Monumental Brass Society

Sir John Tregonwell

Date of Brass:
Milton Abbas
London G


November 2022

 This brass at Milton Abbey, Dorset introduces us to a man who played a significant role in the Reformation in England. As a lawyer, John Tregonwell had been heavily involved with the divorce by Henry VIII of Katherine of Aragon. He was appointed one of the visitors of the religious houses worth under £200 in 1535-6, helping to implement a process that led directly to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, he was not only knighted on the occasion of the coronation of Mary I but under Elizabeth he made a will that clearly signals that he remained a catholic.

John Tregonwell is reputed to have begun his education at the collegiate church of Crantock, in Cornwall, and to have been at Oxford by 1512. He certainly acquired BCL and DCL degrees there by 1516 and 1522 respectively and was principal of Vine Hall (alias Peckwater's Inn) by 1530. A position practising at the Court of Admiralty quickly led on to his employment as a Proctor by the Crown in the matter of Henry VIII’s divorce and he was also employed in diplomatic roles supporting the divorce in Europe. By 1535 he was principal judge in the Court of Admiralty and a Master in Chancery by 1536. Even before these appointments he was one of the commissioners (Thomas Cromwell was another) to whom a draft commission had been addressed in late 1534 to visit monasteries and churches. He began this task in September 1535 with a visit to the University of Oxford, moving on to religious houses in Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties before moving to the south-west of England to take on the houses of the dioceses of Salisbury, Bath and Wells, and Exeter. Compared with the other men visiting the religious houses of England in 1535-6, his reports to Thomas Cromwell were moderate rather than extreme and he appears in his initial reports to have favoured reform of the houses, rather than their abolition which soon became Cromwell’s policy. In the later 1530s he was involved in the surrender of some of the major religious houses. Despite his initial moderate attitude to the visitations he undertook, when monastic property became available to purchase he paid £1,000 for Milton Abbey in Dorset, followed by other purchases, some quickly sold on but others consolidating his Dorset holdings. He had personally taken the surrender of Milton Abbey in 1539 and bought it the following year. He established links with some of the leading Dorset families when in 1549 he married as his second wife, Elizabeth the widow of a Dorset man, Robert Martyn, and daughter of Sir John Kelway of Rockbourne, Hampshire, just over the border from Dorset. The origins of his first wife, also Elizabeth, are unknown but her arms on the brass indicate that she was a member of the New family of Hertfordshire. Tregonwell was appointed receiver of petitions in the House of Lords in eight parliaments between 1536 and 1558 and deputised for the Lord Chancellor in Chancery on a number of occasions in the 1540s and 1550s. He was elected to the House of Commons as member for Scarborough in the first parliament held in Mary’s reign and may have sat in earlier parliaments. He was sheriff of Somerset and Dorset in 1553-4 and a privy councillor from 1555. Elizabeth’s reign saw him become a justice of the peace. He died at Milton on 13 January 1565/6.

His monument is a canopied tomb of Purbeck marble. It has his brass on its back wall, showing him kneeling at a desk and dressed in armour. An heraldic tabard covers his upper body, the latest example known. At the date he died, the tomb is likely to have been newly made rather than appropriated. Although its basic form predates the Reformation, the latest versions elsewhere in Dorset at Church Knowle and Bere Regis were made after quarrying Purbeck marble for monuments ended, as they are of Purbeck stone instead. As well as the figure, the brass has an inscription and two large shields representing Tregonwell’s two marriages, an achievement and a scroll. The brass belongs to the group of brasses defined by John Page-Phillips as Lytkott, which appears to encompass more than one style and, indeed, two different marblers are known to have been involved in the group’s production. A peculiarity of Sir John's figure is that his sword is shown depending from his right hip, suggesting the use of a reversed template in its production.


Copyright, text and photos: Jon Bayliss

Illustration of rubbing from Lack, Stuchfield and Whittemore, The Brasses of Dorsetshire.



Tregonwell, Sir John



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