Brass of the Month

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September 2014 - Sir William Fitz-william, 1534, Marholm, Northamptomshire

    Within the monument is a plate recording a 1674 restoration. It is clear that the tomb was damaged, almost certainly during the Civil War: the destruction of other monuments and brasses at nearby Peterborough Cathedral is well known but in the south of the chancel is the memorial for Edward Hunter alias Perry, who died in 1646, the step-son of William, 2nd baron Fitz-william, figure 3. This inscription contains a straightforward plea to be left alone by any diehard Parliamentarian troops:


To the Courteous souldier

Noe crucifixe you see, Noe frightful Brand

Of superstition’s here; Pray let me stand


This month’s ‘Brass of the Month’ considers the commemorative brass for Sir William Fitz-william and his first wife, Anne, in the parish church of St Mary’s at Marholm in Cambridgeshire (formerly Northamptonshire). Theirs is the earliest memorial in the Fitz-william mausoleum and the only medieval brass to survive in this parish church, figure 1.

    Sir William (d. 1534) was a merchant-taylor of London who like many other city merchants invested his fortune in a country-estate. And like many of his contemporaries he re-invented himself as a member of the landed gentry and he is shown as such – and not a merchant - upon his tomb. Generations of his descendants are likewise buried in the vault and commemorated within the church; the last of male of this line, William, earl Fitz-william (d. 1979) was himself buried in the churchyard overlooking the Milton estate.

    The monument commemorating Sir William and Anne is on the north side of the chancel in the most prestigious part of the church reflecting Fitz-william’s role of patron. This also reflects his investment in the church and in particular the rebuilding of the chancel during the early years of the sixteenth century. One of the striking features of St Mary’s is the sheer extent to which the chancel dwarfs the older nave, figure 2: Sir William was generous in his patronage. It is questionable whether Anne was in fact buried at Marholm: she died c. 1500 before Fitz-william bought the Milton and Marholm estates although it is possible that she was later exhumed from their London parish church of St Thomas the Apostle and her remains brought to Marholm for later interment.


Figure 1 © Martin_Stuchfield

Figure 2 (Photo - Mary Carruthers)

Figure 3 (Photo - Christian Steer)

    The earlier Fitz-william monument was not so fortunate and the upper part of Sir William’s effigy is clearly a later reproduction (a pointed seventeenth century ‘Van Dyke’ beard is visible, figure 4) and the heraldic displays upon the tomb include the arms of families who later married into the Fitzwilliam family. The effigy for Anne, figure 5, is thought to be original. But there is evidence that elements of the tomb have been added later and probably during the restoration. The super-canopy is perhaps a later addition and the central column, made of stone (the other two columns are of Purbeck), is also part of the restoration. It has been thought that the original plate for Sir William’s effigy is now in the collection of the British Museum (accession number 1854:1125.1). Stephen Freeth has cast doubt on this given the 180 years of unaccounted for history of the brass before it became part of the museum’s collection. Whether or not this had hitherto formed part of an antiquarian’s collection is currently unknown.


Figure 4 (Photo - Christian Steer)


Figure 5 (Photo - Christian Steer)


    In his will of 1534, Sir William asked to be buried  in the chancel at Marholm with a monument to be organised thus, ‘I will that myn’ executours cause a tombe of marble to be made there [Marholm] wt a scripture making mencion of my name as shalbe devised by myne executours’. His executors were his brother in law, Sir John Baker, Recorder of London (d, 1558), his son-in-law, Anthony Cooke (d. 1576) and his nephews Richard Ogle (d. 1555) and Richard Waddington (d. 1565?). Yet the style and composition of the brass effigies and of the script used suggests a construction some twenty years after Sir William’s death. One explanation for this delay is a deliberate pause in the commission of the monument as the executors witnessed at first hand the consequences of the Reformation on funerary monuments elsewhere: the closure of the monasteries and other religious houses was a cataclysm of destruction for memorials.

    The original brass effigies on the Marholm tomb are comparable to those of later date such as, for example, of Sir John Russell (d. 1556) and his widow Edith at Strensham (Worcestershire), and Sir John Porte (d. 1557) and his two wives, Elizabeth and Dorothy, at Etwall (Derbyshire). The two Fitz-william effigies have mouth scrolls proclaiming ‘Prohibere nephas [nefas]’. Major Owen Evans translated this as ‘Restrain us from wrongdoing’ taken from Book V, line 197 of Virgil’s Aeneid.  It is tempting to suggest a Humanist influence but it seems more likely to have been the family motto ‘Don’t hold me back’. The correct spelling of ‘Prohibere nefas’ was used on an inscription over the entrance to the chapel door at the University of Dublin for Sir William’s grandson, also Sir William (d. 1599), the Lord Deputy of Ireland (who was also buried in Marholm where he was commemorated by a sculptured effigy). The Marholm brass to our Sir William also contains another inscription beneath the effigies, identified as Script 6 which John Paige-Phillips has dated to 1548-64. Evidence for a later construction of the Fitz-william memorial is further shown by the canopy of the tomb which compares to other mid-sixteenth century compositions such as, for example, the retrospective tomb for Geoffrey Chaucer organised by Nicholas Brigham in Westminster Abbey in 1555.

    This delay in construction was probably because of, to borrow Jerom Bertram’s phrase, ‘the heyday for the destruction of brasses’ of the 1540s. Perhaps the proclamation of 1560 banning the destruction of monuments by Elizabeth I’s government encouraged Sir William’s executors to sort out his monument. But more likely was the fact that they were dying out – Richard Ogle in 1555 and Sir John Baker in 1558. Waddington and Cooke were the only executors left and there was now a pressing need to get on with it.

    The Fitz-william monument is a notable example of how executors fulfilled their testamentary role in commissioning monuments for the dead in a time of political and religious upheaval; it also shows that in spite of the change in religion, commemoration was just as important in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign as it had been during the first thirty years or so of her father’s rule. And for Sir William he ultimately enjoyed an impressive and eye-catching monument celebrating a wealthy London merchant in the guise of a member of the landed gentry.


I am grateful to David Moncur for his assistance with the Fitz-william motto

Copyright: Christian Steer