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June 2016, indent, unknown priest, Seton Collegiate Church,

East Lothian, Scotland

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

Not far east of Edinburgh is Port Seton. In the mid seventeenth-century, the eleventh Lord Seton built the first harbour. About half a mile inland is Seton Collegiate Church, now in the care of Historic Scotland. Seton was a parish with a twelfth-century church that became the burial place of the Seton family. After the death of Sir John Seton in 1434 a chantry chapel with tomb was added to the parish church by his widow, Katherine Sinclair. Two generations later George, the first Lord Seton, demolished the old chancel, replacing it with a choir and presbytery. He had provisional permission from the pope to raise the church's status to that of a college but he was buried in the Blackfriars' church in Edinburgh at his death in 1478 leaving his work at Seton unfinished. The second Lord Seton, also George, not only completed the work but in 1492 also secured full collegiate status. He was buried in the choir in 1508. The third Lord, another George, was killed at Flodden in 1513 and was also buried at Seton. He had provided wooden stalls for the church and his widow Janet was responsible for adding the central bell tower and the transepts before her own death and burial in the church in 1558. The college was dedicated to St Mary and the Holy Cross. It initially had a provost, six canons, two choristers and a clerk, who were joined by two additional canons around 1540. The college came to an end with the Protestant Reformation of 1560. The parish of Seton was united with that of Tranent in 1580. The church at Seton was no longer needed for parochial reasons and its nave was demolished but it continued to be used as the burial place of the family. James VI stopped there for the funeral of Robert, Earl of Winton, in April 1603 on his way to London for his coronation as King of England. The king had bestowed the earldom upon the sixth Lord Seton. The Seton monuments were badly damaged in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Later the church was used as a carpenter's workshop until it restored by the Earl of Wemyss for use as a burial place for his family in 1878.

    Between 1851 and 1878, a number of slabs went missing, including this month's subject, but some were evidently rediscovered before the current stone floor was put in place. The church came into state care in 1948. The indent on the floor of the choir has been interpreted as being the monument of either Katherine Sinclair, who was still alive in 1450, or Janet Hepburn, widow of the third Lord. However, it clearly represents a priest in mass vestments with his head on a pillow beneath a canopy with two small figures of angels above it. There is an inscription around the circumference that has quadrilobes at each corner and in the centre of the long sides. It was dug up outside the church in 1849. The stone of the indent is black and presumably imported from Belgium. It is broken in two but is evidently complete apart from damage around the break. It has been measured as being 88 by 43½ inches. It has been positioned near the south wall with the head to the east. It is clear from the indent that the brass components were both riveted to the slab and joined by backing plates. The effigy was composed of three plates, with deeper indents across the shoulders and waist indicating backing plates, with two large lead plugs, one in the head and one between the feet showing where it was riveted to the slab. There are lead plugs in each quadrilobe. The comparative sparsity of plugs points to a relatively early date but the technique of using backing plates was one that persisted in the Low Countries, where there was a much larger proportion of rectangular brasses, into the sixteenth-century.

    F A Greenhill, who described and illustrated a number of separate inlays indents in Scotland, including that at Seton, in the Society's transactions, was of the opinion that the slab was sixteenth-century and probably commemorated Janet Hepburn, citing the canopy as a type from that period. However, later parallels for the canopy are elusive and the serrated nature of the upper sides of the arch is much more evident from photographs than on Greenhill's rubbing, as are the curves on the side of the figure indicating mass vestments rather than the much straighter lines generally produced by the representation of a lady in a cloak. The outline of the figure closely resembles that of Sir Simon de Wensley at Wensley in Yorkshire, a separately inlaid effigy of a priest in mass vestments. The latter, described by Malcolm Norris a 'near lifesize' and thought to have been engraved some twenty years before his death in 1394, is very slightly bigger, and the main differences are that the angels that hold Sir Simon's pillow are replaced by the separate figures of angels either side of the middle finial of the canopy and that whereas the dogs, one beneath each of Sir Simon's feet, are almost mirror images of each other, that beneath one of the Seton effigy's feet has a lowered head. Separately inlaid canopies are rare on brasses on the continent of Europe, where separately inlaid effigies are generally set within a marginal inscription but are common in England and were sometimes favoured for imported Flemish brasses in Scotland, as indents illustrated by Greenhill at Dundrennan Abbey, Whithorn Priory and St John's Perth show. The lower portions of Flemish canopies often have arches that are barely pointed and have little trace of ogee curves and this is precisely what is found at Seton although the serrated upper edges of the canopy are seemingly unique. The same combination of separately inlaid effigy, canopy and marginal inscription with deeper indents for joining bars found at Seton can be seen on a composite Flemish slab at Fleet in Lincolnshire, where the head hands and animal at the effigy's feet are inlaid in stone. This has been dated to around 1450. The underside of the canopy is very similar to that at Seton.

    If the indent at Seton is some years earlier, it could represent an early fifteenth-century rector, Thomas de Karnis, a papal judge sub-delegate in 1410/1, who was referred to as a venerable man in 1412. No other incumbent appears to have been anywhere near as prominent. Thomas's family (modern spelling: Cairns) were of some wealth and importance but he himself is now relatively obscure. He was an official of the diocese of St Andrews, a notary public, a post always filled by papal appointment before the Reformation, although the procedure may have been delegated to very senior local clergy, as it was in England to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Seton was then within the diocese of St Andrews. Karnis was employed in 1395 by the chronicler, Andrew de Wyntoun, Prior of St Serf's Inch, Lochleven, to record the findings of a perambulation of the marches of Kirkness to determine boundaries. He was again employed by de Wyntoun in 1406/7 to transcribe documents relating to land ownership and again in 1411 to transcribe specific extracts of the same documents proving the ownership of the land in an attempt to claim back-dated rent. The date of his death is obscure. In 1430/1 William de Kernis, vicar of Glamys and himself a notary public, established two perpetual chaplaincies in the Holy Trinity church in St Andrews. The church, originally within the close of the priory of St Andrews, had been rebuilt around 1410-12 in the town. The rental of the altar of St Fergus revealed that it had been founded by Thomas and William de Kernis and that the perpetual chaplain of the altar was to pray for their souls. The founding document survives and was drawn up by William, suggesting that he and Thomas had agreed to found the altar before Thomas's death. Perhaps some of the gifts by William to the new altar had been Thomas's: a missal and breviary, both on parchment, a silver chalice, a stone image of St Fergus, two brass candlesticks, a brazen star to hold lamp oil, a piece of furniture to keep the vestments and various vestments, altar cloths and frontals.


F A Greenhill, ‘Scottish Notes (IV)’, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society, vol 10, 318-321