Monumental Brass Society

John Strensall

Date of Brass:
Fens !


February 2008
February’s brass of the month is from St Botolph’s church, Boston, Lincolnshire. It now appears a somewhat anonymous figure. Of the inlay only the figure remains, although the cut-down slab shows that it originally had a canopy. There is no record of wording of the marginal inscription, which must have been stolen before Francis Thynne visited the church in c. 1605 and recorded such basses as then remained.
The brass has long been thought to commemorate John Strensall [variously also spelled Stransgill or Stranshale], who was rector of St Botolph’s from before 1378 to his death in 1408. The style of the brass demonstrates that it was an early product of the Fens 1 brass engraving workshop, which operated in Boston from c. 1408 to c. 1435. Strensall’s predecessor died too early to be to have had a brass made in this workshop and Strensall’s successor was the pluralist and founder of Lincoln College, Oxford, Richard Flemyng, Archbishop of Lincoln, who probably never resided at Boston and is almost certainly commemorated by a cadaver effigy in Lincoln cathedral. Hence Strensall is the only plausible candidate for the brass.
Relatively little is known about Strensall. He first appears in the records in 1377 when he was assessed for the subsidy as a beneficed clerk. In 1386 and 1388 he was a controller of tonnage and poundage at Boston. This is rather unusual as most customs officials were merchants, although some royal clerks were also appointed. The explanation may stem from the fact that, unlike most of the other major English ports, Boston did not enjoy the rights of self-government in the Middle Ages, the town being administered directly by the Duchy of Lancaster through it local agents. Strensall may well have occupied a place in the local Lancastrian administration and his appointment as a collector stemmed from this, but no records confirming this can be traced.
Strensall was an associate of some of the elite group of merchants who were collectors of the great and petty custom at Boston. William Thymelby, sometime chamberlain of the Guild of the Corpus Christi who was buried in the guild chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St Botolph’s church, left him a bequest in his will in 1385. In 1392 Strensall was amongst a group of men, also including customs collectors Philip Gernon and John Belle, licensed to incorporate or re-incorporate a guild in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1398 he and others held for the aldermen and the brethren and sisters of the guild 23s 4d for the rent of a messuage there.
The administration of Boston by the Duchy of Lancaster appears to have impeded the development of trade and craft guilds in the town. The religious guilds which were established in Boston from the late 13th century onwards therefore presented an important outlet for the political and social aspirations of wealthy townspeople, particularly the merchants. Boston had at least 14 guilds, all with links to St Botolph’s church, including 5 major guilds with guildhalls in the town. The most important guilds had their own chapels in the church and all ensured that prayers were said for the souls of the confraternity.
Strensall was probably a member of several of the guilds, including that dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, mentioned above. He is shown on his brass wearing an orphrey decorated with figures of 8 saints: the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, Bartholomew and Jude, all of whom featured among the dedications of the Boston guilds. Although his brass is now on the south side of the high altar, it was originally elsewhere in the church.
The likelihood is that he was buried in the chapel of the Corpus Christi Guild, where he had an annual obit celebrated on the day after the feast of St Martin by the Guild of the Holy Trinity, of which he was also a member. Often termed Boston’s aristocratic guild, the Corpus Christi was a rich man’s club, having had an entry fee of £2 4s 4d. Exceptionally, its registers were not destroyed at the Reformation; these show that it was able to draw into its network of membership a remarkable number of the higher clergy and nobility of late medieval England, as well as the cream of Boston society. The Guild’s chapel was attached to the exterior of St Botolph’s, to the east of the porch and adjoining the three eastern bays of the south side. The chapel was reputedly destroyed in 1627 to provide stone for the repair of the church and it must be assumed that Strensall’s brass and other brasses were relocated at this time.

Copyright: Sally Badham

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