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August 2014 - Sir William Calthorpe, 1420, Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk

This month's brass shows a great deal of bat damage, a problem virtually unknown until recent years but now affecting hundreds, if not thousands, of churches across the country.

    The Calthorpes took their names from the village of Calthorpe in North Norfolk, where the family traced its origins back to the Norman Conquest. Sir Oliver Calthorpe was coroner of Norfolk is Richard II's reign until old age and infirmity led to his replacement in 1392 and death not long after. He was buried at Calthorpe, where his image in glass was formerly alongside that of his wife Isabel Bacon.  William his son and heir had already been knighted by 1385 and chose, when his time came, to be buried at Burnham Thorpe, a property held by the family since the thirteenth-century. He served on naval expeditions in 1385, 1387 and 1388 under various captains and commanders. He married twice. His first wife was Elinor, daughter of Sir John Mauteby, his second Sybill, daughter and heir of Sir Edmund St Omer, widow of Sir John Wythe, both marriages spawning branches of the family, settling in Suffolk and elsewhere, although the Calthorpes commemorated at Blakeney, Antingham and Cockthorpe in North Norfolk descended from William's bother John. William died on 24th December, 1420, his widow Sybill dying not long after, her will being proved on 6th October 1421. She chose to be buried by her first husband at Smallburgh, Norfolk. Sir William had appointed her and William Paston as his executors. William's eldest son John died around the same time. He had served in France under Sir Thomas Erpingham and had returned. It is not recorded if his death was a belated consequence of his involvement in the wars in France. He left his son, another William, to succeed his grandfather at the age of eleven.  

    Unlike his father and grandson, who both served as Sheriff of Norfolk, Sir William Calthorpe does not appear to have been very active in the sort of public duties that a man of his rank might have been expected to undertake, culminating in the issue of a charter in which Henry IV decreed in June 1403 that Sir William be exempted from all such duties unless he wished to partake. This came after Sir William had been fined after failing to turn up for service on a commission looking at the dispute between the king and the Bishop of Norwich, Henry Despencer, over the latter's failure to keep the bishop's staithe at King's Lynn in good repair, although in November 1403 Sir William was let off twenty pounds of the penalty.  He had been appointed as a member of the commission in late 1401. It appears none of the members were willing to to take on the pugnacious bishop.

 One hearing which Sir William did attend was the 1408 case between Sir Edward Hastings and Reginald, Lord Grey of Ruthin in the Court of Chivalry over the right to bear the arms of Hastings (or a manche gules) at which he appeared as a witness for Sir Edward.  In 1405 Sir William arrested a group of Scottish merchants whose vessel had been driven ashore in Norfolk during bad weather but had to relinquish the group as Scotland and England were enjoying a truce at the time. He had been named as a commissioner of array in 1402 but his latter years were quiet other than his appearance on a commission in 1415 to investigate the escape of a French prisoner from Wisbech Castle before his ransom had been paid.

    When I rubbed this brass over thirty years ago, it appeared in pristine condition. It had been repaired at some point after Cotman drew and engraved it, when it was reported that the side shaft of the canopy that carries part of a Latin verse was reaved. I was unable to tell whether that piece was the original reinstated or a new shaft exactly copying the lettering style of the original brass. Although it is now covered completely by a rug, the brass very clearly bears the marks of bat urine over its surface, corroding the metal in a way analogous to the damage caused to the brasses in the cloisters at Erfurt Cathedral by the very severe East German industrial pollution. Although it is still possible to admire the medieval workmanship that produced this fine monument, it is no longer the thing of beauty that it was not so many years ago. Although this particular brass comes from the period when engraving was deep (it belongs to the London D style), later brasses with much shallower engraving are in danger of losing their detail entirely. This is a problem that needs to be urgently addressed, not least because of the health implications for the congregations of bat-infested churches.

Copyright: Jon Bayliss


Much of the sparse details of Sir William’s life have been taken from the Calendars of the Close and Patent Rolls but his military career is from