Ralph Hamsterley's skeleton brass at Oddington church
26 September 2023 (Updated 6 October 2023)
Ranking amongst the most bizarre and grotesque pieces of medieval art in Oxfordshire, the monumental brass to Ralph Hamsterley at Oddington church has been alarming unsuspecting churchgoers since the early 16th century.
Worms, worms and more worms
The brass itself holds pride of place in the centre of the chancel, although if you visit the church today (and I recommend you do) then you'll likely find the brass hidden under a rug to protect it from damage.
The large brass, set into purbeck marble, depicts the skeletal corpse of Ralph Hamsterley wrapped in a shroud, his hands together in prayer. The most striking thing about this image is that Hemsterley's body is depicted covered in slithering snake-like worms. The worms are coming out of the skeletons empty eye sockets, mouth, from between the ribs, from out of the stomach cavity and are even entwined with the leg and feet bones. The whole image resembles something out of a horror movie and stands out like a sore thumb in comparison to the more conventional biblical imagery that surrounds it.
A scroll-shaped speech bubble emerges from the figure's lips, bearing a latin inscription that translates as follows:
Here I am, given to the worms, and thus I try to show that as I am laid aside here so is all honour laid aside.
Below the figure is another inscription that requests prayers of Ralph Hamsterley, fellow of Merton College Oxford and Rector of Oddington.
Memento Mori at Oddington church
Although such graphic imagery may seem alarming today, it was very much on-trend during the lifetime of Ralph Hamsterley. These '-11993966624661' monuments aimed to instill in the viewer a reminder of the transience of human existence, that their human bodies would someday decay and rot and that it would be wiser to focus on their eternal souls rather than on earthly problems.
I've covered other local examples elsewhere on the website, including the monuments to Alice Chaucer at Ewelme and John Golafre at Fyfield. The designs vary, but the purpose is the same, to depict the body of the departed in a state of decay as a graphic reminder of what awaits us all.
Who was Ralph Hamsterley?
As mentioned in the inscription on the brass, Ralph Hamsterley was Rector of Oddington for number of years, but actually left his position in 1508, a full ten years before his death in 1518. The date of Hamsterley's death is actually missing from the brass, although a space had been left for it This suggest that the brass was put in place during Hamsterley's time as Rector, but by the time of his death his connection to the parish was so little that nobody bothered to update the brass with the date of his death!
The majority of Hamsterley's career was spent as a fellow at Merton College, though later in life he was appointed Master of University College. This was a controversial appointment as only fellows of the college were supposedly eligible to be appointed Master. However, Hamsterley had apparently recently made a generous gift of some kind to the funds of University College, which no doubt help smooth over that little obstacle!
The brass at Oddington was one of four that Hamsterley had commissioned to memorialise himself during his lifetime. The others were at Merton College, University College and also in Durham, where he grew up. Sadly these other three monuments have been lost and whether they were of a similarly grizzly nature as the Oddington brass is not known.
A healing well at Oddington?
The Reader's Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain gives a brief but tantalising mention to a supposed medicinal well at Oddington, which it says was believed to cure 'moor evil', a disease which once afflicted the local cattle.
Sadly, I haven't been able to pinpoint the exact location of this well. If you have any more information, please get in touch!
- ‘Here I am, given to the worms’ (medievalart.co.uk)
- Memento-Mori Hamsterley Brass (www.atlasobscura.com)
- 'Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain' (Reader's Digest, 1973)