The church, cloistered almshouses and school were built as a group about 1432 by the Earl (later Duke) and Countess of Suffolk. She was Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer: her magnificent canopied tomb, with alabaster effigy, lies beside the altar. Note the very tall font cover of 1475.
St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme is an exceptional Church with a distinguished history. It owes much of its present form to Thomas Chaucer, Governor of Wallingford Castle, five times Speaker of the House of Commons and the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in Ewelme, and to his daughter Alice, whose third husband was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. It was their vision to adapt the alterations already made by her father and found a chantry chapel and trust.
The Ewelme Trust was set up in 1437 with royal license from Henry VI and exists to this day. As part of the Almshouse Trust, the Duke and Duchess reordered the chapel, which is dedicated to St John, as well as building almshouses and a school. The church is modelled on the church of Wingfield in Suffolk, part of the Duke’s Estates. Alice Chaucer’s Tomb
Alice Chaucer's tomb is cut entirely of alabaster and is of a unique design. The upper section is a conventional, solid tomb chest, decorated with figures of angels set under canopies. Supported on this is a full length effigy of the Duchess, lying beneath a complex canopy. This tomb chest has been raised up, and underneath is another portrait of Alice – this time as a desiccated corpse, loosely wrapped in a shroud.
In the upper effigy, Alice wears her ducal coronet and she wears the Order of the Garter round her left forearm. Apparently both Queen Victoria and later Queen Mary consulted the effigy when deciding how to wear the Order without compromising feminine dignity. The most memorable feature of the tomb is the cadaver, set beneath the tomb chest. It is the only life size cadaver of a woman that has remained intact in England, and the only cadaver in the country made in alabaster. Tucked under the tomb, the cadaver’s privacy seems an important aspect of the tomb’s design. Rather than a stark warning of the transience of earthly glory, it is a second corpse contemplating the paintings of saints above it.