(Our thanks go to Jo Welford who did the brass rubbing and Jonathan Peacock for the loan of this, and a number of other historical records.)
Jonathan Peacock, in his ‘A History of Hamsterley‘ writes:
‘In about 1450, Ralph Hamsterley was born. He was appointed a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, in 1476, and was proctor of the University in 1481. He was MA 13 March 1507/8. He was rector Washington, county Durham, from 1486 to 1500, and of St Andrew’s, Oddington, Oxfordshire, from 1499 to 1507, where a monumental brass was prepared for him before his death (the dates are not filled in – see below), although he was not buried there. He became principal of St Alban Hall (originally an ancient (12th century) independent place of learning owned by Littlemore Convent, and purchased by Merton at the time of the Dissolution in 1548) and then Master of University College, Oxford from 1509 until his death, while at the same time being rector of Great Birch, Essex from 1512. He died on 4th August 1518 and was buried in Merton College chapel, where he has another brass.’
Notes on the Brass of Ralph Hamsterley 1516 at St. Andrew’s Church, Oddington, Oxfordshire
‘All you that do this place pass by
Remember death for you must die.
As you are now even so was I
And as I am so shall you be.’
You can see this verse on an incised slab at Norwich Cathedral, under a skeleton (Incised slabs were, unlike brasses, engraved on the stone itself.) It is on the wall of the cathedral, dating from 1580.
Similar warnings occur on a number of brasses. At Naumberg, Germany, 1505, these two Latin verses accompany a macabre figure of Death:
‘QUOD TU ES EGU FUI
ID QUOD SUM TU ERIS’
(‘What you are I once was
What I am you will be’)
At Rivington, Lancashire, on the brass of John Shawe, 1627, this is summed up more curtly:
‘As I am thou shall be’
To add grisly realism to these representations of death some monuments show the actual process of the body decomposing – or rotting. This is indicated by worms and other creatures crawling over and into the corpse which is called a CADAVA – a shrunken corpse, almost a skeleton.
The brass of RALPH HAMSTERLEY is the only existing example of this in Britain.
On his brass, which is on the floor of the chancel at Oddington Church, before the altar, he appears as a skeleton with a cracked skull, wrapped in a shroud which is tied with ropes at the top and bottom. Altogether, about thirteen worms crawl through his eye sockets, jaws, spinal column, ribs, stomach, left leg and the bones of his feet. The worms each have little faces and resemble fish or snakes. One of the worms going into his stomach has, in error not been shaded. A Latin scroll issues from his mouth. It sums up the presence of the worms:
‘VERMIBUS HIC DONOR ET SIC OSTENDERE CONOR
QUOD SICUT HIC PONOR: PONITOR OMNIS HONOR’
(‘Here I am, given to the worms, and thus I try to show
That as I am laid aside here so is all honour laid aside.’)
The little fox illustrated here comes at the end of these two lines. It is taken from a rubbing of the original brass.
It is a sobering fact that this brass was made BEFORE Ralph Hamsterley died. This is borne out by the blank spaces for the day, month and year of death which can be seen on the foot inscription. They were never filled in, although his date of death is known from his will. The inscription is as follows. (As in the scroll, contradictions are given in full.) …
(‘Pray for the soul of Ralph Hamsterley, formerly Fellow of Merton College in Oxford and Rector of this church who died in the Year of Christ 15_____ on the _____ day of the month of _____. (His date of death is known to be 2nd August, 1518. He was buried at Merton College Chapel, not at Oddington.)
Ralph Hamsterley was born in county Durham, where there is a village called Hamsterley, and a Hamsterley forest.