Monumental Brass Society

Anonymous priest

Date of Brass:
Bury St Edmunds S2


April 2023

The brass effigy of a priest in mass vestments holding a chalice lies in the chancel of St John the Baptist, Somersham, Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire). It dates from around 1525 and a possible attribution to the long-serving Thomas Alcock, vicar between 1488 and his death in 1525 was made in the Victoria County History. That seems to be ruled out by the existence of another slab, once the chancel but now in the south porch, bearing indents for a similarly robed priest and for cocks at each corner. Alcock had willed to be buried in the chancel. Given that the church was outside the palace of the bishops of Ely the brass may be for a priest who died while visiting the bishop or was on the bishop’s staff.

The brass was identified by Sally Badham in the article ‘The Suffolk School of Brasses’, published in 1980. She assigns it to Series 3 and the way the facial features are engraved bears this out. The shape of the chalice corresponds reasonably well with that of the indent of the chalice brass representing Christopher Grene, died 1523, at Isleham, Cambridgeshire, where the Series 3 inscription survives. The comparison is hindered by the left hand of the priest at Somersham obscuring the knop while the right covers part of the base. Suffolk-made brasses were engraved at Bury St Edmunds where the River Lark allowed marble slabs from the quarry at Vaudey Abbey, Lincolnshire, in which the brasses were set, to be transported via the River Welland, the Wash and the Great Ouse, of which the Lark is a tributary. The slab at Somersham has the typical fossils (spines of sea urchins that form short white lines on the surface or white dots where the spine is closer to vertical within the slab) that identify this type of ‘marble’. Another indent in the church at Somersham to a priest in academic costume, dated to around 1500, is in the same type of stone. This slab has a square indent at each corner, perhaps for evangekical symbols, whereas that with the brass effigy still in place has roundels at the corners, also perhaps for the symbols of the four evangelists. A further indent in the church, this time in Purbeck marble and with the outline of a man in armour of the second half of the fifteenth-century probably represents Richard Thwayte, marshall of the hospice of Bishop William Grey, recorded before the loss of the brass and demonstrating that at least one member of the staff of the bishops of Ely is buried here.

It seems likely that the will of the priest commemorated by the Somersham brass specified that he be buried close to where he died rather than being returned to his parish. If so, this would point to the parish where he served being in the area served by the Bury St Edmunds workshops and probably within the diocese of Ely. This could indicate the are around Isleham and Fordham where Suffolk-made brasses of a similar date are found in Cambridgeshire churches. However, the likelihood of discovering both an extant will and proof of death at Somersham is small and the priest is thus likely to remain anonymous. The well-cut initials on the figure, S, I and M, are much later and probably nothing to do with the original identity.


Copyright: Jon Bayliss (text and photographs), Lack, Whittemore and Stuchfield, The Monumental Brasses of Huntingdonshire (rubbing)


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