Tudor sculptor’s Minster memorials stand the test of time

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Following up on an enquiry from a visitor to Croydon Minster, DAVID MORGAN goes in search of the sculptor of one of the church’s best-known tombs

Talking point: the exquisitely detailed tomb of Archbishop Whitgift at Croydon Minster

Visitors to Croydon Minster often ask interesting questions about the history of the building or about the people connected with it. A recent email to the church office, though, posed a question which no one had ever asked before.

“Who sculpted the original Archbishop Whitgift memorial?”

John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth at the end of the 1500s, was very much “Mr Croydon”.

The Whitgift tomb is always a highlight of Minster tours. Locals know the Whitgift name through the shopping centre and the schools. Historians recognise the importance of a Tudor Archbishop. Yet the identity of the sculptor had never been talked about. Until now.

Before the fire of 1867 destroyed so many of the memorials inside the church, there were two virtually identical tombs constructed for each of the two Tudor Archbishops of Canterbury buried here. One was for Edmund Grindal, who died in 1583, the other was for Whitgift, who died on “leap day”, February 29, 1604. Both were situated against the south wall.

Remains: the charred remnants of Grindal’s tomb have been framed

When the church was rebuilt, only Whitgift’s tomb was reconstructed, and placed in the St Nicholas Chapel. A small remnant of Grindall’s charred tomb was placed in a frame and hung in the chancel, beside a brass plaque. Both these tombs can be attributed to a workshop belonging to the Cure family.

William Cure the Elder arrived in this country from Holland in 1541 or 1542. Despite a common perception that King Henry VIII turned his back on Europe after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533, he needed skilled artisans from the continent to boost the workforce to complete his many building projects. William Cure came along with many other Europeans to work on the construction of Nonsuch Palace at Cheam.

Now long demolished, Nonsuch was situated on what is now the boundary between Epsom and Ewell and Sutton. Henry VIII was said to be involved in its elaborate design. As a great Tudor edifice, it had to show off Henry’s power and grandeur and rivalled Francis I’s Chateau de Chambord in Paris.

Cure’s masonry skills must have been valued and noticed by those who were charged with the completion of the palace. Cure married an Englishwoman and bought a house in London. In 1549, he was recorded as living in the Minories, near the Tower of London, and in the parish of St Thomas the Apostle in Southwark from 1559.

In 1550, Cure was recorded as being one of the masons working on the construction of Somerset House.

He and his wife had six children, one of whom, Cornelius, was to join the family business. Cure never forgot his Dutch roots and he hosted a family friend, Cornelius Ketel, for a time in his house. Ketel went on to be a leading portrait painter of the Elizabethan age, both here and in Holland. Much of Ketel’s work has been lost, otherwise there must surely have been a portrait painted of William Cure.

The lost palace: Nonsuch was among the grandest of Tudor great houses, where William Cure did much work

In November 1561, Cure successfully applied to become a Freeman of the City of London in the membership of the Mason’s Company and was sponsored by Henry, Earl of Arundel. Perhaps this was because Nonsuch Palace had recently come into his possession and Cure was again engaged to work on the building.

The evidence for Cure’s skills as a sculptor is limited. He made a terracotta mould for casting in wax, an image of a Tartar who had been brought back to this country from Sir Martin Frobisher’s voyage in 1576. He is probably the sculptor of a fountain for Sir Nicholas Bacon’s Garden in Redgrave, Suffolk, and is credited with the preparatory work for a monument to Henry VII.

Cornelius took over the family business after the death of his father in 1579 and quickly gained favour with some important and influential people.

In November 1585 he designed and made a fountain for Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester and one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites. The garden fountain, at the cost of £10 – equivalent to close to £2,000 today –  was erected to impress the Queen when she visited his house at Wanstead. Dudley had earlier paid Cure £20 for a commission in the February of that year but it was not recorded exactly what it was for.

The Cures, seemingly, were very close to the Tudor power base for many years. Cornelius had entered the service of William Cecil by 1587. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there lies a design for a monument to Henry’s son, Edward VI, which is attributed to Cornelius Cure.

Prominent work: the Russell tomb in Westminster Abbey is attributed to the Cures, and is similar to the Whitgift work

Edward is buried in Westminster Abbey next to his grandfather, Henry VII. A lack of space for Cure’s monument was one reason why this elaborate and colonnaded structure was never constructed.

At some point in the 1590s, Cornelius Cure became Master Mason in the Office of Works, a prestigious appointment which he held through to the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and into James I’s time. In 1605 he was joined as Master Mason by his son, William Cure the Younger. Contracts began to roll in.

One of their patrons was the Earl of Bedford.

The tomb of John, Lord Russell, who died in 1584, and his daughter Elizabeth, who died of consumption in 1601, were definitely fashioned by the Cures. Visitors to Westminster Abbey can see this tomb today in the Chapel of St Edmund and immediately see the similarities between that and the Whitgift tomb in Croydon. It is through this likeness that the Whitgift and Grindal tombs can be attributed to the “House of Cure”.

Cornelius Cure died in 1608. William Cure the Younger, still living and working in the same parish in Southwark, inherited some creative skills from his father and grandfather but appeared to lack the business acumen. As well as being the Master Mason, he also advertised himself as the self-styled King’s Master Sculpture.

Son’s tribute: the memorial to Mary Queen of Scots, commissioned by James I

He worked on three of the royal residences. He completely refurbished the fountains in the Privy Garden of Hampton Court, worked in the grounds of Nonsuch Palace, again on a fountain, and constructed a chimney stack at Somerset House.

Difficulties happened with the younger Cure, either because he worked too slowly or took on too many commissions. Inigo Jones, Surveyor of the King’s Works, complained in 1619 that Cure had been absent for five months from his job constructing the Whitehall Banqueting Hall and a replacement mason had to be found.

Even after this rebuke, Cure was “careless and negligent” about royal works elsewhere. His five-month absence might have been explained because he had fallen behind with three monuments for which he had been contracted by Francis, Lord Russell. Legal pressure from the noble Lord was brought before Cure completed the work.

Lasting presence: the Whitgift memorial, as it stands in Croydon Minster today

Nevertheless, records show that Cure was still paid 18 pence per day from June 1619 until February 1623.

Perhaps the greatest achievement for the “House of Cure” was the monument to Mary Queen of Scots. James I paid Cornelius Cure handsomely to sculpt the most beautiful marble effigy for his mother.

She had been buried in Peterborough Cathedral but James brought her to London. Her magnificent monument can be seen in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.

It would appear that Cornelius died before the monument was complete as the final payment of £85 10s was made out to William Cure, son and executor.

Of course, historians always seek out as much evidence as possible when investigating the past. Even without a signature or a written contract to give a 100per cent guarantee, the body of evidence for the “House of Cure” being responsible for the original Whitgift tomb is very strong indeed.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

Other articles by David Morgan:

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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