Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.15: Tomb of Robart Colles

Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) in 1724 after a drawing by Edmund Prideaux (1693-1745) (SAL Minutes I.128). The “drawing of a Tombstone inscription in Foulsham Churchyard Norff” was first presented by Peter Le Neve (1661-1729) on 11 December 1723 with the drawings of the Monastic Gatehouse at St Benet’s Holme (Plates 1.13-1.14). William Stukeley (1687-1765) included a rough copy of Prideaux’s drawing in his record of this meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL Minutes I.94).

Object: Plain, late fifteenth-or early sixteenth-century chest tomb with paneled sides around which runs the inscription “Robart Colles Cecili his vif.” Over each letter in the inscription is a coronet. Below are quatrefoils containing lozenges, diamonds, mouchette wheels, and other decorative shapes. The tomb resides in its original location: in the churchyard of Holy Innocents, Foulsham, Norfolk.


Top: Tomb at Folsham, Norff.

Bottom: Robart Colles: cecili his wif. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Commentary by Juliette Paul: In publishing Robert Colles’s chest tomb, the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) preserved a copy of an ancient “inscription” (SAL Minutes I.94). The crowned capitals placed along the sides of the tomb are transposed in Vetusta Monumenta into a large border enclosing the tomb’s image. Between the covers of a book, the tomb at Foulsham becomes darkly-printed and adorned reading material, and the first monument in Vetusta Monumenta that is a text.

Published in 1724, this engraving demonstrates contemporary interest in the inscription discovered in Norfolk. That year, the anonymous compilers of Magna Britannia et Hibernia, Antiqua & Nova published an image of the same letters. They could not, however, decipher the inscription. This was work for a scholar of ancient writing, they noted: “We are not so much skilled in Antiquity as to expound [upon the letters]; but have thought fit to set them down, that the Learned that way might” (Magna Britannia 1724, 282). In his analysis of excavated Saxon coins, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1686, the Norfolk antiquary Sir Philip Skippon (1641-91) had also transcribed the letters appearing on the Foulsham tomb and called for help in decoding them: “In the Church-yard at Foultsham in Norfolk, there is a Tomb-stone with this Inscription, which some of the Learned in these Curiosities may perhaps explain” (361). 

The unusual division of the letters into the tomb's compartments seems to have made reading the inscription difficult for earlier antiquaries, or, at least, for Skippon, upon whose transcription Magna Britannia’s may have been based. Skippon and Magna Britannia's printers furnish nearly identical transcriptions of the letters, beginning with the fourth letter—the “a” in “Robart”—and grouping the letters separately according to the sides of the tomb on which they appear: “art col les. cec. ili his vif. rob” (Skippon 1686, 361; Magna Britannia 1724, 282). Moreover, some of the letters they illustrate look unlike the late medieval English letters carved on the tomb, a fact noted by later antiquaries such as Richard Gough (1735-1809), who remarked on Skippon’s “miserably given” transcription (1789, 2.117), and Thomas Quarles, who decried “these rude characters, bearing little or no resemblance to those on the tomb, and which may well defy interpretation!” (1842, 59). Though Skippon was a skilled epigraphist, well known at the Royal Society for his massive collection of ancient and medieval inscriptions, both he and the compilers of Magna Britannia seem to have mistaken the English letters on the tomb for runes (Greengrass et al. 2016, 156). Their quest to decipher the inscription and the Society’s response in the form of this plate demonstrate a shared interest in the project to unearth England’s Saxon past in country churchyards, which had begun as early as 1586 with William Camden’s publication of runes carved on the Ruthwell Cross in Britannia.

If the letterforms that the SAL ordered for display in this plate were neither runes nor Old English, but a fairly unremarkable text legible to many modern readers, why is this material included in Vetusta Monumenta? Later antiquaries contribute some additional clues as to the motives behind this engraving. Charles Parkin believed the inscription was engraved for the “antiquity of the letters, order, and disposition of them” (Blomefield 1775, 378). John Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley wrote that the tomb’s inscription had been noticed for the “singular disposition” of the letters (1810, 326). Similarly, John Chambers copied the inscription, noting how the letters are “fancifully divided” (1829, 1.222). By these accounts, the SAL seem to have been drawn to the very same formal qualities of this inscription that rendered it unreadable to many of its viewers. The generous spacing of the decorated letters and the fact that one has to circle the entire tomb to read them in some sense register the inscription’s historic value. The importance of each letter’s physical place on the tomb is demonstrated in the engraving’s use of reverse lettering. The letters appearing on the furthest long side are printed upside down, and those appearing on the shorter sides are printed sideways as if the lettering had been lifted off the tomb and laid flat. Printed in reverse, the bold capitals invite us to imagine ourselves walking around each side of the tomb, reading the inscription. By visually mapping the decorated letters on the tomb, the engraving of Robert Colles’s monument becomes the first in Vetusta Monumenta to rely upon the interface between text and image to convey a sense of the physical object’s history.

