MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Much has been lost from the church’s medieval past, but DAVID MORGAN finds some records of one wealthy family’s tombs
“Good morning everyone and welcome to this tour of Croydon Minster. We are going to start today by taking a trip back into Tudor history by looking at herons and helmets.”
I wish I could begin a tour with this introduction. But there are good reasons why I can’t.
Attached to the south wall of Croydon Minster today is a very small piece of an ancient memorial.
Etched on to the brass are seven small female figures. Identical in the way they are drawn, each one has long flowing hair, a headdress, a gown cut square at the neck with close sleeves ending in turned back cuffs.
The young women were the daughters of Thomas Heron, who died in 1544. We know the names of five of them: Alice, Jane, Mary, Elizabeth and Mabel. For 300 years, Thomas Heron’s tomb could be seen in the north chancel of the church.
Unlike other brass memorials, this Heron tomb consisted of a rectangular stone with various brass inserts. Records show that the memorial, apart from a couple of shields and its original inscription, was still in existence in 1848. However, in the church restoration of 1859, most of the pieces of this brass went missing, most likely taken away by workmen involved in the project.
Lost were the figures for Thomas and his wife Ann, the representations of the sons and three crests. The slab on which the brasses were attached was removed in the restoration and placed in the churchyard. Before the fire of 1867, the stone could still be seen on the south side of the nave on the third bay east of the south porch.
Today, we have to rely on rubbings of the brasswork taken before their disappearance.
The Victorian rubbings of the Heron memorial show that the brasswork was rather coarse.
The representation of Thomas Heron was badly proportioned and not very well drawn. This seems surprising for the wealthy family who lived at Addiscombe, Thomas being the son of John Heron, a citizen and mercer of London and his wife being a daughter of a Royal Official who was Clerk of the Green Cloth. You might have expected the family to have employed the very best craftsmen. Whoever did complete the work, it wasn’t of the finest quality.
Thomas’s image was an armour wearing figure just 61 centimetres high. He was depicted as having long hair but no helmet. His hands were clasped together in prayer.
Hanging from the belt was a short broad sword and he also carries a long and heavy dagger. The rowel spurs reflect the sort worn by a horseman. His wife, Elizabeth, was depicted wearing a French hood and has close striped sleeves on her under gown which finish in frills at the wrist. Her over gown had with short wide fur edged sleeves. Round her waist was a narrow belt, from the buckle of which hung a large jewelled ornament. Clearly, she was depicted as a fashionable lady of wealth and status.
The part of the memorial which portrayed the four sons was of a similar size to that of the daughters. Each boy was identically dressed in civil costume, with gowns that had long false sleeves with slits in the centre for their arms. There was William, a future Justice of the Peace, Nicholas, later knighted, Thomas and another whose name is unknown. Both William and Nicholas were buried here, too.
Two small shields do survive from this memorial and are attached to the south wall of the church. It comes as no surprise to discover that there are several drawings of herons on them. They don’t, unfortunately, look much like the birds we encounter today. The legs and necks are rather short and the bodies, in consequence, appear too large in proportion to the rest of their body. Perhaps it was lack of space on the shields that resulted in rather squat herons.
Elizabeth Heron survived her husband by 14 years, the parish register giving her burial as August 1, 1558. She died at the very end of Queen Mary’s reign, months before Queen Elizabeth became monarch on November 17 of that year.
Sadly as well as the brasses disappearing with the workers, the church authorities themselves came in for much criticism over their management of the tombs. One Victorian history writer was scathing in their criticism of what was then known as Croydon Parish Church in regard to the 1859 restoration.
“Several slabs, bearing indents of brasses, lie scattered about the churchyard, or like the Heron one, form part of the gutter round the church. It is to be hoped that a time will come when the authorities of this church will awaken to the fact that in the churchyard, exposed to all the vicissitudes of weather, lie many valuable ledger-stones, etc, which might at a small outlay be reset in their proper place, viz the church, from which they never ought to have been removed.”
In the end though, it didn’t matter whether the memorials were left outside or in. The 1867 fire destroyed virtually everything. Nicholas Heron, Thomas’s son, had a magnificent family memorial which was lost.
But importantly for us, two helmets which survived the fire by being stored in the cellar are now on loan to the Museum of London and can be viewed in their Tudor gallery. Tombs such as Nicholas often has their heraldic achievements displayed above or nearby. The Black Prince’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral shows us today what his heraldic achievements are, with replicas placed over the tomb for visitors to see.
If those Heron tombs were in existence today I would be able to wax lyrical about herons and helmets.
Read more: The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
Read more: Brassed off: following the trail of church’s long-lost memorials
Read more: On Croydon’s Tudor trail to track down the court of Henry VIII
- David Morgan is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster
- To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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