The Bottesford Tombs

If you look north from Belvoir Castle, down into the valley towards Newark, one of the most prominent landmarks in front of you is the spire of St Mary’s church, Bottesford. This was the next destination for Jonson and his companion, and another good welcome awaited them:

From thence we were brought by Captain Stratford, Mr Marks and another gentleman of My Lord’s to Bottesford, three miles off Belvoir, where lie all the Earls of Rutland entombed. But by the way, the Earl, my Lord Willoughby, and Sir Robert Willoughby being a hunting and spying us on our journey, galloped over to us, and the Earl bid God send us well on our pilgrimage. At Bottesford, a grave and reverent man called Doctor Fleming gave us great entertainment. And an honest parson Surcot, beneficed hard by, would not part from us till he had made us taste of all the ale thereabouts, and not contented so waylaid us at the town’s end with a pail full of ale, which when he had emptied, we made low curtsey to his red nose, and parted, etc.

Of course, it’s the detail of the red-nosed parson Surcot (rector, it turns out of nearby Muston – hence, ‘hard by’) and his bucket of ale that leaps out at us here – but he, alas, has left little trace behind him. The rector of Bottesford made rather more of an impression on the collective memory – this reverend doctor was Samuel Fleming, formerly of King’s College Cambridge, and one time tutor to the writer Sir John Harington, who later recalled Fleming’s defence of ‘humane learning’, specifically the study and use of rhetoric, against the criticisms of ‘the precise sort [i.e., the self-styled godly, or Puritans], that would have the word and church and all goe naked’. He’d long been chaplain to the earls of Rutland, and also served as a Justice of the Peace. His brother Alexander had been heavily involved in the editing of the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and had died in 1607 while visiting Bottesford; he is commemorated, still, by a small brass plaque in the church. Samuel Fleming was something of a patron to the village, responsible for the construction of a still-functioning bridge and the establishment, according to provisions made in his will, of a hospital for widows.

Monument to John Manners, 4th earl of Rutland

Monument to fourth earl and countess of Rutland

Jonson wasn’t here, though, just to see Dr Fleming, as the reference to the Rutland tombs makes clear. Since the 1540s, the Manners family of Belvoir had turned the chancel of St Mary the Virgin into their own mausoleum, crowding it with some wonderful funerary monuments. When Jonson visited, he’d have been able to admire the completed monuments to the first, second, third and fourth earls. More poignantly, he’d perhaps have been able to inspect the nearly completed work for the monument to Roger, fifth earl of Rutland, and his countess, Elizabeth Sidney, who had died within weeks of each other in 1612. She was the daughter of Sir Philip Sidney, patron of Jonson and the addressee of several of his poems. Speaking to Drummond, Jonson described her as ‘nothing inferior to her father … in poesy’.

The party assembled by Samuel Fleming that July day might have discussed one highly topical issue – the case of the ‘Belvoir witches‘. In 1618, three local women who had formerly served the sixth earl of Rutland were accused of using witchcraft against his sons, both of whom had died young. The women were examined and tried at Lincoln in early 1619, with the earl, Lord Willoughby and Samuel Fleming playing an unhappy part in the proceedings. The eldest, Joan Flower, herself died during the case; her daughters Margaret and Phillip or Philippa were convicted and hanged. When the sixth earl’s monument was added to the choir at Bottesford in the 1630s, it included both visual and verbal reference to the case in lamenting the loss of his ‘two sonnes, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye‘.

Monument to Francis Manners, Bottesford - detail

Detail of inscription on the tomb of sixth earl of Rutland, Bottesford

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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