The Brentingby Wall Paintings

Amongst other wall paintings, two large paintings of human figures were discovered during an archaeological survey at Brentingby Chapel before its conversion to a private residence in 1978.   This article asks whether these paintings have an association with the Woodford(e) family.

The chapel from Nichols' 'History & Antiquities of the County of Leicester'
The chapel from Nichols' 'History & Antiquities of the County of Leicester'
The chapel before conversion to a residence
The chapel before conversion to a residence
The chapel post-conversion.
The chapel post-conversion.

The following is a description of the wall paintings and considerations on their date from a report from the archaeologists who worked at Brentingby, later published in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society:

"On the west wall of the nave are a pair of figures.  These were covered by lime-wash and only discovered at a late stage of the work, but have now been removed by J. T. Sturge, the Leicestershire Museums Arch√¶ological Conservator, and will be displayed at Newarke Houses Museum.

The two figures were found flanking the door from the nave into the tower.  The first to be discovered was a skeleton holding a spear in its right hand and a spade in its left and standing on a base of swirling lines (perhaps flames).  This sort of figure, sometimes with an hour-glass in addition to spear and spade, is relatively common in such murals.

The second figure depicts a man wearing laced boots and a tunic. The head and upper body were damaged but a bar of yellow protruding from where the head would have been may have been a musical instrument, although behind the body of the figure is an area of cross-hatching that may have represented a bundle and the yellow bar may have been the end of a staff on which the bundle is carried. Immediately behind this figure is what appears to be a small red bush. 

This painting has not proved easy to date, estimates ranging from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, but Miss June Swan, the Keeper of the Shoe Collection, Northampton Museum, has kindly looked at the painting and offered a date from the style of footwear. The skeleton appears to be wearing cross-hatched round-toed shoes, for which Miss Swan adduces parallels in the earlier fourteenth century.

The second figure's boots are less easy to date, but the baggy top appears to be more common in the period 1420-1440, although Coventry Museum has a surviving example of the same general type dating to the fourteenth century.  Robin Emmerson of Leicestershire Museums Decorative Arts section has also examined the painting.  He suggests a date in the first half of the fifteenth century, corroborating the date suggested by the footwear.

The painting is a 'memento mori' which was a popular theme during the later Middle Ages. The second figure may have represented Time. If this was the case then the yellow bar formed, perhaps, part of a scythe."

Source:  St Mary's Chapel, Brentingby- excavations and observations by P. Liddle and S. R. Hughes, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological & Historical Society, 1978-79, (Vol 54).

The Woodmen at Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville
The Woodmen at Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville
The woodman image, often used by former members of the Woodford(e) family
The woodman image, often used by former members of the Woodford(e) family

The Woodman or Woodwose

The second figure as described by Liddle and Hughes is similar to the crest of the Woodford family, a `woodman proper holding a club argent and girt with oaken leaves proper.'  

The 'woodman' has been a dominant image in the family's history.  Encyclopaedia Heraldica describes the figure as a 'naked savage, wreathed about the head and waist, in his dexter hand a club, in the sinister a palm branch'.

This drawing (left) is from headed notepaper owned by George Augustus Woodforde who was a solicitor in Castle Cary, Somerset, in the nineteenth century.

It also has a strong similarity to a woodwose, the 'wild man of the forest' - in Anglo-Saxon, Wuduwasa - which appears in medieval mythology throughout Europe. This imagery is prolific in European church architecture.

A variation of the crest occurs at  St Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville above the tomb of Sir Ralph Woodford (who died in 1498), and at numerous locations in Northamptonshire in churches where Woodford descendants served as clergymen.

The linguistic association of a woodman with Woodford is obvious; the red bush may symbolise a tree as in a wood; the implement carried by the figure could be a type of club.   There are a number of variations to the Woodford crest in which the figure carries an axe, sword and/or leaves in one or both hands.   The figure could be standing on a representation of water, as in a ford.

Does the club and palm branch represent the balance between war and peace, or between offering friendship whilst defencing one's family and property?

The Ashby Folville sculpture is of two 'wild men' flanking a coat of arms bearing the Woodford and Folville arms.   (Sir John Woodford (1358-1401) married Mabel Folville).   The men are clearly not naked, but dressed (possibly) in the greenery of the forest, similarly to the familiar 'green man' image.  Their stance seems intentionally protective and formal, not wild and threatening.


1295 - John de Woodford born (based on statements in the Woodford cartulary).
1297 - His wife, Alice Prest, born.
1317 - Purchase by John de Woodford of the manor of Brentingby.
1333 - His wife, Alice, died.
1346 - John de Woodford fought at Crecy.
1348 - The 'Black Death' reached Melton Mowbray. Alice's father and brother died.
1353 - His son, William, knighted.
1356 - John de Woodford fought at Poitiers.
1357 - Possibly, his eldest son Walter died.
1358 - John de Woodford (son of William) born.
1362 - John de Woodford transferred his land and property to his surviving son, William.
1362 - Probable death of John de Woodford.
1380 - Earliest of the Brentingby bells cast.
1383 - Robert Woodford (of Sproxton) born. (son of John).
1369 - Sir William de Woodford died.
1400 - Sir John de Woodford died.
1455 - Sir Robert de Woodford died.

The Brentingby Bell

The earlier of the chapel's two bells was cast by John of York in 1380.  It was stored for many years at Thorpe Arnold and then under the crossing at St Mary's Melton.   It is now mounted in the Bell Shopping Centre in Melton Mowbray.  It is regarded as the oldest church bell in England for which a date can be given. 

Ernest Morris's note on Brentingby's bells
Ernest Morris's note on Brentingby's bells

John of York cast many bells for Leicestershire's churches and it is likely that the Woodford family commissioned him on several occasions.  Thomas North proposed that John of York may have briefly relocated his foundry to Leicester at some point in the late fourteenth century, thus explaining the occurrence of so many of his bells in Leicestershire. North ascribes a late fourteenth century dating for all the bells listed in the following article on the basis of the style of the gothic lettering upon them.

The following is from the Sproxton Village Jubilee Website, Sproxton being a manor owned by the Woodforde family through the marriage of William Woodforde, son of John of Brentingby, to Joan (or Jeanette) Brabazon:

'The inscription around the haunch of the second bell is of singular importance.  This is the only one of a number of similar bells occurring in Leicestershire which bear the founder's name;  it has thus been possible to identify John of York as the founder of the whole group.  The other bells in the group have been identified as John of York's as they share the same initial cross and floral stops as those found upon the dedications of Sproxton's first and second bells.

These other bells are at St John the Baptist's church, Billesdon;  St James the Greater's, Birstall;  St Mary's, Brentingby (recently removed),  St Mary's, Cotesbach;  St John the Baptist's, Hungarton;  St Remigius', Long Clawson and St Peter's, Witherley.   The church of Our Lady and St Nicholas at Wanlip, has a bell with the same initial cross, but which differs from the others in having beautiful figures of seated angels in place of the floral stops.

The fact that one of John of York's bells was made to hang in Brentingby church is significant, as the manor of Brentingby was, like Sproxton, a Woodford possession at this time, Brentingby being the family's original seat.'