23 March 2015

Wondering how Richard III’s ‘Bosworth
Crucifix’ passed to the Comerford family

The Bosworth Crucifix, now in the collection of the Society of Antiquarians, was once the most notable antiquarian item in James Comerford’s private collection

Patrick Comerford

The pomp and ceremony surrounding the funeral of Richard III in Leicester this week, and the pageantry at the field of Bosworth captivated the imagination of many people throughout the English Midlands at the weekend. It reaches its climax when Richard III is buried in Leicester Cathedral on Thursday [26 March 2015], almost 530 years after his death on the battlefield in 1485.

His skeletal remains were found three years ago [2012] beneath a car park in Leicester within the grounds of the former Greyfriars Friary Church. The Battle of Bosworth in 1485 brought an end to the War of Roses, and the discovery prompted many new books, journal papers and television documentaries on Richard III and the Plantagenets.

But this week’s ceremonies and public displays also left me wondering how the ‘Bosworth Crucifix,’ which many have been part of Richard III’s battlefield chapel, came into the possession of the Comerford family almost 200 years ago.

‘The Bosworth Crucifix’ which once belonged to the Victorian book collector, antiquarian and notary, James Comerford (1807-1881). It now belongs to the Society of Antiquaries in London, and featured prominently in the exhibition ‘Making History’ (2008-2009).

The Bosworth Crucifix, dating from the 15th century, is said to have been discovered around 1778 at or near the site of Battle of Bosworth.

The Battle of Bosworth was fought on fields several miles south of Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, on the morning of 22 August 1485, by two armies led by King Richard III and the Lancastrian pretender, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. It was the last significant battle in the War of the Roses, and the last battle in which an English king died on the battlefield. It has since become one of the most legendary battles in English history.

The Canadian journalist and author Thomas B Costain, in The Last Plantagenets (1962), argued that that Richard III was a great monarch who has been tarred by conspiracies, after his death, with the murder of the princes in the tower. Costain, who supported his theories with documentation, suggested that the real murderer was the victorious Henry VII.

This 15th-century bronze processional crucifix measures 58.5 cm x 28 cm (23 in x 11 in). It is made of bronze alloy and would have been originally overlaid with gold. It has an outer frame forming a foliated border, damaged at each extremity of the transverse limb of the cross. At its centre is the figure of the Crucified Christ, crudely cast in a bronze alloy.

A mark at the crown of the head indicates that a nimbus was once attached to Christ’s head.

Each arm of the crucifix ends with a roundel, decorated on the front with the symbols of the four evangelists, and probably covered with idl. From the viewer’s perspective, these symbols are arranged as follows: at the top, an eagle (Saint John); at the bottom, a winged man (Saint Matthew); to the left, a winged lion (Saint Mark); and to the right, a winged bull (Saint Luke).

On the back, the roundels are decorated with what appear to be suns or stars, with rays streaming from them, and the familiar sunburst emblem of Edward IV and the House of York.

Additional branches may have carried figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. Attachments for these additional branches can be seen at the base of the cross, although the branches themselves are now missing.

Philip Schwyzer suggests in his recent book Shakespeare and the remains of Richard III (Oxford University Press, 2013) that the cross belonged to a travelling chapel royal, and that it was lost and abandoned in the chaos after the battle.

Chris Skidmore in Bosworth: the Birth of the Tudors (Hachette, 2013) suggests the crucifix was used during a private Mass for King Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth. After that Mass, the cross would have been taken off its base, mounted upon a wooden stave, and fastened into place by a hinged ring of iron to be led into the field of battle.

The crucifix was discovered around 1778 near the supposed site of the battlefield, but perhaps at Husbands Bosworth in south Leicestershire, about 18 miles south-east of the battlefield and east of Coventry. Soon after its discovery, it came into the possession of a woman who has been named as Lady Fortescue.

In his paper on ‘The Bosworth Crucifix’ in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (no 78, 2004), John Ashdown-Hill, who specialises in the life of Richard III, wonders whether this Lady Fortescue may have been Lady Barbara Talbot who in 1780 married Francis Fortescue-Turville of the Manor of Husbands Bosworth. She was a sister of Charles Talbot (1753-1827), 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1787-1827), and an aunt of John Talbot (1791–1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1827-1852) and patron of the Gothic revival architect AWM Pugin.

