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Page last updated 04 March 2015
November 2011 – Sir William Burgate (d. 1409), Burgate, Suffolk
St Mary’s, Burgate, is the quintessential Suffolk church with a great medieval tower, in an ordinary village surrounded by hedgerows and barley fields. Entering the church, the eye is led inexorably towards the fine tomb chest, with a brass as its cover, which is set immediately in front of the altar and dominates the chancel. This is the monument of Sir William Burgate, lord of the manor (d. 1409), and his wife, Eleanor, who survived him by at least three years.
The Burgate family took their name from the village where their ancestors had settled before the reign of Henry III. His father was Peter de Burgate. In 1361 two knights’ fees in Burgate, held of the earl of Oxford, were in the possession of the ‘lady of Burgate’, William’s mother or grandmother, but within ten years they came into his own hands. He married Eleanor, the daughter of Sir Thomas Visdelou of Shelfanger, Norfolk, by whom he had three daughters: Eleanor, who married John de Rokewood of Stanningfield; Margaret, who married first Robert Stonham of Stonham Aspall and secondly John Spencer, a high-
The brass which tops the tombchest is a very fine product of the London B workshop, the choice of the great and good at this time. The design is economical but impressive, showing 55 inch long figures of William and Eleanor under an elegant double canopy. He is in armour with a lion at her feet and she is shown with a pet dog nestling in the folds of her gown. Above are indents for shields, now lost, but which Gough recorded as bearing paly of six silver and blue (Burgate) impaling silver three wolves’ heads erased gules (Visdelou). Parts of the shields and other elements of the composition which are cut back with cross-
The Purbeck coverslab rests on a tombchest carved from chalk, perhaps Totternhoe stone from Bedfordshire. It is not as fine a product as the brass, the design being clumsily designed and arranged, for example at the north-
The prestigious monument is typical of those provided for the last male of a distinguished line; William was survived only by daughters so the Burgate name was at an end. The prominent position in front of the altar would have ensured that it would have been in full view, especially while mass was being celebrated, and would have encouraged onlookers to pray for their souls to pass swiftly through Purgatory. There is evidence that William and Eleanor Burgate were sincerely pious and were much concerned as to the fate of their souls after death. They procured a papal indult in 1397 so that they might be granted plenary remission by their confessor as often as they pleased. Moreover, the monument was not the only artefact in the church which would remind people of them, their position within the community and their contribution to the church fabric. Their arms are also to be seen on the decorative top band of the piscina. The font, once fine, was badly damaged by iconoclasts. The bowl was originally decorated by symbols of the evangelists alternating with angels holding shields; the charges on most can no longer be distinguished, although one bears Rokewood impaled with a cross charged with five escallops, arms that cannot be identified with certainty. Of more interest, however, is the base which bears an incised inscription filled with dark colouring matter; it reads: ‘Orate pro a’i’b Wil’mi Burgate militis de d’ne Elionore uxoris eius qui istum fontem fieri fecurunt’. This marks the font out as being another of their gifts to the fabric of the church and seeks the prayers of those who view it. Clearly the couple were not taking any chances but were labelling everything to secure intercession.
Copyright: Sally Badham