Church Monuments Society


Taking the Will for the Deed: the monument to John Smith †1583 at North Muskham, Nottinghamshire

Month: August 2022
Type: Chest tomb  
Era: 16th Century

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St Wilfrid
North Muskham, Newark NG23 6HF

More about this monument

This tomb chest is designed to look like a deed box, and has the charitable provisions of the dead man’s will incised on it.

On the edge of the chancel of St Wilfrid, North Muskham, Nottinghamshire, is a most unusual funerary monument (Figs 1,2,3,4). Described by the Southwell & Nottingham Church History Project as ‘a truncated rectangular alabaster pyramid with incised arrises on a chamfered base’ <> [accessed 26.07.2022], it is recognisable as a traditional form used for deed boxes and reliquary chests, certainly to hold precious items. It is perhaps best described as a casket.


Monuments incorporating chests of this form are not uncommon, for example that at Dorchester St Peter to Sir John Williams (†1617, monument 1628), which members of the Society were able to view on the last pre-pandemic study weekend in 2019 (Fig.5). This relates to contemporary usage in threnodies and epitaphs, where the repository for the deceased becomes a casket, a receptacle for treasure –

‘Meantime thou hast her, earth…
Be kind to her, and prithee look
Thou write into thy doomsday book
Each parcel of this rarity
Which in thy casket shrined doth lie’ (Henry King, 1592-1669, An Exequy…61, 69-72).

The usage, of course continues in undertaker-speak for expensive coffins.


At North Muskham, the emphasis seems to be on the deed-box rather than the treasure-chest avatar of the casket. The black-letter inscription, taking up all four sides of the pyramidal top, first records the facts of John Smith’s life, and then the munificence of his will:


lieth ye corp
of Jhon smithe
Meate for Wormes to
fede therwith. Whose soul
is gone to god on hie. Through
Christes’ merites a[n]d gods mercie.
Whose bodie I hope shall rise agayne.
And ever with Christe for to remayne
Deceased the seco[n]d daye of may beinge in years
of age thirtie and iij anno dni. 1581.

he hath caused a
famous testame[n]t to be
made of his liberall devocio[n]
towards ye poore. That is to say
he hathe geuen Xli yearlye to be payed
unto X poore persons dwelling in muscam
cu[m] holme or bathelay. Vs quarterlye. And euery one
to have a gowne of viij the price. And in the churche of
Muscam iiij sermons in the yeare to be made quarterly for euer
Out of his lands = unto the glorye of god.   In bathelaye

he hathe
Geue unto vji
scolers beige borne
in Notinghamshire &
placed in penbrooke hall i[n]
Cambridge. Euery one to have
foure nobles in the yeare during ye
space of iiij years. And the[n] to change ta
kinge in other vji And this order to co[n]tineue
Out of his la[n]des – for ever – In Newarke

Moreouer out
of his lands lienge
in Sutton. He hathe geue[n]
vj lodes of coles to be distrib=
=ted euerye unto the pore of ye
towne at midsomer. And in the Churche
of Sutton one sermon to be made at midsomer
and this order to continewe yearlye for ever.

(Transcription from <> [accessed 26.07.2022]).

The monument, clearly designed to be readable from above, thus combines the functions of a funerary monument and a record of a benefaction.  Sally Badham has noted that ‘In the post-Reformation period, there is … a blurring of the distinction between monuments to the deceased and records of charitable donations’ [‘Post-Reformation Benefaction Boards and Related Artefacts in English Churches’, (Ecclesiology Today, 59, June 2021, 9-48), 11], while Jessica Barker remarks on the use of tombs as guarantors of veracity and their use in lawsuits (Stone Fidelity, Woodbridge, 2020, 255-256). Records of debt might be inscribed in churches, as in a graffito at Harlton (Cambridgeshire). While Nicholas Stone’s tomb of Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare (1557/8-1636), with the inscriptions on representations of legal documents, in St Helen’s, Bishopsgate (Fig.6), may simply be a witty reference to his profession, the casket on the Smith monument carries more symbolic weight. It both commemorates John Smith, and symbolises the legality of his benefactions, and the sacredness of the trust which he committed to his executors in his will. His beneficence is there for all to read – the deed is cast in stone, and its location and form guarantees it.