An investigation into the history and original form of these reredos must inevitably consider the wider built environment of the church. One of our project volunteers, Nick, spent some time investigating the medieval wills which refer to St Cuthbert’s, going through the five volumes published by F.W. Weaver around the turn of the nineteenth century. One which is of particular interest is that of Thomas Tanner, who died in November 1401 and set up a perpetual chantry at the altar of Our Lady in St Cuthbert’s church – where the Jesse reredos was subsequently erected. Thomas Serel’s Historical Notes on the Church of St Cuthbert’s gives the text of the provisions for the chantry, but Serel did not know of Tanner’s will, which Weaver published in the first of his Somerset Record Society volumes.
There is physical evidence in the south transept for the tomb which Tanner had erected for himself and his wife Isabella. He left £20 (a very considerable sum) for the new making of the (existing) window in the south wall of the transept, and this must surely have included the creation of the stained glass (as was done at Charlton Mackrell for William de Lyte (d.1319) where the glass survived into the 1630s and was described by one of his descendants). Tanner also specified that he was to be buried in the tomb beneath the window which he had prepared, and several features of the south window appear to be related to its making.
Just as with the north transept reredos’ canopy of honour and the repairs in the east jamb of the north window, so there are scars and repairs in the west jamb of the south transept window which probably give some clues to the position and outline of the Tanner tomb. On the north face of the jamb are three equally spaced stubs of metal fixings leaded into the masonry (the upper apparently a dog-cramp), and on the roll moulding just to the east the north face has been carefully worked back flat to accommodate a lost fitting. It seems likely that this was the western pinnacle of the Tanner tomb, and that this ran even higher, since the east face of the roll has been worked flat to a higher level, and next to this there is a repair in the hollow casement moulding of the window – with a matching repair in the east jamb opposite, showing that there was a symmetrical structure there. This is also shown by the existence of a chopped-off horizontal moulding on the western jamb at the level of the window sill, and its companion (less well preserved) on the eastern jamb – this appears to be part of the entablature of the monument’s canopy. So although the monument is gone, at least most of its outline survives to give us its overall dimensions and position beneath the south transept window.
How much of an impact the erection of the southern wing of the Jesse reredos had on the tomb of Thomas and Isabella Tanner is difficult to say – clearly they must have co-existed, since the chantry was endowed in perpetuity – but some of the apparent damage to the western extent of the wing may be to do with uniting the two structures – more remains to be done in this regard.
Serel, Thomas (1875) Historical Notes on the Church of St Cuthbert, in Wells etc. Wells: J. M Atkins.
Weaver, Frederic William (1901) Somerset Medieval Wills: 1383-1500. Somerset Record Society, vol. XIV. London: Harrison & Sons.
Jerry Sampson, Reredos Project Cataloguing Consultant