Brass of the Month

December 2010 – William & Margaret Stapilton, c. 1440, Helhoughton, Norfolk

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Page last updated 04 March 2015

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

    Most medieval brasses in England have been categorised over the last fifty or so years as belonging to one style or another. The brass to William and Margaret Stapilton at Helhoughton is one that still defies classification. Unfortunately it is not dated and the slab is little help either as the brass is set in a coffin shaped black Belgian marble stone. Writing in the early 1890s, Rev C R Manning dated the brass to around 1440, partly on the basis of a single documentary reference to William Stapilton in 1433. Other documents support Manning's estimate. Stapilton was active throughout the 1420s and 1430s and a single reference in 1443 to land he had previously held does not rule out him dying between 1439 and this date. As it lacks a date, the brass may have been made in his lifetime. He was a collector of customs for the port of Lynn between 1421 and 1427. The port covered not only the town of King's Lynn but about half of the North Norfolk coast too. The first reference to him as William Stapilton of Helhoughton occurs in 1426 and the first to his wife Margaret in 1432. A connection with the Stapiltons of Ingham, near the north east coast of the county seems likely but the loss of all three shields does not help in this respect.   

    The composition of the brass is one found on a small number of fifteenth and early sixteenth century brasses: a heart with three scrolls leading from it. It is more elaborate than most, with the heart being held up in arms issuing from a cloud. As with a few other examples, the heart has the words Credo q(uo)d , with the scrolls having parts of the Latin Office of the Dead on them. Since Manning described the brass, the word redemptor from the left hand scroll has become detached. The arms have Ecce nunc in pulvere dorm(i)o (Behold, now I sleep in the dust: Job 7:21) on the sleeves. The inscription below has a few Lombardic capitals mixed in with the black-letter, an archaic feature more characteristic of inscriptions in the latter half of the fourteenth century. The inscription takes the form of six lines of Latin verse, although it is engraved as three lines. There are difficulties with the vocabulary that presumably resulted from mistakes by the engraver, who perhaps couldn't read the composer's handwriting very well. The most obvious is the substitution of Wiffius for Willmus but lyeta and eleta are not Latin words and are taken to be laeta and electa in the translation.  In the last line ioca makes more sense as loca. I owe the following transcripts and translations to our vice-president, Jerome Bertram.

Hic iacet humatus : Wiffius nu(n)c nece victus : Stapilton dictus : verm[ibus] esca datus.

Et margareta : sua consors lyeta quieta :  Decubit eleta : iam vermibus apta dieta.

Illis dignetur : deus omnipotens misereri :  Et sibi donetur : ioca sempiterna tueri.

“Here lies buried William surnamed Stapleton, conquered by death, and given over as food for worms.  And  Margaret  his wife rests here, joyful and tranquil, the chosen one, already suitable as a diet for worms.  May almighty God deign to have mercy on them, and may it be given to them to see the places eternal.”

On the wrists is Ecce nunc in / pulvere dormo, (for dormio), “see, now I sleep in dust”.

The heart and scrolls are the more traditional Credo q(uo)d (a) R[edemptor meus vivit], (b) [videbo deum Salvatore(m) meu(m)], (c) De terra surrecturus sum.  “I believe that my redeemer liveth, that I shall see God my Saviour; that I shall arise from the earth”, being phrases from the familiar Job 19:25-26.

    While the brass was evidently accepted by whoever the patron was, the mistakes may not have boded well for the maker. Perhaps the brass results from an early attempt to set up a engraving workshop in Norfolk. Thomas Sheef, a Norwich marbler who was active from only a little later and responsible for the Norwich 1 style, used a number of different types of marble in which to set his brasses, including black marble. However, the script at Helhoughton is distinct from that used on Norwich 1 brasses, even though brasses to similar designs were occasionally made by Sheef. There is a coffin-shaped black marble slab with an indent for an inscription outside the west door of the church of St Stephen in Norwich, which may be connected to the brass at Helhoughton, as such slabs are rare.