Despite their positions in Parliament, it is not uncommon to come across MPs in our research who had a reasonably mundane parliamentary career, as is the case for late 15th century MP for Nottingham, Thomas Babington. However, if his career was uneventful, his tomb paints another story, as Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project explores…
The career of Thomas Babington, MP for the borough of Nottingham on several occasions from the 1490s to the 1510s, was unexceptional, indeed typical of the careers of many of the professional lawyers who form one of the most important subsets of the late medieval gentry. From a family with a distinguished legal background – his great-uncle, Sir William Babington was chief justice of the common pleas from 1423 to 1436 – he was educated at Inner Temple. His father, John, fell fighting for Richard III at the battle of Bosworth, but this had no impact on the young Thomas’s career. He went on to serve, among other things, as a justice of the peace in Derbyshire and, from the early 1490s, as recorder of Nottingham. His legal work was profitable, allowing him to make a spectacular marriage for his son and heir, Anthony, to one of the coheiresses of the great Nottinghamshire family of Chaworth, and to provide worthy spouses for his many other children. If his career had one failure, it was that he did not advance to the higher reaches of his profession, but that was probably a matter of choice, marking a preference for the comparatively relaxed life of a well-connected local lawyer over the more demanding one of a serjeant-at-law and judge.
If, however, his career has little to claim attention, the opposite is true of the fine tomb that survives to his memory and that of his first wife, Edith Fitzherbert, in the church of Ashover. This provides a monument to what he may have regarded as the crowning achievement of his life: his role as the patriarch of an extended family, connected by marriage to many of the families of consequence in the region. He had prepared for death with the meticulousness that characterised his other activities, and the tomb was built in his lifetime. He probably commissioned it, from a workshop at nearby Burton-on-Trent, on Edith’s death in about 1510. It was to form the physical focus of a chantry chapel.
On 16 August 1511 he took advantage of Henry VIII’s visit to Nottingham to sue out a royal licence to endow a chantry with lands of an annual value of £4 to pray for the souls of Edith and of other members of his family and for his own soul when the time came. The investment he made in creating so fine a tomb was probably intended to add fervour to these prayers. His foresight, however, had one disadvantage. Although he had the satisfaction of contemplating the completed tomb, a pleasure denied to those who followed the more conventional, but less secure route of leaving the creation of a suitable memorial to heirs and executors, its very quality left him with a problem when his own death approached. He was reluctant to damage it for the interment of his own body. In his will of 24 February 1519, he thus left careful instructions to his executors: ‘I will not that the Tombe which I have made in the church of Ashover be broken of hurt for my carkas’. Instead, he wanted to be laid nearby under a memorial stone. The skeleton brass which the executors commissioned is now unfortunately lost.
This reluctance to reopen the tomb is understandable in the context of the elaborate decoration of its side panels. Most notable here is the decorative pattern of the two long sides, for these make the tomb a memorial not only to the parents but also to their many children. Representations of children are not uncommon on late-medieval monuments but the scheme here is uniquely elaborate, representing not only the children themselves but also their spouses. On one side are figures representing his six daughters and their husbands, with one daughter (Anne, who is known to have married twice in her father’s lifetime) represented with two. The other long side has the eldest son depicted with his two wives, the figure of a knight, intended for his second son, Sir John, who was a Knight Hospitaller, and seven further sons, three represented with their wives. Each of the couples bear shields which were once decorated with the arms of Babington and the families into which they married. This highly unusual decorative scheme, presumably contrived by Thomas himself, reflects his pride in having successfully provided for so large a family. His career may have been an unremarkable one, but his memorial is one of the great medieval tombs.
S J P
J.C. Cox, Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire: the Hundred of Scarsdale (1875)