The Escutcheon

Volume 14

Number 1 – Michaelmas Term, 2008

The Cokayne Monuments at Ashbourne, Derbyshire

Kelcey Wilson-Lee

An unusually well-preserved series of monumental brasses, incised slabs, and sculpted effigies commemorate the Cokayne family at Ashbourne church in Derbyshire. These sepulchral monuments currently rest in or near the north transept chapel, where they share the space with other medieval and early modern memorials. Originally, however, the only monuments in the chapel were those to the Cokaynes, hereditary lords of Ashbourne from the fourteenth to the early-seventeenth century. These memorials were designed to beseech prayers for the souls of the commemorated, which medieval theological doctrine taught sped the progression of the soul through purgatory to heaven. However, the monuments’ decorations, and their placement within a confined visual space, were also intended to reinforce local perceptions of the family’s ancient gentility and dynastic stability. Among the most important elements of tomb decoration at Ashbourne (and, indeed, in most medieval churches) were the heraldic coats-of-arms which proclaimed the genealogical connections of the commemorated.

The earliest Cokayne tomb surviving at Ashbourne commemorates John Cokayne I (d. 1372), a prominent lawyer in the employ of Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster who eventually rose to the extremely influential position of Chief Steward of the duchy’s estates north of the river Trent. The alabaster effigy to John I is appropriately depicted in the guise of a lawyer; no coats-of-arms or livery are present on the memorial, although the connections he forged with the Lancastrian household ensured that they would appear on subsequent monuments. John I’s monument shares an early fifteenthcentury freestone tomb chest with the alabaster effigy of his son and heir Edmund (d. 1403), who married the Warwickshire heiress Elizabeth Harthill and died fighting for the Henry IV at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Although neither father nor son were knighted, Edmund is depicted in armour, over which he wears an heraldic jupon featuring the three cocks of the Cokayne family’s heraldry (argent, three cocks gules). A curious blank shield (probably formerly painted with arms) on the aventail covering Edmund’s neck completes the heraldic programme of the monument.

However, thirteen further shields are to be found around the edges of the tomb chest (three more shields were obscured when the tomb chest was placed against the chapel’s east wall in the early modern period). The arms on these shields have been repainted from notes gathered by the herald Elias Ashmole in 1611. The arms which remain visible are, beginning at the east wall on the north side: Erdeswick, Vernon, Shirley (since repainted incorrectly), Astley, Pembridge, Pype (since repainted incorrectly as Beauchamp of Warwick), Cokayne and Harthill quartered, Stafford, Ferrers, Longford, Cotton, and Poleswell of Hartingdon.1 None of these coats is appropriate for John I, and only two (those of Erdeswick and Astley) are appropriate for Edmund. The Cokayne/Harthill quartering is only appropriate for Edmund’s descendants, while the remaining shields commemorate connections made by the marriages of Edmund’s son and grandson, and must therefore have been painted long after the tomb chest’s initial installation at Ashbourne. If other arms originally decorated the sides of this chest, we don’t know what they were.

The next monument at Ashbourne commemorates Edmund’s son, Sir John Cokayne III (d. 1438), a fervent supporter of Henry IV and the first Cokayne to be knighted, and his first wife Margaret Longford. The opulent alabaster tomb chest and double effigies made by the nationally important Chellaston workshop of Prentys and Sutton includes an armoured male effigy wearing the SS collar associated with Lancastrian supporters and a fashionable female effigy in a horned headdress, all atop a chest featuring angels holding (blank) shields. Unfortunately, despite Sir John III’s great wealth (following the acquisition of his mother’s estate), and the family’s consequent rise in status among midland gentry families, the Cokaynes’ dynastic and political fortunes fell following John III’s death — these misfortunes included the childless deaths of heirs, long-lived dowagers, lengthy minorities, and the accession of the Yorkist dynasty. The changes in the Cokaynes fortunes in the second half of the fifteenth century are readily apparent in the decline in extravagance of the monument to Sir John III’s son and heir, John V (d. 1505), and his wife Anne Vernon — a simple incised alabaster slab, the most prominent feature of which are the four corner shields displaying the arms of Cokayne/Harthill impaling Vernon of Haddon.

