A monumental mystery

A monumental mystery

A black line print on cream paper depicting an elaborately carved tomb and canopy, decorated with quatrefoils, trefoils, lattice work, arches and blind shields. On the wall behind are two shapes, one diamond with the impression of a drawing on it, one rectangle with the impression of writing on it. Window tracery and diamond-paned glass rises above the carved canopy.
A print showing the monument to William Fitzwilliams in the Bray chantry, St George’s Chapel

The grand monument shown in this print, which was made in 1810, is one of the larger and more elaborate memorials in St George’s Chapel, and yet the identity of its subject became something of a mystery in more recent times.

It stands in the Bray chantry chapel, the south transept of St George’s Chapel. It consists of three components: a carved, Purbeck marble tomb, a carved, Purbeck marble canopy, and a brass plate. Only the brass plate bears an inscription: an enamel coat of arms and a Latin dedication which can be translated as follows:

William Fitzwilliams, this tomb alone remains for you.
The rest, life failing, has death snatched away.
When I say rest, I mean estates, and beauty of the body,
and whatever the world can offer.
For your mind, joined to God, will endure in the stars,
And your country will be an abundant witness to your praise.
He died when it was his 59th year and the 3rd day of October was born.

This is a touching sentiment and the penultimate line particularly suggests that it was dedicated to someone of significance on the national stage, “your country will be an abundant witness to your praise.” However, there are two key mysteries attached to this monument.

First, what is its date?

According to Windsor Castle historian, William St John Hope, the tomb is of an earlier date and finer workmanship than the canopy. Brass shields and a brass inscription that were originally fixed to the tomb are now missing. The brass with inscription now on the back wall of the monument is of a later date still. Judging by marks in the stone, it replaced a larger brass, but it is not possible to say what the inscription on the original would have been. Most historians have suggested that the subject, William Fitzwilliams, could have died any time between 1551 and 1559. However, it has been speculated that the brass plate might be as late as 1659.

Second, who was William Fitzwilliams?

One of the challenges to confirming the date is a lack of certainty about the identity of William Fitzwilliams. The inscription mentions no family members, no highlights of his career, not even a year of birth or death. The Chapel’s burial registers do not go back to the sixteenth century, but fortunately the diary of Henry Machyn, a diarist and cloth merchant in Tudor England, records a burial at Windsor of William Fitzwilliam on 16 October 1559. In the 1970s, investigation into the coat of arms on the brass plate concluded that it was largely similar to the coat of arms to that of a William Fitzwilliam, born in Co. Dublin in 1506, who went on to have an illustrious career as an Irish courtier and an English Member of Parliament, Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to King Edward VI, Deputy Chancellor of Ireland, Lieutenant of Windsor Castle, Keeper of Windsor Great Park and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire. He died on 3 October 1559, which might connect with the mysterious final line of the inscription – perhaps he died on his birthday? His believed date of birth does not quite match up with the age given in the inscription. On the other hand, his glittering career would explain his country being witness to his praise.

Machyn’s diary further explains that when William Fitzwilliam was buried in St George’s in 1559, “a great moan [was] made for him, for he kept a good house for the poor.” If these are all the same man, then he clearly conducted himself with skill and kindness in life to earn his striking monument in St George’s Chapel.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.