Bequeathed by Elizabeth Elmham
Sir William Elmham campaigned in France in the mid-l4th century and made his fortune. With his principal residence in Westhorpe, he was also lord of Walsham and other manors. He died in 1403 leaving money to several churches, including 20 marks (then worth £l3 6s 8d) to repair the north aisle and tower of Walsham. His will, written in French, is in the Norwich Record Office (288 Harsyk) made available by Peter Northeast.
Sir William’s widow, Elizabeth, probably a far younger person, survived him nearly seventeen years. After his death she became lady of the manor of Westhorpe (and Walsham). Her will, also written in French, is in Norwich Record Office (56 Hyrning) made available by Peter Northeast. Firstly, Elizabeth stipulates that she be buried beside Sir William near St Edmund’s shrine in Bury Abbey. Next, she leaves money to religious establishments all over East Anglia. Ixworth Priory, which served Walsham, is given £5. £20 is to be distributed to the poor in the area of Westhorpe, including the town of Walsham. Most of the churches which receive money and vestments are local, with Westhorpe receiving by far the greatest amount. There is, however, one unusual siting, ‘the town of Cateston’ which receives vestments to the value of £5. This may be Cawston in Norfolk, and it is likely that it was Elizabeth’s childhood home.
There are well over fifty legacies to individual priests, relatives, friends and servants. The amounts vary from a quarter of a mark (3s.4d.) for every monk in Bury Abbey; 5 shillings for each of her ploughmen in Westhorpe, Wyverstone and Rickinghall; up to £40 as a marriage gift for Elizabeth Drury, daughter of Elizabeth Elmham’s friend and executor Sir Roger Drury.
Over forty personal bequests are interspersed in a rather haphazard fashion among the monetary legacies. Towards the end, with the lady presumably ailing and tired, the will becomes increasingly disordered, and the last bequest is ‘to William (blank) a silver powder-box’. Presumably this is for William the clerk to blot his ink. The will was drawn up in December 1419, and Elizabeth died about two months later. At the end of the will prayers are asked for the souls of her predeceased husbands, Sir William Elmham and Thomas Caterton. Elizabeth elsewhere makes a bequest to Elizabeth Caterton, and perhaps the family came from Cateston or Cawston already noted. Thomas, although named second, was presumably Elizabeth Elmham’s first husband. No children of either union are mentioned, not even as souls to be prayed for, the usual practice with all who died in infancy. Nieces and nephews are important to Elizabeth, and are generously treated. ‘Dame Anne my niece in Campsey’, in other words a canoness at the Augustinian Priory, is left £5, and Elizabeth’s two nephews are left even more substantial amounts (100 marks: £65.13s.4d. and 50 marks: £32.16s.8d. respectively). Poignantly, a legacy of £1 each is paid to four ‘daughters’, but these Elizabeth had ‘held over the font’, in other words they were her god-daughters, all, of course, named Elizabeth.
The mention of Dame Anne of Campsey reminds Elizabeth of another niece and so, rather at a tangent, we have the first of the personal bequests. This is: ‘to Dame Margaret Kerston my niece, my second gilt girdle’. As with Shakespeare’s bed, the second best was often the one in regular use. A medieval girdle was usually, as here, embellished with rich metal and meant to be seen, unlike the modern undergarment. In the late 14th century poem ‘ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , the lady’s girdle is central to the story and a highly symbolic item.
Another bequest to Dame Margaret, ‘a black mantle lined with miniver’ was sumptuous. Miniver, or ermine, was the white winter fur of the stoat. Not only was it difficult to obtain, but many pelts were needed to line a fuil-length mantle, or cloak as we would call it. The black of the cloak itself was a difficult dye to fix, and it was usually restricted to formal dress.
Having begun on personal items, Elizabeth next bequeaths: ‘to Dame Margaret Fyltzhugh a pair of coral beads with gilt paternosters a gilt brooch’. This is similar to Chaucer’s description of Madame Eglentyne’s rosary: ‘of smal coral about hire arm she bar a peire of bedes, gauded al with grene and theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene’. The tiny corals were strung to count off each ‘Hail Mary’ (Ave Maria). The larger ‘gauds’ or ‘paternosters’ (Our Fathers) were for the much longer Lord’ s Prayer recited after every ten Hail Maries. This process was repeated fifteen times, often in the dark, hence the different sized beads. The brooch, possibly for securing the rosary to the sleeve, made the devotional beads into something of a fashion accessory. Later in the will Eleanor Willoughby, without a title and presumably of lower social status, is bequeathed a pair of coral beads with silver-gilt paternosters. With no brooch this rosary was an economy version. It must be admitted that a reference to the Canterbury Tales of the late 1380’s is rather out of date for 1419 when Elizabeth made her will, but things such as rosaries did not change much.
The next bequest is for the fourth and last titled lady, Dame Elizabeth Burnel. The simple phrase ‘my primer’ is used for a personal prayer book, often illuminated with miniatures glistening with real gold. These prized Books of Hours were passed on through generations, and from family to family, the individual heraldry often overpainted with the new owner’s arms.
