Monumental Brass Society

Sir William Burgate

Date of Brass:
London B


November 2011

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-ranking official in the household of Henry of Monmouth; and Jane, who married Sir Walter Tyrell. William was knighted by June 1378 and enjoyed the career of a typical county landowner of the times. He served as commissioner of array for Suffolk in April 1385, June 1386, March 1392, July 1402, and September 1403. He was appointed to hold special assizes in March 1396 and represented Suffolk in Parliament in 1388, 1390 and 1395. William was well-connected socially. In 1384 and 1385, Burgate’s name appeared among the witnesses to documents concerning the property of John Bacon of Brome, the King’s secretary. In October 1396 he stood as godfather to the former earl of Suffolk’s grandson William, the second son of his heir Sir Michael de la Pole, giving the child a gilt cup and his nurse a present of 20s. However, his relations with his neighbours were not always cordial; in 1395 he accused William White of Roydon near Diss of killing his falcon, while White said that he looked after it and returned it to Sir William alive. The last known reference to William before his death dates to 1408, when he acted as a trustee of his son-in-law John Spencer’s manors in Norfolk.

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-hatching would originally have held coloured inlay, adding to the overall impression of splendour of the golden brass set in dark Purbeck marble. Around the chamfer of the Purbeck marble slab is a relief inscription with the words separated by foliate scrolls. Some sections are missing, but it read: ‘Will’m’s de Burgate, miles, d’ns de Burgate qui obit in vigilia S’c’i Jacobi Apostole Anno Domini Millmo CCCC none et Alianori uxor ejus filia Thome Vysdelou militis qui obit … die mensis … Anno dni …’. This records that William died on the eve of the feast of St James the Greater (25 July) 1409. Eleanor’s date of death was left blank, demonstrating that she probably commissioned the brass in her widowhood. She evidently hoped that her executors or heirs would have had the details added after her death, but this was not to be. Perhaps her daughters were too bound up in their marriages to have given this matter priority.

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-west corner. The decoration comprises a series of tightly packed ogee-headed niches, with alternative ones originally having held images, perhaps of angels or ‘weeper’ figures. On the south and west sides these are interspersed with shields suspended from pegs. The shields are now plain but would originally have been painted with the arms of Burgate, Visdelou and perhaps the arms of other families into which the couple, their ancestors or their children had married. On the north and east sides the shields are replaced by hearts with wings, those of the south sides getting progressively larger from the east to the west. This iconography is most unusual, perhaps unique, and the meaning is unclear. Heart are regarded as a symbol of faith, but are not normally shown with wings or as a series in varying sizes. Suggestions include that the winged hearts represent the sould freed from mortality or the heart rising to God.

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

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