Burial ground or rubbish dump?

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Buckinghamshire is a wealthy and pleasant county in the south east of England, rather too pleasant for churches to be kept open.  The day I visited Chearsley, only half of the churches I visited were open – which is not a very good record.  Anyway it was a delight to get into this charming little church and spend five minutes moving the furniture that covered the very fine fifteenth-century brass, which is the subject of this article.

The brass commemorates John Ffrankelyn and his wife Margaret, who appear to have died in 1462.  They are commemorated by two standing figures, an inscription and figures of their three sons and four daughters.  The brasses are pretty standard London work of the period, set in a fine slab of purbeck marble and it would have been an expensive monument to lay.

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It’s primarily the interesting inscription that I want draw to your attention.  It’s in Middle English, which for the 1460s is not all that unusual, but is difficult to interpret.  It reads:

Here lyeth John Frankeleyn and Margarete hys wyff which ordeyned leystowe to this churches and divine service to be doone every holy day in the yer.  Anno Domini M CCCC lxii.  on whos soules god have mercy.  Amen

The first thing to note is that although the stone is clearly their gravestone, as they are buried under it, no date of death is given – the date 1462 recorded on it seems to refer to a gift they have given to the church in that year.  So what is the gift?  Well apparently to start off with they:

ordeyned leystowe

What the Dickens does that mean?  Well the word ‘ordeyned’ is clear, it’s the Middle English word for ‘gave’ – so the Ffrankelyn’s gave ‘leystowe’. A quick search of the Middle English dictionary suggests two possible interpretations of the word.  It either refers to a a rubbish dump or a burial ground.  It seems a bizarre sort of word, until you realise it’s a compound noun consisting of two words, ‘ley’ and ‘stowe’.  Then it’s origin becomes clear – it means ‘lay-place’ – a place to lay something, be it rubbish or a dead body.  So what I think the inscription means, is that the first part of the gift the Frankelyn’s gave to the parish was a new burial ground, or an extension to the churchyard.

The next bit of their gift is much easier to interpret, they also ‘ordeyned’:

 divine service to be doone every holy day in the yer

By divine service on holy days, this presumably means that they endowed a votive mass to be celebrated in the parish on all red letter days.  In the intense devotional environment of the late fifteenth-century the endowment of masses was an increasingly important focus of lay peoples post-mortem provision, it provided for their souls and the the spiritual nourishment of the parish.  The gift the Ffrankelyn’s ‘ordeyned’ in 1462 and is recorded on this brass, was both a practical and a spiritual gift that would have merited continued gratitude and remembrance among their neighbours long after their death.

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Chearsley church standing in it’s ‘leystowe’. 

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