Church Monuments Society

Donation tablet general view

The Wesscombe donation wall tablet, St Mary, Kentisbeare, Devon

Month: April 2023
Type: Board / Plaque / Tablet  
Era: 17th Century

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St Mary,
Kentisbeare, Cullompton EX15 2BG

More about this monument

A splendidly-carved benefaction tablet recording a generous gift to the poor of the parish

Must a church monument commemorate a death? Perhaps not, if instead it records a benefaction to the parish. Most memorials of this kind are known as benefaction boards because they are made of painted wood, occasionally adorned with images of the benefactors, although some true memorials in stone and brass record benefactions as well as the death of the person memorialised. At Kentisbeare in east Devon, however, there is a benefaction record which is truly a work of sculpture, very competently carved with excellent lettering, ornament and figures. It is fixed to the south wall of the nave and has an inscription panel of black marble in an alabaster frame. At first sight it looks like a church monument of the familiar sort – until, that is, the inscription is read. This is not easy which is perhaps why the tablet is so little known. It reads:

Robert Wesscombe of this parish […] gave to the poore thereof one hundred and ten pounds, the hundred pounds to be bestowed in land. Anstice his wife, to further his intent, added to it fourteen pounds with which is purchased six pounds a year out of Berry Parkes, parcel of Poole Farme, to remain for ye use of the said poor for ever. She founded this lofte and devised ye annual profit thereof, with the profit of thirty pounds more by her last will devised to the use of ye said poor for ever. She purchased ye church house for term of 8 (?) lives for ye impotent poore of this parish for ever.  [spelling modernised and punctuation added].

Robert and Anstice Wesscombe were a wealthy middle-class couple. In his will, Robert described himself as a ‘yeoman of this parish’ and expressed a wish to be buried in the church to which he bequeathed the sum of twenty shillings. The £110.00 which he left to the parish poor was a very substantial sum. Anstice’s addition to his charity consisted partly in paying for the handsome gallery at the west end of the church which is referred to as the ‘loft’ on the inscription. It survives, bearing their initials and the date 1632. The ‘church house’ to which the inscription also refers, is also still extant. It is a medieval building, standing just below the church on the north side and is now known as the Priest’s House.

Anstice’s gallery was expected to yield ‘profits’, indicating that the space in it was to be rented out to worshippers at the church, an interesting prefiguration of the practice of charging pew rents which was to become almost universal in the 18th century.

The sides of the tablet’s frame are adorned with miniature busts of the Wesscombes, he on the left and she on the right. At the top centre is a symbolic device of a book with a flaming heart suspended over it. This would seem to represent Christian love and charity based on the Word of God, a very Protestant concept.

The alabaster of which the frame is made is streaked with black and has a greenish tinge. These are both characteristics of alabaster quarried on the north Somerset coast which at the time was much used for sculpture in Devon and Somerset. The style of ornament and carving fits very nicely with a sequence of church monuments dating from the late 1620s and 1630s. Examples are at North Molton (d.1626), Crediton (d.1630), Newton St Cyres (d.1632) and Ottery St Mary (d.1632), all in Devon and at Taunton, Somerset (d.1638). This was a distinguished workshop, well up to date in style and showing an awareness of the London fashions. So far, no name of a sculptor has convincingly been attached to it.

Adam White