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Copyright: Jon Bayliss

Nicholas Purefey, 1545, & wife Jane, Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire

The church of St Michael and All Angels  at Fenny Drayton lies close to one of the major roads of England before the motorway era, Watling Street, now the A5, and directly on a subsidiary Roman road. Like all the main Roman roads of the country, Watling Street retained its importance into the modern era and is still heavily used. Such roads were important to the distribution of heavy goods such as monumental brasses in their slabs and alabaster monuments to churches without navigable water nearby. The Purefey (or Purefoy) family, buried in this church and at nearby Caldecote, just the other side of Watling Street, favoured alabaster for their memorials.

    The altar-tomb commemorating Nicholas Purefoy and his wife Jane is set north-south at the east end of the south aisle and must have been moved into the this position at some point in its history. On its top is an incised slab showing the effigies of the couple under an arch. The inscription in raised lettering around the chamfer continues with two lines below the effigies on the slab.

    Here lieth Nicholas Purefey & Jane hys wyfe son & heire apparant/of Rauf
   Purefey esquyer & one of the coheyres of Richard Byngh[a]m esquyer disceassid.    And also of Nicholas Strelley knyght late of lynby disceassid whic[h]/Nicholas      Purefey     dyed the xxth daye of Octobre in the yere/of o[ur] lorde god a thowsand      CCCCCXLV.

The west side of the chest has the standing sculpted figures of four sons and a daughter under individual arches with a double arch with a shield of arms being supported by two standing angels. The north end has a single panel with an achievement of arms supported by two kneeling angels. At the corners are pilasters decorated with Italianate Renaissance vase designs probably derived at second-hand from German prints. Similar pilasters are to be found on the alabaster tomb of Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland, at Bottesford, Leicestershire, which was made by Richard Parker in 1544, and on other monuments attributed to Parker, who was based at Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire. Parker's pilasters are composed of fewer elements than those on the Purefey tomb and the side of a tomb-chest with associated incised slab to be found at Peckleton, Leicestershire, commemorating Thomas Harve, died 1544, and his two wives. A very similar pilaster was to be seen on Wade's Tomb in the old Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the air raid of 14 November 1940. Wade's Tomb probably commemorated Christopher Wade, died 1539, and had a chamfered marble slab with the indents of brasses on top of an alabaster tomb-chest.


    F A Greenhill linked the incised slabs at Fenny Drayton and Peckleton with a sizeable fragment of a slab showing the upper parts of a man in armour and his wife at Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire, and with a slab in St Mary de Castro, Leicester, commemorating John Rudyng and his wife Joyce Purefey, died 1543, that he knew from a good drawing reproduced in Nichols' History of Leicestershire (it lay under the organ until 1958). The slab to Humfrey Babyngton, died 1544, and his wife at Rothley shares one characteristic with those at Fenny Drayton, Peckleton and Leicester: the panel at one end of the cushions under the effigies' heads is depicted with parallel diagonal lines, which is unusual, but the link with the slab shown on the Rudyng illustration is even closer because at the other side of both cushions at Rothley is a curved line with a series of short lines crossing it, exactly like that on the other end of the cushion behind Joyce Purefey's head at Leicester. Beneath the Rothley slab is a panel, probably from one end of a tomb-chest, with the sculpted arms of Babington of Dethick and Rothley Temple. In the same church, a larger panel that once formed the side of a tomb-chest that supported the incised slab, now lost or covered, that commemorated George Kingston and his wife Mary Skeffington, died 1516. The way these two panels are carved is the same as the panel on the north end of the Purefey tomb-chest at Fenny Drayton.

    The reason for concentrating on these details is to establish that the group of four slabs that Greenhill linked is somewhat larger and to suggest that they are locally made rather than originating, as so many other alabaster slabs seem to do, at Burton-upon-Trent. Leicestershire had its own quarries producing alabaster. The documented ones are at Burton-on-the-Wolds and Beaumanor, both near Loughborough but the distribution of the group discussed above points at a different source, most likely that used by Hugh Hall of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the first half of the following century to produce alabaster for a large number of monuments distributed throughout the Midlands. The existence of a thriving alabaster ornament industry in the villages of Whitwick, Swannington and Thringstone in the nineteenth century points the finger at the outcrop of gypsum, of which alabaster is the massive form, at Whitwick. By the early twentieth century, this industry was having to import alabaster blocks from Chellaston, making it uncompetetive, but it is most unlikely to have started in the first instance without a very local source. Loughborough had an alabaster ornament industry of its own, which must have exploited the quarries at Beaumanor or Burton-on-the-Wolds. Further analysis of incised slab styles in Leicestershire may point to workshops based at Loughborough that had fairly restricted distribution like the one that produced the Purefey tomb at Fenny Drayton but many alabaster incised slabs have been subject to heavy wear and ejection from churches during restorations, making analysis difficult. We must be thankful that some survive in good condition.


Reference:

F A Greenhill, The Incised Slabs of Leicestershire and Rutland (1958)