Monumental Brass Society

Sir William Wadham

Date of Brass:
London D


September 2005

Sepember's brass of the month illustrates the combined skills of the brass engraver and stone carver. The brass to Sir William Wadham and his mother Joan, is set in a fine slab of Purbeck marble, size 131 by 52 ins. upon an ornate table tomb in the north transept of St Mary's Church, Ilminster, Somerset.

Sir William Wadham was the eldest son of Sir John Wadham, Kings Sergeant and one of the Justices of the Common Pleas in the reign of Richard II, and died in 1411. Sir John married Joan Wrotesley who is the lady represented on the brass. Their son Sir William, was Sheriff of Devon in 1438. He married Margaret, daughter and heiress of John Chiselden, of Holcombe Rogus, Devon and Rewe, Dorset. He died in 1452.

A brass commemorating a mother and son is an unusual combination, but the grandeur of the brass and carved tomb ranks this memorial amongst the finest surviving from the 15th century. It is the product of London D workshop dated c.1440, and consists of two figures, each 42 ins. long with the mother on the dexter side and the son on the sinister. An unusual feature is that each figure is positioned beneath a beautiful and graceful triple canopy. Notice the animals curled up in the spandrels. The side shafts and tapering central pinnacle support an embattled parapet or super-canopy. Above are two rectangular indents which may have contained saints, each flanked by indents for two lost shields.

Between the bases of the canopy shafts, beneath the figures is a foot inscription, 4.5 by 30 ins. containing eight lines of Latin verse in two parts. A further two lost shields were beneath the bases of the side shafts and the entire composition was bordered by a marginal inscription now much mutilated, measuring 112.5 by 45 ins. The remaining section refers to Lady Joan, the words being separated by roses and leaves, while the date of her death has never been filled in.

Sir William Wadham is represented in complete plate armour exported to England from Milanese armourers. This was the finest armour of the period, the most distinctive features being the heavy reinforcements to the left shoulder and elbow, and long , pointed gauntlet cuffs. Lady Joan wears the costume of a widow; the wimple & pleated barbe beneath her chin and veil that falls over her shoulders. She wears an ungirded kirtle with tight sleeves and long mantle.

Protected on its high tomb, the engraving survives as sharp as the day it left the workshop, the only damage being the removal of various pieces of metal. Unfortunately, the monuments and all the furnishings in the church are now exposed to damage caused by bats. Their urine is deposited in flight throughout the building and dries to produce green spots which attacks the patina of the metal leaving a permanent blemish. This unsightly blemish to the metal is illustrated on the figure of Lady Joan shown on the right.

The two sides of the tomb are each divided into ten canopy niches divided by buttresses and all robbed of their figures. The west end shows a sculptured composition with a central figure of God the Father, surmounted on clouds with sun rays behind, with a headless man in armour (representing Sir William) and a lady (Lady Joan) kneeling on either side, each under a canopy. The east end is blank as it was originally flush with the wall. A rich cornice of trailing foliage surrounds the top below the Purbeck marble slab.

© Derrick Chivers

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