Mention of heraldry brings us the next personal bequest : ‘a bed of black silk embroidered with the arms of Elmham and with backs and sides figured with the arms of my husband and mine with three silk cushions.’ Bed hangings embroidered with heraldry were a mark of a rich, even princely life-style.
Our illustration, from a miniature of about 1422, shows the Queen af France’s bedroom (British Library MS Harl 4431) with a lady in waiting of Elizabeth’s social status sitting on cushions and leaning against the royal bed. The queen’s heraldry is displayed in a ‘lozenge’, a diamond shape. The late king’s arms are to the viewer’s left (wearer’s right), the queen’s family arms to the viewer’ s right. Elizabeth Elmham’ s heraldry would have been displayed in the same way. It is significant that Elizabeth specifies her own arms, for her family, Hastings, was far higher on the social scale than Elmham. The Hastings shield (‘or a maunch gules’ – a red sleeve on gold) was set up in glass in Walsham church, and this can still be seen, now in the east window.
Elizabeth’s third niece, simply ‘Margaret Rocheford’ presumably unmarried and not of age, is given a jewelled clasp called an ‘ouche’ with three large pearls, three rubies and a sapphire. A young cousin Robert Wyngfeld is given ‘all my share in the manor of Iken when he comes of age on condition he causes my executors no trouble’. The young tearaway is already married, and Elizabeth leaves the unnamed wife ‘a gilt circlet with enamelled beads’. The Wingfield/de la Pole family, incidentally, eventually inherited the lordship of Walsham manor. Alice Harplay, possibly Elizabeth’s personal maid, is given, among other items, a brooch and Eliabeth’s purse, most likely with rich metal fittings. This, with one important exception to be discussed later, disposes of the jewellery.
Of the remaining personal bequests, nine are to women, possibly Elizabeth’s servants. These gifts are mostly garments, or material to make them. Alice Harplay is left a new kirtle. The ‘new’ is important, for a kirtle was the close-fitting dress which would not have been washed very often. Two other women are given ‘ Blois cloth’, obviously good material imported f’rom France, to make kirtles for themselves. Another woman is given a fur-lined mantle or cloak, not as rich as that left to Dame Margaret. More numerous than kirtles and mantles are houplands, mentioned no less than eleven times. The houpland was a voluminous over-all gown, requiring eight yards of cloth according to the will. Women wore the garment over the kirtle. The lady in our illustration is wearing a houpland, with the dark kirtle just showing at her wrists. The jewelled girdle, worn high, emphasises the lady`s femininity, but the houpland was uni-sex, and four of these garments are bequeathed to men, two of them priests. The capacious folds and wide sleeves are still with us in the form of the academic gown, and two of the men’s houplands are black. One of the priests however, the ‘parson of Westhorpe’ , is given a houpland in russet. Russet is a brick-red colour, and sounds surprising for a priest, but in the Ellesmere version of the Canterbury Tales the Povre Persoun is shown in such a garb, and other examples of ‘red’ clergy can be cited. The houpland for Elizabeth’s clerical cousin, William Mounceaux, is black lined with miniver, a most distinguished outfit for a parson. Several of the houplands, including the parson’s russet and Elizabeth’s ‘best’ given to Alice Harplay, are lined with ‘grey’. This was a quality fur usually from stoats or weasels, but not as precious as the winter miniver. Again, many pelts were needed for a large garment and the lining usually had several shades of fur, hence the indeterminate term ‘ grey’. In heraldry the fur is called ‘vair’ because of its varied nature. It is thought that Cinderella’s slipper was of vair, mistakenly written down in the 17th century as ‘verre’.
We know very little about the recipients of Elizabeth Elmham’s gifts, save for one man, ‘the high and mighty prince the Duke of Exeter’. In 1419 this was Thomas Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford. Born in the 1370’s, he was a grandson of Edward III, and uncle to King Henry V. In Shakespeare’s play ‘ uncle Exeter’ is presented as dignified and forceful, a pivotal figure during Henry V’s reign from 1413 to 1422. He was on active service in France until 1420. With the king’s death in 1422 his influence declined and he himself died in 1426.
It is to the duke that Elizabeth presents her lavish heraldic bed-hangings. These are accompanied by an overwhelming collection of other bedding, tapestries, silverware, kitchen utensils, ploughs complete with horses, and a great deal of farm produce. Many Elmham estate revenues are given to him, and he is appointed as the chief of the eight executors. It is strange that a duke, the king’s uncle, should be given ‘ fustian curtains’ , ‘a plough with iron fittings’, ‘all the vessels of brass, lead and pewter from the bakehouse’.Apart from the commonplace nature of these gifts, even the more costly items seem inappropriate. There is a silver ‘paxbred’ (a small tablet used in the celebration of the Mass) engraved with the arms of Elmham. Robert Trusser, parson of Westhorpe from Sir William’s time, executor of both wills, would seem to be a more suitable recipient than the duke, but Trusser is given the russet houpland. Thomas Swan,
the family chaplain, or Sir John Elmham would also appear to have been suitable custodians of such a family heirloom, but both men are given relatively meagre monetary legacies, ten shillings and five marks (£3.6s.8d) respectively. Exeter, on the other hand, is deputed to administer much of the Elmham property, as shown in the plea: ‘to John Syre my coachman 30 marks (£20) I beg of my lord that the same John may have his house for his lifetime’.