Lady Fortescue, or Lady Barbara Fortescue-Turville, was originally from Hoar Cross, Yoxall, about 12 km north of Lichfield and 30 km north of the Bosworth battlefield. She is said to have given the crucifix to one of her workers, John Brown, who owned the crucifix when he died in 1791 ... perhaps the same John Brown of Kenilworth whose will was proved in the Consistory Court of Lichfield in 1793, although this will does not mention the crucifix.

The crucifix and many other Catholic relics passed from John Brown to Joseph Carter, the sexton of Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry (later Coventry Cathedral) by 1793. Joseph Carter had married Elizabeth Brown in Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry, in 1778, and she may have been related to John Brown. He died in June 1808, and his will was granted administration in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield on 7 October 1808.

The crucifix then passed to his widow Elizabeth Carter and remained with the Carter family of Saint Michael’s Parish, Coventry. Presumably it was she who sold it to the Comerford family – probably James Comerford’s father – ca 1808-1810. However, it is still unclear how the crucifix passed from the Brown family to the Carter family and from the Carter family to the Comerford family.

The Bosworth Crucifix was owned by the family of the antiquarian and book collector James Comerford from around 1810. James Comerford was born in Holborn in 1807, probably the son of James Comerford, a Notary Public of Change Alley in Cornhill, London, who died on 11 August 1833. He appears to have been of Irish descent, although Ashdown-Hill, in his paper on the Bosworth Crucifix, wonders whether James was related to the Comerford family who lived in Saint Michael’s Parish in Coventry in the first half of the 19th century.

A Latin and French prayer book once owned by James Comerford, who had it bound shortly before his death in 1881

James Comerford first practised as a notary public in partnership with TS Girdler as Comerford and Company at 27 Change Alley, Cornhill, London, from December 1827. Later, he practised from 7 Tokenhouse Yard, Lothbury, London. He was also a magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP).

In 1833, James Comerford was secretary to the Society of Public Notaries of London. In December 1840, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians (FSA).

Between 1841 and 1851, James Comerford and his family were living at No 7 Saint Andrew’s Place, Regent’s Park, London. By 1872, he was living in Framfield, Sussex. He died on 8 March 1881. He had a daughter, and a son, James W. Comerford, who shared many of his antiquarian interests.

James Comerford is best remembered as a book collector and antiquarian. He amassed a library that included a large collection of county histories, local topographies and books of Catholic religious piety. His heraldic bookplates, with the motto So Ho Ho Dea Ne, are much sought-after collectors’ items. After his death, Sotheby’s sold his library at auction on 16-20 November 1881, realising a sale total of £8,372 13 s. His books occasionally come back on the market, but more often they are valued for his heraldic bookplates than as antique books.

The ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ was the most notable object of antiquarian interest in his private collection. In December 1881, James Comerford’s son, James W. Comerford, exhibited and presented the Bosworth Crucifix to the Society of Antiquaries “in the name of his late father, James Comerford, Esq., FSA.”

James Comerford’s bookplates have become collectors’ items … they perpetuated the claims of the Comerford family in Ireland to descent from the Comberford family of Staffordshire

In his bookplates, James Comerford of London also continued the tradition within the Comerford family of Ireland of claiming the Combeford arms. These claims were also advanced by my great-grandfather James Comerford (1817-1902), who visited Comberford Hall, the Moat House, Tamworth, about 12 miles from the site of the Battle of Bosworth, and Wednesbury ca 1900-1902, and described himself as a descendant of the Comberford family. He adapted the same bookplate when he privately published his personal account of the Comerford family and that visit the ancestral homes of the Comberford family of Staffordshire shortly before his death.

Shortly after the account of his visit was printed and bound, James Comerford added his bookplate and additional handwritten notes to the slim volume. The surviving copy of this small book is in the local history collection at Tamworth Library, Corporation Street, Tamworth (open shelves, T/COM), with a pencilled page of notes recording the details of his visit.

Emily Charlotte Meynell Ingram (1840-1904) by Francis Grant (ca 1867)

The Bosworth Crucifix is an important historical English artefact, and may have been one of the inspirations for the Crucifix on the reredos in the Church of the Holy Angels in Hoar Cross, built in the 1870s by the Hon Emily Charlotte Meynell Ingram, who, like Lady Barbara Fortescue-Turville, had lived at Hoar Cross Hall.

But as well as being an important historical English artefact and an interesting glimpse into the piety of Richard III, the Bosworth Crucifix is also a stark reminder of the meaning as the Cross as we move in these next few days through Passiontide and towards Good Friday next week.

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