The last three Cokayne monuments at Ashbourne are more heraldically interesting, and represent a period of political resurgence for the Cokayne family. The first is a tomb chest to John V’s grandson and heir, Sir Thomas II (d. 1537), and his wife Barbara Fitzherbert. Four shields adorn two sides of this monument, which remains in its original position in the northeast corner of the chapel. The first shield represented Thomas II’s parents — Cokayne/Harthill impaling Barlow — another represented Barbara’s parents — Fitzherbert impaling Babington — while a third represented their own marriage — Cokayne/Harthill impaling Fitzherbert. The fourth shield is, however, the most interesting. It depicts the arms of Cokayne/Harthill elaborately quartered with those of other families to whom the Cokaynes were anciently connected: the Rossington, Edensor, Deyville, and Savage of Tissington families, as well as the unknown arms argent, three stags statant sable. The connection between Cokayne and Rossington is through the Knivetons, another Ashbourne family to whom the Cokaynes had been related since at least the mid-fourteenth century, while the Deyville, Edensor, and Savage connections were all through the Harthills. In other words, we have a sixteenth century monument employing, for the first time, arms to which his family had been entitled for well over a century at least.

The next memorial is a monumental brass atop a tomb chest to Sir Thomas II’s son, Francis (d. 1538), and his wife the heiress Dorothy Marrowe. Coats-of-arms recording the ancient Cokayne connections as well as Marrowe family associations appear in the four corners of the brass, while Francis’s figure is depicted in an heraldic tabard featuring the complex quartering of the Cokayne/Harthill arms with those of Rossington, Edensor, Deyville, Savage of Tissington, and Three Stags. The arms, and those of Marrowe, Brome, Riche, and Arundell (all Marrowe connections), were also painted onto ten shields supported by angels around the edges of the tomb chest.

Central shield

The last Cokayne monument at Ashbourne is the marble mural to Francis’ son, Sir Thomas III (d. 1592), and his wife, Dorothy Ferrers of Tamworth. Currently installed along the north wall of the transept just outside of the chapel, this monument was originally positioned along the east wall of the transept chapel in the space formerly occupied by the altar of St Mary. The decorative programme of this late 16th-century monument includes much classical detailing, and is therefore quite distinct from the medieval monuments to the Cokaynes. However, the monument features nine carved shields, many of which include the same coats-of-arms which appeared on the earlier Cokayne monuments. Most prominent among these is the large central shield (shown above) depicting quarterings of eleven coats-of-arms to Thomas III’s ancestors: Cokayne, Harthill, Deyville, Savage, Rossington, Edensor, the unidentified Three Stags, Marrowe, Brome, Riche, and Arundell, the last three Marrowe connections, but all the rest ancient Cokayne or Harthill associations.

The sepulchral monuments of the Cokayne family were not the only heraldry present in the north transept chapel at Ashbourne during the latemedieval period. Armorial glass was present in the chapel’s clerestory windows, installed in the early-fifteenth century, probably by Sir John III, and a sixteenth-century donor portrait of Sir Thomas II and his wife Barbara also depicted couple in heraldic dress. Further decorative elements featuring heraldry such as tiles and wall or panel paintings may also have been lost (contemporary examples of this type of decoration are known to have been part of the decorative programmes of other nearby contemporary burial chapels). The impetus behind the heraldic decoration of sepulchral monuments was to reinforce local perceptions of the longevity and influence of the family in question. By juxtaposing ancient associations with their important contemporary connections, the Cokaynes presented themselves as rightful members of elite Derbyshire society, and fitting lords of Ashbourne. Though the power of their visual statement has been somewhat diminished by the centuries of alteration to their burial chapel, it nevertheless remains a potent example of the prominent role of heraldry in bidding for local power bases in medieval England.


The arms of Shirley are paly of six or and azure, a canton ermine, not paly of six argent and azure, a canton ermine as the shield appears today. The arms of Pype are azure, a fesse or, between six crosses crosslet argent. The arms currently painted on the shield are Beauchamp of Warwick: gules, a fesse or, between six crosses crosslet or.

This article summarises the author’s paper presented on October 30th, 2008.

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