‘My lord’ in this instance is obviously Exeter not Sir William. In fact, throughout the will Elizabeth refers to Sir William simply as ‘my husband’. In one instance only, prayers are asked for ‘my lord William Elmham my husband and myself in perpetuity’. Without punctuation there is ambiguity, but with a comma after ‘my lord’ it appears, as is likely, that the prayers are meant to include ‘the same lord’, the Duke of Exeter. A particularly significant instance concerning ‘my lord’ is the bequest of another girdle. This was sent to Elizabeth by ‘my lord’ from Harfleur. Sir William’s campaigning was nowhere near Harfleur, whereas the Duke of Exeter was the town’s governor after its capture by Henry V in 1415.
A girdle was a strange, even an inappropriate gift for a duke to send from France to a Suffolk knight’s widow. We have already discussed the ‘second gilt girdle’, and presumably this other, sent from ‘my lord’, was the best. With the black silk bed, here is material for another Anya Seton romantic historical novel, but for the present, anima Elizabethae requiescat in pace.
- Boutell’s Heraldry: revised J.P.Brooke-Little, London 1983
- The Blazon: The Suffolk Heraldry Society 1995
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: ed A.C.Cawley, London 1978
- Henry V: P.Earle, London 1975
- The Plantagenet Encyclopedia: ed E.Hallam, London 1990
- Costume Cavalcade: H.H.Hansen, Londan 1958
- Medieval Women: E.Power ed M.M.Postan, Cambridge 1975
- Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: ed F.N.Robinson, Oxford 1978
- The Arden Shakespeare:King Henry V: ed J.H.Walter, London l979
In the south aisle of St Mary’s Walsham is a brass to Thomasina Smalpiece. It has already been described, with my purposely mannered ‘Elizabethan’ translation, in this Review (No.9: Spring 1999) but it may be appropriate at this time to remind readers of its interesting date. The first line of the Latin poem reads: anno milleno sexcento atque secundo, ‘in the sixteen hundred and second year’. This has led some guidebooks to date the brass as 1602. A few lines later we are given the day of Thomasina’s death Iani bis deno ac octavo, ‘the 28th January’, which tells us that in modern reckoning the year is 1603. In Elizabethan times, and up to 1752, the year was generally dated from Lady Day, 25th March, traditionally the day of Jesus’ conception, nine months before Christmas Day. In other words, for the Elizabethans what we regard as 28th January 1603 was for them still in 1602.
Apart from the adjustment of the year’s date, we also need to adjust the day itself. In 1603 England was still using the ancient Julian calendar, at that time ten days behind the Gregorian calendar used by most of Europe (sounds familiar?). In 1752 Britain finally got into step, by which time we were eleven days adrift. To arrive at the actual quatercentenary for Thomasina we need to add ten days, making the Elizabethan ‘28th January 1602’ into 7th February 1603’. The Shakespeare enthusiasts who celebrate modern 23rd April as the day of his death should really journey to Stratford on 3rd May. At Walsham we should perhaps remember Mary Boyce not on 15th November, as inscribed on the crance, but on 25th November. This, many will say, is taking my pedantry too far.
What the Papers Said 100 Years Ago
Bury Free Press 4th April 1903
“An interesting discovery in church wall – Extensive repairs to the exterior of the church in Walsham, through the generosity of Mr. John Martineau, has resulted in an interesting find. When some stonework of the north wall was removed a piece of stone was discovered evidently part of an ancient shrine. Measuring 6–7 inches long and 2–3 inches wide on one side is a carved figure, very distinct, of an angel. On the opposite side is a bishop with mitre and stole and apparently a bible in his hand. Head is missing.” The stone has been placed in the vestry.
Bury Free Press 11th April 1903
“A foot race took place in Wattisfield Road, Walsham le Willows for £1 a head. Mr. Dan Pawsey of Hopton ran 100 yards while James George of Gt. Ashfield ran 50 yards carrying a coomb of wheat [18 stone]. Mr Pawsey won by one and a half yards after a slow start by Mr. George. Some days later Dan Pawsey raced George Hubbard of Walsham on the cricket meadow for £1 a head. Mr. Hubbard won 6 of 7 races after Mr. Pawsey found it slippery without spiked shoes.”
Bury Free Press 18th April 1903
“Campanology – Six members of the Norwich Dioceaen Association of Change Ringers came to Walsham le Willows and rang upon the bells of St. Mary’s Church. A peel of Bob Minor, 5040 changes, being seven 720’s in the space of 2 hours 50 minutes.”