The face of Abbot Curteys – in glass from St Edmunds Abbey?

Abbot William Curteys of Bury St Edmunds (d. 1446) in a stained glass fragment at All Saints, Brandeston, Suffolk © Martin Harrison

As reported recently by Bury St Edmunds and Beyond, I have been working with a stained glass expert, Martin Harrison, to identify some fragments in a window on the south side of the nave in Brandeston church, Suffolk. One of these fragments, which appears to date from the early 16th century, portrays an abbot in everyday dress (a monastic habit and Canterbury cap), while the crozier identifies him as an abbot. I have been able to identify this abbot as William Curteys, and it joins the few surviving depictions of medieval abbots of Bury (I wrote about my identification of a portrayal of Abbot William Bunting, alias Coddenham, last year).

According to Christopher Woodforde’s book The Norwich School of Glass Painting in the Fifteenth Century (1950) there was once a series of abbots of Bury St Edmunds portrayed in glass at Brandeston, including William Curteys (ruled 1429–46), Thomas Rattlesden (ruled 1479–97) and William Bunting (ruled 1497–1513). However, this series was not original to the church, since the glass at Brandeston was described in 1725 by Robert Hawes, who makes no mention of abbots. It is unclear what happened to the other abbots – but, since the present glass seems to have been installed in around 1860, the other fragments were probably lost or broken in the process of a Victorian re-setting of the fragments.

Fortunately, it is possible to identify the surviving figure from the inscription in the book that lies open in front of him. Although I have found the last line of the inscription illegible, the first two lines read:

Edmu[n]d[i] | rex et

mart[ir]is | vita[m] pr[o]

mu[n]dus | In scribo

… | …erit

The Latin is poor, and should read Edmundi regis et martiris vitam pro mundo inscribo (‘I write the life of Edmund, king and martyr for the world’), but the inscription unambiguously identifies this abbot as William Curteys (ruled 1429-46), the only abbot of St Edmunds who wrote a life of St Edmund, Vita et passio S. Edmundi breviter collecta (British Library MS Add. 14848 fols 240r-242v). Curteys is best known for his patronage of the poet John Lydgate, for his construction of a new library at Bury, and for welcoming Henry VI to the abbey in 1433.

This glass is clearly not original to Brandeston, and where it came from remains a mystery. However, if Woodforde was right that Curteys formed part of a series of abbots, it is hard to imagine that such a series came from anywhere other than St Edmunds Abbey itself. The allusion to Abbot Curteys’s life of St Edmund is a highly specific one that would probably be understood only by monks familiar with the abbot’s writings, and the abbot’s appearance in everyday dress might point to a portrayal for internal consumption within the monastery. By contrast, the only other known depiction of an abbot of St Edmunds in stained glass (Richard Ingham at Long Melford) portrays the abbot in full pontificals.

We should expect any surviving glass from Bury St Edmunds to be very late, owing to the devastating fire that heavily damaged the abbey in 1465. if the fragment depicting Curteys does come from Bury, it could come from anywhere in the monastery; but one likely location is the Chapter House, where the abbots were elected and often buried. Surviving medieval cathedral chapter houses often portray bishops in stained glass, and it seems likely that the windows of Bury’s Chapter House included images of its great abbots.

Bury’s Chapter House during excavations in 1901-2, showing the uncovered tombs of abbots

We know that the abbey church at Bury and its ancillary buildings were not immediately demolished. The monastery’s materials, including the valuable glass, would have been carefully removed and sold by the Crown whose property they became (this is supported by the scarcity of fragments of glass found in excavations on the abbey site). Because glass was so expensive to make, after the dissolution glass from dissolved religious houses sometimes ended up set into haphazard assemblages, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it became fashionable to try to reconstruct these in something approaching their original forms (a not altogether successful reconstruction of this kind is the so-called ‘Susanna Window’ in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, although this glass is probably original to St James’ Church). Of course, by this time the provenance of most of the glass was completely forgotten.

Whether or not the portrayal of Abbot Curteys at Brandeston comes from Bury’s Chapter House (which must remain speculation), it offers an insight into the commemoration of Curteys and other abbots in the reign of Abbot Reeve (1513-39), during whose abbacy this glass was probably made. It tells us that Curteys’s short life of St Edmund was still remembered, probably because the focus of Curteys’s Vita et passio S. Edmundi breviter collecta was the legal rights and privileges of St Edmunds Abbey – something that always preoccupied the monks of Bury.

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