Members of the SAL may have considered Colles’s chest tomb noteworthy because it is inscribed with lettering similar to that of an illuminated manuscript. The comparison of a tomb to a manuscript has a precedent in Humfrey Wanley’s (1672-1726) decades-long work to publish specimens of English letters collected from monuments and manuscripts across the British Isles. The project to publish a “paleographical survey of English hands” was adopted by the SAL in a charter for the re-founded society drafted in Wanley’s hand circa 1708 (Wanley 1989, 470; 67n1). If the engraving of Colles’s chest tomb bears any resemblance to Wanley’s paleographical method of letter specimen collecting, the print preserves a late medieval form of English lettering.The late medieval dating of the tomb was not confirmed until 1775, when Parkin discovered Colles’s signature to a deed of 1505: “I find this Robert Colles witness to a deed of Ralph Bateman, of Folsham, and Alice his wife, living in the 20 year of Henry VII” (Blomefield 1775, 378). In his History and Antiquities of Foulsham: In Norfolk (1842), Quarles reported that during this period, Foulsham parishioners renovated the upper lights of the chancel, under which runs a line of letters, each surmounted by a coronet, like those in the tomb inscription (58). Quarles also discovered similar lettering in the engravings of manuscripts published in Henry Shaw's Illuminated Ornaments: Selected from Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Sixth to the Seventeenth Centuries (1833). Perhaps the alphabet of illuminated capitals—specifically “R,” “B,” “T,” and “L”—inscribed in a fifteenth-century Latin gradual provided Quarles with evidence to date the tomb’s inscription to the late fifteenth century (Shaw 1833, Plates 1.27-1.28).

Might members of the SAL, with their deeper knowledge of medieval manuscripts, have noticed that each letter in the inscription is isolated and decorated like an illuminated capital? This otherwise plain tomb is indeed notable for being decorated with an ornate inscription comparable to the most adorned letters in a Psalter or Bible. Considered in this light, the lettered framework surrounding this image of Robert Colles’s tomb evokes the visual beauties of medieval reading and allows readers to participate in its design.

Works Cited:

Blomefield, Francis, continued by Charles Parkin. 1775. An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk. Vol. 4. Lynn: W. Whittingham and London: R. Baldwin.

Britton, John, and Edward Wedlake Brayley. 1810. Topographical and Historical Description of Norfolk. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones. 

Camden, William. 1789. Britannia: or, a chorographical description of the flourishing kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the islands adjacent; from the earliest antiquity. Edited and expanded by Richard Gough. 3 vols. London: John Nichols.

Chambers, John. 1829. A General History of the County of Norfolk. 2 vols. Norwich: John Stacy.

Greengrass, Mark, Daisy Hildyard, Christopher D. Preston, and Paul J. Smith. 2016. “Science on the Move: Francis Willughby’s Expeditions.” In Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672), edited by Tim Birkhead, 142-226. Leiden: Brill.

Magna Britannia et Hibernia, Antiqua & Nova: Or, a New, Exact, and Comprehensive Survey of the Ancient and Present State of Great-Britain. 1724. Vol. 3. London: T. Cox.

Quarles, Thomas. 1842. History and Antiquities of Foulsham: In Norfolk. London: Joseph Cundall.

Shaw, Henry. 1833. Illuminated Ornaments: Selected from Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Sixth to the Seventeenth Centuries. London: William Pickering.

Skippon, Philip. 1686. “An Account of Some Saxon Coyns Found in Suffolk.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 16: 356-361.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Wanley, Humfrey. 1989. Letters of Humfrey Wanley: Palaeographer, Anglo-Saxonist, Librarian, 1672-1726, edited by P. L. Heyworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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