At Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire, now a military base but once a thriving monastery, is a massive mediaeval stone coffin lid that takes ten people to lift. It’s in bad shape, partly because in the 20th century, it was put outside to cover the grave of a cat that had been a mascot for the RAF. But luckily Thomas Fisher drew it in 1812, before the worst of the damage, and he also published his picture. He recorded the inscription that named the coffin’s original occupant as Thomas de Cotegrave. Fisher copied the carved image of a man with a narrow beard, a high forehead and a thin straight nose. He’s surrounded by angels and carrying a shepherd’s crook, and maybe it’s just a stylised portrait of a generic mediaeval monk. But it looks as if it’s meant to show the real man. It’s the earliest portrait of anyone called Cotgrave.
Thomas de Cotegrave wasn’t from Chicksands but he was a monk; the lid describes him as abbot of Pipewell in Northamptonshire. His coffin was moved to Bedfordshire by a collector around 1800.
The mystery is who he was and when he lived. When the editors of the Victoria County History made a list of Pipewell’s abbots in 1906, they included several called Thomas but in most cases they knew their surnames and Cotegrave wasn’t among them. There was one in the list who had briefly been abbot in the 1320s but it turns out they misinterpreted the original Latin records and he never existed. The compilers of the much more recent and thoroughly researched book Heads of Religious Houses didn’t find any evidence for him. But they did discover records about an abbot called Thomas in the 1370s whose surname is not known. He had been replaced, presumably because he’d died, by 1383.
So it looks as if the first 10 men to lift that lid into place were Northamptonshire monks in the late fourteenth century. How Thomas de Cotegrave came to be their boss remains an enigma.
Thomas Fisher’s Collections historical, genealogical and topographical for Bedfordshire.
Letter from Friends of Chicksands Priory
Victoria County History for Northamptonshire Vol 2.
Head of Religious Houses, by Knowles and Brook