Monumental Brass Society

Walter Curson and wife, Isabel

Date of Brass:
engraved c.1535
London B


July 2007

"I didn’t know there were pirates in Oxfordshire"

July's brass of the month has represented two different families.

I was once told by a former tutor that the best thing to do when visiting a parish church is to take up the carpet to see what’s underneath. Ever since these words of advice I have done just that and on more than one occasion I have been delighted to find some real gems hidden away. One such brass is to Walter Curson, gentleman, (d.1527) and Isabel, his wife, hidden away in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Waterperry, Oxfordshire.

Walter Curson descended from the Curson family of Derbyshire and at the time of his death on 7 April 1527 he owned a substantial amount of land both in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Yorkshire, including the manor of Waterperry where he had resided from circa 1523.1 In his will Curson bequeathed that whatever sum as was necessary, at the discretion of his wife Isabel and son Richard, be provided for removing the tiles and lead from the roof, carrying out repairs and re-roofing the parish church.2 His generosity was typical of many in the late middle ages and this largess was recorded in the stained glass window commemorating Walter, his wife Isabel and their fifteen children (eight boys and seven girls) with the inscription:

Pray ye for the soule of Walter Curson and Isabel his wife whose goodys as (well) the roofe of this churche and the roofe of this the lordys Ile and the covering of leede of all the same (as) also this window were made whose bodys rest yn the augustyne freers churche yn Oxforde whiche walter died the vii day of (A)pryle yn the ere of our lord god M CCCCC xxvii on whos soules god have mercy

Perhaps because he was a recent resident in the parish Curson did not request burial in the parish church: the instructions in his will requested burial wherever he died. The Augustine Friars, Oxford, were important to Curson to whom he bequeathed an annual income in return for prayers for his soul and it was here where he was buried.

Although Curson did not request any commemoration in his will, his family and/or executor, Henry Allen, arranged for a memorial brass to be commissioned. At the time of the dissolution this was in place at the Augustine Friars for both Walter and Isabel (who had died between Walter’s death and the dissolution in 1538). Like many at this time Curson’s family took protective steps to save their parents memory. In his Survey of the Antiquities of Oxford the seventeenth century antiquarian Anthony Wood (1632-95) referred to the sale and defacement of many of the tombs and monuments at the Augustine Friars in which he referred to the purchase of the Curson’s brass by their son, Richard. It was he who united commemoration of his parents in ‘brass and glass’ at St Mary’s church at Waterperry.3

Today this very impressive brass has come to rest in the chancel. It portrays the effigies of Walter, bareheaded and dressed in armour, and Isabel wearing a headdress and gown, both with their hands at prayer. His feet rest on a lion while Isabel’s feet rest by a dog wearing a collar and bells. A separate brass plate for their eight sons survives under Walter and there is little doubt there was a similar plate for their seven daughters beneath Isabel’s effigy. Four heraldic arms of Curson and Saunders (Isabel’s family) surround the brass around which is a marginal inscription recording:

Scimus enim qd redemptor noster vivit et in novissimo die de terra surrecturi sumus et rursum circumdabuntur pelle …. nostra videbimus deum …. nos ipsi et oculi … et non allii Reposita est hec … s nostra in sinu notro W.C.

The text is taken from the Vulgate version of Job xix 25-27 but with the plural form for both husband and wife.4

The story of this memorial brass does not, however, begin in Oxford. In 1845 the marginal inscription became loose and, on inspection, revealed that the brass plate had been reused and that parts of the Curson brass were palimpsests, i.e. that an earlier memorial brass had been re-used for the Curson’s. Research undertaken by the Reverend John Todd, vicar of Waterperry (1925-52) identified that an original brass of a male effigy had been modified, with a new head and feet, for Walter and that the lower portion of Isabel’s brass was an earlier fifteenth century plate. On the reverse of the upper plate was a further palimpsest of a lady circa 1440. It was Todd who identified the subjects of the original brass, Simon Kemp, Esquire (d. 442) and his wife Margaret (d. 1442) who had been buried in the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, in London. Although this was a popular place for the burials of Londoners and non-Londoners alike by 1532 the Priory was bankrupt and was dissolved. 5 On the reverse of the Curson’s marginal inscription much of the original text was found for Simon and Margaret Kemp:

Simon Kamp iacet hic marmore carne sepultrus Lumine suffultus spiritus assit hinc. Anno Millemo Quarter C quadra secundo. Hic Margareta simul uxor contumulatur. Vicesima Sexta feria … decima que die Septembris post obiit uxor celum sibi spero paratum

The re-use of brass plate was not unusual, not only were many parish churches and religious houses undergoing expansion and development in the late middle ages, which sometimes necessitated the re-ordering of church interiors and the removal of brasses, but many old monuments became worn and the detail obliterated by daily wear and tear as the parish met for the mass, prayer and devotion. Incised slabs and monumental brasses were particularly vulnerable especially if the rivets holding the plate in place had become detached. At the dissolution of Holy Trinity Priory the fixtures and fittings were sold some of which came to be re-used as with the Kemp/Curson brass.

The origins of the brass demonstrate that it took at least five years from the time of Curson’s death, in 1527, until the Priory was dissolved and the Kemp brass removed in 1532 or shortly after. This was almost certainly due to Isabel’s death in the intervening period and a wish that commemoration for both was to take place after her own decease. Although it is not known when the Curson brass was placed at the Augustine Friars it would, within six years or so, be moved to Waterperry. For the palimpsests underneath this was a journey from London to Oxford to Waterperry in about six years for the Kemps.

This memorial brass has a remarkable history and shows how former redundant brass plate came to be adapted and re-used. It demonstrates that this practice was in place before the whole-scale dissolution of the religious houses of 1538 and the subsequent iconoclasm which followed.6 This brass also serves to remind us of the measures that families took to preserve commemoration for their family and to remove the monument to the parish church. Finally the Curson brass also shows a curious and slightly charming idiosyncrasy in that the text on the marginal inscription for the Cursons is interspersed with the skull and crossbones symbol of mortality. When I first saw this brass some years ago another visitor to the church commented ‘I didn’t know there were pirates in Oxfordshire’. There weren’t but it’s a nice thought.

1.Mary D. Lobel (ed.) The Victoria History of the Counties of England: A History of Oxfordshire, V: Bullingdon Hundred (London 1957), pp.295-309, esp. p.298

2.TNA PRO PCC PROB 11/22 Quire 19 ff.145r-145v

3. Andrew Clark (ed.), Survey of the Antiquities of the City of Oxford composed in 1661-6 by Anthony Wood (Oxford 1890), 3 volumes, II, p.470

4. Survey of Oxford, II, p.470; John Todd, Waterperry Church (Oxford 1969), pp.18-25

5 C.L. Kingsford (ed.), A Survey of London by John Stow, 2 volumes, (Oxford 1908), I, p.141; Caroline Barron and Matthew Davies (ed.), The Religious Houses of London and Middlesex (London 2007) pp.80-89

6 On palimpsests in general, see John Page-Phillips, Palimpsests: The Backs of Monumental Brasses, 2 volumes (London 1980)

© Christian Steer

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