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February 2012 – Thomas and Elizabeth Drake, c. 1520, Forncett St Peter, Norfolk

The positioning of the shield, upside down in relation to the half effigies, indicates that it was meant to be viewed from the top (effigial) end of the slab. The heads of the half effigies would have been at the west end of the slab, as was normal for monuments to lay people. The inscriptions were also meant to be read from the top end and so would have also been upside down compared with the effigies. Just enough remains legible to confirm this. The slab is chamfered on two sides. The indication is that the tomb was likely to have been against the north side of the church and inaccessible from its east end, suggesting that it abutted an east wall, either of the chancel or  north aisle. As the most prestigious monument in the church, it would be unsurprising to find it in such a prestigious place as the north-east corner of the chancel, where it could possibly have been used as an Easter sepulchre.

Greenhill dated the slab to around 1520, others to 1485. Who is correct? The form of the tomb chest, with shields in cusped lozenges set in square cusped panels, is one that was obviously current from the early 1480s to the 1530s to judge from other alabaster tombs. However, there were two slightly different forms of these panels used in that period, one succeeding the other in the early years of the sixteenth century. The Forncett panels are of the later type. At each of the three corners of the tomb chest is a spiral colonette. These are a purely sixteenth century feature of alabaster tombs. The best parallel to the Forncett monument is the tomb of Sir Simon Digby, died 1519/20, at Coleshill in Warwickshire. It has both the same type of panel and the angle colonettes. Supporting the date assigned to the slab by Greenhill are a couple of references to Thomas and Elizabeth Drake in the Buxton papers in Cambridge University Library. On 24 May 1509 a lease of land in Forncett and Wacton was granted to a number of people including Elizabeth Elys, widow, described as the future wife of Thomas Drake of Forncett, for the life of Elizabeth. On 24 August 1517, Thomas Drake of Forncett was one of the recipients of a gift of land in Tibenham and Gissing.

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

Alabaster tombs dating from before the Reformation are a rarity in East Anglia, as are alabaster incised slabs. The two are found in combination at Forncett St Peter in Norfolk, where the incised half effigies of Thomas Drake and his wife Elizabeth lie atop an alabaster tomb.

The identities of Thomas and his wife are known from Weever's Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), which records two inscriptions:


Orate pro animabus Thome Drake et Elisabethe uxor eius

 [Pray for the souls of Thomas Drake and Elizabeth his wife]

 All Christian people that walk by thys tomb erly or late

 Of your charity say a pater noster for the soul of Tho. Drake

There are six lines of inscription erased from the slab, each of the lines above being split in two. The 'O' of Orate can still be plainly seen as can parts of other words. The erasures were probably made around April or May 1644, when a man named Gilley is recorded visiting other churches in the area and ordering removal of superstitious inscriptions in line with the Parliamentary Ordinance of 28 August 1643. In December of that year, the earl of Manchester issued a warrant to William Dowsing to carry out this sort of work throughout the counties of the Eastern Association, which also enabled Dowsing to appoint deputies to do likewise. It is likely that his deputy in the hundred of Blackbourn in Suffolk and in the southern part of Norfolk was Clement Gilley of Troston, Suffolk, whose iconoclasm included the defacing of inscriptions on bells. Dowsing himself and his other deputies generally ignored bell inscriptions. The bells of Wacton and Tharston, parishes adjoining Forncett St Peter were damaged in this way and an attempt was made at Forncett St Peter to obliterate a similar inscription above the porch of of the church. Gilley's name is recorded in churchwardens' accounts covering this area of Norfolk in 1644 as 'Mr Gillie' at Banham before 21 April, 'Captaine Gilley' at Bressingham on 7 May, 'Captine Gille' at East Harling on 9 May and he was probably the unnamed captain present at Ashwellthorpe on 16 May 1644.  In contrast to the scoring out of one line of a brass inscription at Ashwellthorpe, every word on the Drake monument at Forncett has been removed, including those round the shield on the lower half of the slab, which Weever did not record. This suggests that the man who erased the inscription was illiterate. Either he was asked to do this work in advance of Gilley's visit or orders were left by Gilley to remove the offending words. Also erased was the charge on the shield itself, raising the possibility that it was religious rather than the wyvern of the Drake family or that the man who did it was leaving nothing to chance, recognising only the effigies as inoffensive.

Strangely the two brass inscriptions remaining in the church each have an offending phrase left in place. They are interesting because they were obviously both cut at the same time, later than the dates on them, 1484 and 1535. They are London made, unusual for their nominal dates in inland areas of Norfolk, and are set in Purbeck marble. One, to Thomas Baxter, died 1535, who married Margaret, daughter of William Drake, has an inscription and a shield cut into the stone itself: THOMAS BAXTER 1535. The date appears to be in the same script as that on the brass. The name is in perfectly normal Roman capitals, not normally found on monuments in the mid 1530s. The other, to Richard Baxter, whose wife was called Isabel, has a shield cut into the stone in the same position as Thomas Baxter's and has traces of lettering above it, of which the E of Baxter can be made out. Each brass is cut on thin plate, typical of brasses much later in the sixteenth century, when the metal was being manufactured rather than imported. It is possible that they replaced earlier brasses with the same inscriptions. Despite his preoccupation with removing offending inscriptions on bells, Gilley does not appear to have been quite as interested in censoring memorial brasses in the same way and they were not drawn to the attention of the man who mutilated the Drake tomb.


F A Greenhill, Incised Effigial Slabs (1976), 2 vols

T Cooper, ed, The Journal of William Dowsing (2001), especially chpter 8, J Blatchly, ‘In search of bells: identifying iconoclasm in Norfolk, 1644’