Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plate XV: The Tomb of Robart Colles and Cecili, his wif


Tomb at Folsham, Norff. / Robart Colles: cecili his wif. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariæ.  


Engraved by Vertue in 1724 after a drawing by Edmund Prideaux (Minutes I.128). The “drawing of a Tombstone inscription in Foulsham Churchyard Norff.” was first presented by Peter Le Neve on 11 December 1723 with the drawings of the Monastic Gatehouse at St Benet’s Holme. William Stukeley included a rough copy of Prideaux’s drawing in his record of this meeting, making it one of the very few illustrated entries in the SAL Minutes (I.94).


Plain, late fifteenth-or early sixteenth-century chest tomb with paneled sides around which runs the inscription “Robart Colles cecili his vif.” Over each letter of the inscription is a coronet. Below are quatrefoils containing lozenges, mouchette wheels, and other decorative shapes. 

Provenance and Location:

The churchyard of Holy Innocents, Foulsham, Norfolk


Commentary: [JP]

As the December 11, 1723 minutes reveal, by deciding to engrave the drawing of Robert Colles’s chest tomb, the Society of Antiquaries intended to preserve an “inscription” (SAL Minutes I.94). The drawing imaginatively transposes the crowned letters of the inscription into an enlarged framework that surrounds the image of the tomb. The image of Robert Colles’s chest tomb makes this engraving the first of Vetusta Monumenta aimed primarily at preserving a text rather than a monument. 
The prominence of the letters in the image reflects contemporary interest in the tomb inscription at Foulsham churchyard. In 1724, the year of the engraving’s publication, the anonymous authors of Magna Britannia Antiqua & Nova (1724) published a copy of the letters. They could not, however, decipher the inscription. This was work for a specialist, they thought: “We are not so much skilled in Antiquity as to expound [a translation of the letters]; but have thought fit to set them down, that the Learned that way might” (Magna Britannia 1724: 282). In his analysis of excavated Saxon coins, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1686, Sir Philip Skippon had also transcribed the letters appearing on the Foulsham tomb and called for the help in decoding them: “In the Church-yard at Foultsham in Norfolk, there is a Tomb-stone with this Inscription, which some of the Learned in these Curiosities may perhaps explain” (Skippon 1686: 361). According to Thomas Quarles, Skippon was “the son and heir of General Skippon, the former owner of Foulsham Hall, Sir Philip Skippon, Knight” (Quarles 1842: 59).  
The strange appearance and arrangement of the letters on the tomb seems to have made reading the inscription difficult for earlier antiquarians, or, at least, for Skippon, upon whose transcription Magna Britannia’s may have been based. Skippon and the authors of Magna Britannia record nearly identical transcriptions of the letters, beginning with the fourth letter—the “a” in “Robart”—and grouping the letters separately according to the sides upon which they were inscribed: “art col les. cec. ili his vif. rob” (Skippon 361; Magna 282). Moreover, some of the letters they illustrate look unlike the late medieval English letters inscribed on the tomb, a fact noted by later commentators like Richard Gough who wrote that Skippon’s transcription was “miserably given” and the Foulsham antiquarian Thomas Quarles who called it “rude characters, bearing little or no resemblance to those on the tomb, and which may well defy interpretation!” (Britannia 2:117; 59). Early copies of the inscription therefore suggest that early antiquarians mistook the English letters on the tomb for runes. Their quest to decipher the inscription and the Society’s response reveal a common interest in unearthing England’s Saxon past in country churchyards.
The Society of Antiquaries identified the letters on the tomb as English, yet still considered the inscription a piece of antiquity worth preserving. Later writers leave behind some clue as to why the Society engraved the inscription’s illustration. Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield believed the inscription was engraved for the “antiquity of the letters, order, and disposition of them” (4:378). John Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley wrote that the tomb’s inscription had been noticed for the “singular disposition” of the letters (326). Similarly, John Chambers copied the inscription, noting how the letters are “fancifully divided” (1:222). By these accounts, the Society of Antiquaries seems to have been drawn to the very same formal qualities of this inscription that rendered it unreadable to many of its viewers. The generous spacing of the decorated letters and the fact that one has to circle the entire tomb to read them in some sense registered the inscription’s historic value. The importance of each letter’s physical place on the tomb is demonstrated in the engraving’s use of reverse lettering. The letters appearing on the furthest long side are copied upside down, and those appearing on the shorter sides are copied sideways as if the lettering had been lifted off the tomb and laid flat. This use of reverse lettering invites us to imagine ourselves walking around each side of the tomb, reading the inscription. By visually mapping the decorated letters on the tomb, the engraving of Robert Colles’s monument becomes the first in Vetusta Monumenta to rely upon the interface between text and image to convey a sense of the physical object’s history.
Members of the Society of Antiquaries may have considered the chest tomb noteworthy because it is inscribed with lettering similar to that of an early illuminated manuscript. The medieval dating of the tomb was not confirmed until 1775, when Blomefield discovered Robert Colles’s signature to a deed of 1505: “I find this Robert Colles witness to a deed of Ralph Bateman, of Folsham, and Alice his wife, living in the 20 year of Henry VII” (4:378). Quarles reported that during this period, Foulsham parishioners renovated the upper lights of the chancel, under which also runs a line of letters, each surmounted by a coronet, like those on the tomb inscription (58). In his History and Antiquities of Foulsham: In Norfolk (1842), Quarles discovered similar lettering in the engravings of manuscripts published in Henry Shaw's Illuminated Ornaments: Selected from Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Sixth to the Seventeenth Centuries (1833). Perhaps the alphabet of illuminated capitals—specifically “R,” “B,” “T,” and “L”—inscribed in a fifteenth-century Latin gradual (Plates 27-8) provided Quarles with evidence to date the tomb’s inscription to the late fifteenth century. Might members of the Society of Antiquaries, with their deeper knowledge of rare manuscripts, have noticed that each letter of the inscription is isolated and decorated like an illuminated capital? This otherwise plain tomb is indeed notable for being decorated with an ornate inscription comparable to the most adorned letters in a Psalter or Bible. Considered in this light, the lettered framework surrounding this image of Robert Colles’s tomb evokes the visual beauties of medieval reading and allows readers to participate in its design. 


Alexander, David. 2008. “George Vertue as an Engraver.” The Annual Volume of the Walpole Society. 70: 207-517.   

Blomefield, Francis. An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk. 5 vols. Fersfield: 1739-75.  

Britton, John, and Edward Wedlake Brayley. 1810. Topographical and Historical Description of Norfolk. London.

Chambers, John. A General History of the County of Norfolk. 2 vols. Norwich: 1829. 

Gough, Richard, ed. Britannia: Or, a Chorographical Description of the Flourishing Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Islands Adjacent; from the Earliest Antiquity. By William Camden. 3 vols. London: 1789.  

Magna Britannia et Hibernia, Antiqua & Nova: Or, a New, Exact, and Comprehensive Survey of the Ancient and Present State of Great-Britain. 1724. Vol. 3. London.

Quarles, Thomas. 1842. History and Antiquities of Foulsham: In Norfolk. London.

Shaw, Henry. 1833. Illuminated Ornaments: Selected from Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Sixth to the Seventeenth Centuries.

Skippon, Philip. 1686. “An Account of Some Saxon Coyns Found in Suffolk.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 16: 156-366.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1723-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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