would have been different – he seems a storyteller who to relished including such details…

This lack of other indication drives my suspicion that the burial location may have been somewhere in the length of the chancel floor, between Peirson’s tomb and the altar.  This part of the church may have been in more prestigious, but still practical use at the time.  Recall that a cannon shed had taken seating from the back of the church in the 1500’s and the church was not expanded to its current capacity until the 1860s. So, seating may have been established as near the altar as respect would allow – and perhaps in the same area occupied by the elaborate side-oriented benches which define this space today. Although not the only possibility, this kind of usage of this area would have generated the kind of foot traffic needed to inflict the wear observed on Norreys’ tombstone.


The other tombs adjacent to that of Maximillian Norreys

In the years of time recorded in Jean Chevalier’s diary, at least 3 burials were described using the location of Maximillien Norrey’s tomb as a reference marker, including that of Richard Lane. It is reasonable to assume that other burials took place before and after, but perhaps not as many as during that era.  Recall that 50 years had passed since the burial of Maximillien, and there was apparently still room in the floor nearby at the time of the mid-1600 burials.  It is also interesting that other floor markers are not mentioned by Chevalier.  Perhaps none were present, or Maximillien’s was simply the closest to the new burial locations. It is also interesting that other markers do not seem to have been preserved (if they existed).  Perhaps they are elsewhere on the church property, including possibly among the memorial stones forming a skirt around the outside walls of the church today?


Note the numerous grave markers which are used to form the skirt around the outside of the St Helier Town Church


This full size tombstone is among the older of the grave markers skirting the outer walls of the church

Since it is unknown when the tombstones of Maximillian Norreys were taken up, they may have still been in the floor when Peirson’s grave was laid in 1781. Given the wear the memorial stones of Maximillien Norreys have suffered, it is generally felt they were in the floor a long time. How long they stayed in the floor depends upon the foot traffic they were subjected to. It is felt that if they were still in the floor in the 1800s, they were likely taken up during the major 1860-64 restoration and expansion of the church, and put on display then.

Unfortunately, without knowing where those stones were originally located, the task of learning the location of Richard Lane’s tomb has been made far more difficult. This one we will have to earn! But, this project is revealing quite the collection of interesting people under the floors of that charming church!   : )

What’s next?

  • Are there any church records relating to Maximillian Norreys as a member of the community of St Helier?
  • It would be interesting to obtain a translation of the Latin text on Maximillian Norreys’ monument stones.  They may contain references that might imply where it was originally placed.
  • A review of the tombstones around the church should be made to see if any can be tied to the three burials near Maximillien Norreys. It is possible that those graves were initially marked, but that those stones were also moved – and perhaps now lie outside the church.  I took photographs of every seemingly legible memorial stone around the church, so perhaps one of those photographs will turn up something interesting?
  • It would be good to know the extent of the (2012?) excavation of Major Peirson’s tomb.  How much was explored around that tomb? How deep was the casket placed? Was there any evidence of adjacent burials?
  • At some point, solving this mystery will likely require a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the  interior of the church.  GPR units can provide a non-invasive, non-destructive detection of objects in the ground. With a careful survey, it may be possible to build a map of the graves under the church, including their orientation, whether they are vaulted and their possible condition. Depending upon the frequency of the radar used, the resolution of the underground objects detected varies inversely to the depth at which they can be detected. Although salt in the earth interferes greatly (another reason to verify the depth of the water table), they can operate quite successfully through concrete, stone or asphalt ground cover.


Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have little choice but to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood

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