Monumental Brass Society

William and Alice Water

Date of Brass:
Swaffham Prior, St Mary


November 2019


The iconoclast William Dowsing visited four Cambridgeshire villages on Wednesday 3 January 1643/4. He had spent his time in late December and the very beginning of January visiting Cambridge college chapels and churches, resulting in a great deal of destruction of images and words in these building although a surprising amount of the material that would have caused him offence remains to this day, some of it perhaps removed in advance and thus unavailable for inspection. Brasses in King's College Chapel were deliberately damaged but their more inoffensive components were allowed to remain. Dowsing's diary can be frustratingly sparse in details despite the exact numbers he gives of different types of images destroyed. Thus it was at Swaffham Prior ot Little Swaffham as he called it, the second village he visited on 3 January. His entry reads 'We brake down a great many pictures superstitious, 20 cherubims, and the rayles we brake in pieces, and diged down the steps', but he gives no indication that there were two churches in the same churchyard here. Did what he wrote apply to both? St Mary's church retains three pre-Reformation pairs of brass effigies but only one pair has lost its inscription. The other two, both to members of the Water family, one to Richard, died 1515, and Alice, the other two William, died 1521, and Alice, both retain undamaged inscriptions complete with superstitious prayers of the sort that Dowsing would usually have had deleted, either by erasing those words or removing the inscription as a whole. Did he fail to read the inscriptions in the low January light?

William Water is described as 'of Rech' (Reach), now a village with its own Victorian church but then described as Swaffham Reach. Reach Lode was a Roman waterway running into the River Cam. It was made for the purposes of irrigation and transport and its presence was a help to the local economy, providing jobs for watermen transporting goods along the Fenland rivers. Little is known of the Water family. In 1519, William sued two husbandmen of neighboring Burwell for debt in the Court of Common Pleas and in another action, as one of Richard Water's executors, pursued a debt owed by a Newmarket yeoman. The other executors were John and Thomas Waters and Rowland Backhouse. Were William, Thomas and John three of Richard's four sons? Thomas and John were drawn into Chancery Court actions (TNA C 1/961/22 and 23) as executors of Rowland Backhouse.

William Water's brass was made in Cambridge as was Richard Water's but brass of the anonymous couple, possibly John, died 1532, and Catherine Denis, was made in Bury St Edmunds. While neither place is far from Swaffham Prior, Cambridge is half the distance of Bury. Both Cambridge and Bury brasses were set in marble slabs from the quarry at Vaudey Abbey that could be shipped along the West Glen and Welland rivers to the Wash and down the Great Ouse to Cambridge via the Cam and Bury via the Lark. It seems not unlikely that the finished slabs containing the brasses of the Water family were conveyed from Cambridge by Reach watermen to St Mary's church at Swaffham Prior. Missing parts of the Bury and the two Cambridge brasses have been replaced with blank plates. All slabs with brasses in the church have now been set upright against the walls. William Water's slab has had its top corners cut off. A scroll formerly above William's figure is set directly in the plaster of the wall.


Copyright Jon Bayliss

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