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A gimpse of Abbot John Reeve?

A Benedictine monk, probably Abbot John Reeve, kneels at the high altar of Westminster Abbey during the funeral of Abbot John Islip. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Gough Maps 226 © The Bodleian Library (detail)

A recurring theme of this blog recently has been the search for images of abbots of Bury St Edmunds. Last year I drew attention to a surviving depiction of Abbot Bunting in a painting of the State Opening of Parliament in 1512, while earlier this year (with the help of Martin Harrison) I identified a probable depiction of Abbot Curteys in stained glass in Brandeston church. Now it is the turn of Bury’s last abbot, John Reeve.

On 16 and 17 May 1532 John Reeve (alias Melford), the last Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (d. 1540) officiated at the elaborate obsequies for Abbot John Islip of Westminster (1464-1532) at Westminster Abbey. The funeral, described in British Library Add. MS 5829, was one of the grandest ever held for a Benedictine abbot in England, and has been called ‘the funeral of the Middle Ages’, insofar as it was one of the last great events of monastic England before the dissolution. A depiction of the event was recorded in a remarkable illuminated manuscript, the Islip Mortuary Roll, now part of the Muniments of Westminster Abbey.

The original, black and white Islip Mortuary Roll © Westminster Abbey
George Vertue’s 18th-century copy of an alternative version of the Islip Mortuary Roll © The Bodleian Library

The Islip Mortuary Roll is in black and white, but in Oxford’s Bodleian Library there is an 18th-century copy of the Mortuary Roll in full colour, made by George Vertue. This copy contains enough differences from the Westminster Mortuary Roll to make it clear that it was copied from a different version (Vertue was a skilled antiquarian artist, not given to artistic licence). According to correspondence from the 1740s, Vertue made his copy from a ‘draught’ of the Mortuary Roll in the possession of John Anstis, the Garter King of Arms. All we know of the provenance of this ‘draught’ is that it came from Warwickshire, but Matthew Payne has argued that it was an alternative, coloured version of the Mortuary Roll which therefore gives us a remarkable glimpse of the interior decoration of Westminster Abbey on the eve of its first dissolution.

However, this second version of the Islip Mortuary Roll may give us a glimpse of something – or rather someone – else as well. One of the differences between the coloured copy and the original surviving roll is the presence of a kneeling monk on the north side of the abbey’s high altar in Vertue’s copy – no monk is present in the Westminster Abbey version. The illustration appears to portray the moment when Islip’s funeral procession reached the presbytery at Westminster – that holiest part of the abbey church where monarchs were crowned. The monk at the northern end of the altar appears to be in the most liturgically prominent position in the scene, and is therefore presumably John Reeve – who we know presided over the proceedings.

Whether George Vertue was aware that the figure might be Reeve is something we cannot know – and we can only speculate as to why one version of the Mortuary Roll omitted Reeve and the other included him – but we may have here an 18th-century copy of a contemporary portrayal of Bury’s last abbot. Given that there has hitherto been no known surviving representation of Abbot Reeve at all, this identification is a tantalising possibility.

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