The Brentingby Wall Paintings

Background

The Earl of Leicester held the manor, according to the Leicester Survey c.1125, as part of the fee of Thorpe Arnold, and it remained a relatively insignificant holding until the arrival of John de Woodford in 1317.  His purchase of the manor opened a period of prosperity and stability for the hamlet.

Brentingby was never a large manor.   The Poll Tax of 1377 records an adult population of 52.  In  1445 Brentingby was designated an impoverished village and granted 27% relief from taxation, almost certainly because of a drop in population. By 1524 only seven tax-payers were assessed (although this might be less than the total population) and in 1563 only eight households are mentioned in the Bishop's Returns. 

In the seventeenth century Brentingby is included with Wyfordby, but by the end of the eighteenth century there were only six houses recorded. This evidence suggests that the major period of desertion at Brentingby falls in the fifteenth century probably because of arable/pastoral conversion.

The location of the Woodford manor house at Brentingby is not known, and there is no evidence today of a moated site in the area.  It seems likely it was in the area of the present Brentingby Hall Farm southwest of the chapel.

The Chapel

The chapel was extensively rebuilt during the Woodford family's tenure of the manor.  An older church was replaced by a larger building, perhaps an indication of an increasing population and prosperity.  The unusual saddleback tower dates from this time. 

It was remodelled in 1660 when the east end was shortened and a new east wall was constructed, replacing the nave windows. The roof was rebuilt to give it a steeper pitch, and the north door was blocked.  This work was commissioned by the Smith family who gained ownership of the manor at that time.  They also rebuilt the manor house farm in 1658.

The church was declared redundant in the 1950s.  Thereafter its condition deteriorated due to neglect.  In 1977, the body of the church was partly demolished and converted into a house, leaving the tower standing.

The Wall Paintings

In 1972/3, an archaeological survey of the chapel revealed several wall paintings.  At a late stage in the survey, two large figures covered by limewash were found on the west wall of the nave, flanking the doorway between the nave and the tower.  

The paintings were removed and later displayed at Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester.  They were moved to a Leicestershire County Council storage facility when Leicester City Council reorganised the museum.

A sketch of the wall paintings showing their original location (credit Leicestershire County Council)
A sketch of the wall paintings showing their original location (credit Leicestershire County Council)

The Figures

The figure on the left is of a man wearing laced boots and a tunic.  Immediately behind this figure is what appears to be a small red bush.  The head and upper body were damaged.  A bar of yellow protrudes from where the head would have been.  It was conjectured that this may have been a musical instrument.  

However, behind the body of the figure is an area of cross-hatching that may have represented a bundle.  If so, the yellow bar may have been the end of a staff on which the bundle was carried.  

This painting is regarded as a 'memento mori', emphasisng mortality and the transience of physical existence, themes popular in the later Middle Ages.  This figure may therefore be a representation of Time and the yellow bar may be part of a scythe. 

The baggy top is most often found in the period 1420-1440, although Coventry Museum has a surviving example of the same general type dating to the 14th century.  Robin Emmerson of Leicestershire Museums Decorative Arts section proposed a date in the first half of the 15th century, which is also the date suggested by the footwear.  

The figure on the right is a skeleton holding a spear in its right hand and a spade in its left, standing on a base of swirling lines which may be a depiction of flames.  This type of figure, sometimes with an hour glass in addition to spear and spade, is relatively common in such murals. 


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 after conversion.
The chapel after conversion.

The Woodman

The 'woodman' has been a dominant image in the family's history and is indicative of the family's origins. The Woodford cartulary (Cotton Claudius XIII) tells of a 'gentleman's son' travelling from the Woodford valley near Salisbury in Wiltshire to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire where, in 1317, he purchased the manor of Brentingby. 

The woodman image, often used by members of the Woodford(e) family
The woodman image, often used by members of the Woodford(e) family

A similar crest is above the tomb of Sir Ralph Woodford (who died in 1498) at St Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville and at locations in Northamptonshire in churches where Woodford descendants served as clergymen in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The clothed figure is similar to depictions of the crest of the Woodford family, a `woodman proper holding a club argent and girt with oaken leaves proper.'  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'.

The linguistic association of a woodman with Woodford is obvious; the red bush may symbolise a tree as in a wood.  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.

The Ashby Folville sculpture is of two 'wild men' flanking a coat of arms bearing the Woodford and Folville arms.  The men are clearly not naked, but dressed, possibly in the greenery of the forest.  Their stance seems intentionally protective and formal, not wild and threatening.

The 'woodmen' bearers at Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville
The 'woodmen' bearers at Mary's Parish Church, Ashby Folville

Woodford as benefactor

The oldest of the two bells at Brentingby was cast by John of York in 1380.  Another bell by John of York of the same date hangs at nearby Sproxton church. It is possible that they were commissioned at the same time.   Sproxton was also a Woodford possession, having been brought into the family through the marriage of Sir William Woodford to Jean (Joan) Brabazon sometime in the 1350s..  

Were the wallpaintings commissioned at the same time?

Timeline

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 two Brentingby bells cast.
1383 - Robert Woodford (of Sproxton) born. (son of John).
1389 - Sir William de Woodford died.
1400 - Sir John de Woodford died.
1455 - Sir Robert de Woodford died.

Page revised 30/09/20

Sources

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).

Philip E.Hunt, The Story of Melton Mowbray, 1957, revised 1979, Leicestershire Libraries.