The Horsey Monument at Sherborne Abbey

I find tomb monuments fascinating. They preserve not just a record of individuals but elements of architectural design, ornament, clothing, jewellery, belief, symbolism, image and identity. The Horsey monument in Sherborne Abbey is one such construction leading us to a glimpse of another time.

At first glance the monument is difficult to date in an historical context. The figures, father and son, are dressed in 15th-century armour and the architectural tomb could even be a form of Baroque with Renaissance detail. It is not late-medieval, and it is not 17th century. It is in fact mid-16th century, constructed circa 1565 (the early part of Elizabeth the First’s reign: 1558-1603).

Figure 2: Horsey Monument in the Wykeham Chapel, Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

This is the tomb of Sir John Horsey II (d. 1546) and his son Sir John Horsey III (d. 1564). Today the tomb is tucked into the Wykeham Chapel in the north transept (the Wykeham family were local goldsmiths). Originally the tomb was situated in a prominent position in the north transept. It is remarked in Hutchins:

‘This monument was surrounded by a curious carved screen of oak. This before the dissolution of the abbey probably formed the partition between the choir of the monks and the lower part of the church, and was removed here when Sir John Horsey appropriated this transept for the burying place of his family.’ [1]

During the English Civil War (1642-1651) Cromwell’s soldiers defaced the tomb. It was restored during the 19th C and moved to the Wykeham chapel. I am assuming the oak screen has long gone as I didn’t see any evidence of it. But it may have been relocated.

Figure 3: Sir John Horsey II & III – father died 1546 & son died 1564

The recumbent figures of father and son are dressed in similar armour. The figure on the left has right hand over left and the figure on the right, left hand over right. The armour and weaponry is very similar on both figures, although the sharp-eyed would probably be able to discern differences. The faces are also very similar, with prominent noses. These are very straight noses. If one looks at the side profiles of Renaissance popes such as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) (d.1503), the nose is a very prominent feature. An aquiline nose usually has a slight bend on the bridge (aquilinus meaning ‘eagle-like’). It was associated with characteristics of intelligence and nobility. One of the striking images in England of the early-15th C is that of King Henry V in profile. He died in 1422. He represented something of an ‘ideal’ chivalric king in the mythology of England. Particularly after his victory at the battle of Agincourt. His nose is prominent and straight.

The Horsey noses, on close inspection, appear to have been reapplied. At some point they were sliced off (perhaps during the Reformation or Civil War). The noses may have been reapplied or remade and applied. They favour the Henry V-type nose.

Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia – 1431-1503) (Source: [accessed 7 Sept 2021])

King Henry V (1386-1422)
(Source: ‘King Henry V’, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,
[accessed 7 Sept 2021])

The choice of armour is curious. The Abbey guidebook states that it is circa 1470. The battles of the Wars of the Roses took place between 1455 and 1487. This war was for control of the English Throne between the houses of Lancaster and York. Whilst there is flower decoration on the figures, I would not offer any connection in symbolism to the white rose of York or the red rose of Lancaster. Perhaps there is even a reason for the Horseys to avoid any association. One of the shields on the tomb has 3 roses gules (red roses) originating from the Phelips family. What is important is that this tomb and the effigies are an assertion of family ancestry and status, and not necessarily political affiliation. It is a statement in stone.

Figure 4: Detail of Armour – I am always intrigued how Tudor males favoured a slim leg and ankle.

Why the late 15th C is the favoured armour is not apparent, as the family lineage in Somerset goes back to at least the 12th C. The ancestor who would have been contemporary to the armour would have been Sir John II’s grandfather, Sir Thomas Horsey, of whom little is known. Chivalric ideal is a common theme to the Tudors and to these men a symbol of knightly pride. The detail of the armour is spectacular.

The Horsey family derived their name from the manor of Horsey near Bridgwater in Somerset (from the 12th C). It was during the 15th C they acquired Clifton Maybank, a manor near Sherborne, which became the family’s principal residence. Sir John Horsey I (d. 1531) married well and brought further estates in the family. He had duties in royal service and was present at the Field of The Cloth of Gold with Henry VIII in June 1520. When he died in 1531, he was buried at the parish church of Yetminster, near Sherborne.

However, it was his son, Sir John Horsey II that significantly increased the family fortunes. Besides being active in local affairs and royal service, he positioned himself well in acquiring numerous wealthy monastic houses when the Dissolution came about (1536–1541). From circa 1530 he acted as steward for the abbeys of Mucheleny, Athelney, Montacute and Sherborne. When in 1535 Abbot Meere of Sherborne resigned, Horsey made an under the table offer of 500 marks to Thomas Cromwell to get his own man, John Barnstaple, elected to the post.

When Sherborne was suppressed in 1539, Horsey moved Barnstaple to the rectory of Stalbridge in Dorset. He was then able to acquire Sherborne Abbey’s buildings and lands. He also acquired the estate of Hinton Charterhouse at Longleat in Wiltshire, which he quickly sold to Sir John Thynne. He then sold Sherborne Abbey to the vicar and parishioners of Sherborne for an amount in the region of £320, after he and the kings commissioners had stripped it bare. The town made the old abbey their parish church.

I am reminded of a west country rhyme:

Horner, Paget, Portman, Thynne.

When the monks stepped out you stepped in.

It appears that Horsey should have been included!

His son, Sir John Horsey III, spent some time in Thomas Cromwell’s service. He was knighted in 1547 and around this time he began to rebuild the family manor of Clifton Maybank near Yeovil to become a grand house of the region (the present house being the east wing of the original). To see how fine a house it would have been, it is worth a visit to the west front of Montacute House, where part of the house stands today. Clifton Maybank was mainly demolished in 1786 and the part at Montacute was acquired and relocated to provide corridor access to the ground and first floors.

Sir John Horsey’s will is printed in Hutchins.[ii] Bettey remarks that the cautious wording of Sir John Horsey II’s will, in which he left the bulk of his estates to his son, suggests that he did not regard his son as being trustworthy. This is backed up by his son’s own words, reflecting on his gambling habit – ‘was oftentimes enticed and overmuch used and disposed to dyce play’ (TNA: PRO, C78/19/12)’.[iii]

Sir John II did specify conditions if his son refused to carry out his duties as executor. He also appointed overseers to ensure his son carried out the execution of his stated will. Sir John III would have been about 36 at the time of his father’s death.

In his will, Sir John II, specified that his body was to be buried in the north transept of Sherborne Abbey (which became known as the ‘Horsey Aisle’). His son, Sir John III followed suit in his will, directing his body to be buried where his father lay. It seems that the son wanted to be not only buried with his father but identified with him as they lay side by side. It appears the son held his father and ancestry with regard.

The fortunes of the Horseys were at their apex during the mid-16th C. Sir John III haemorrhaged the resources at his disposal by gambling, expensive building works and a number of lawsuits.  Sir John III’s son, another Sir John (IV) died without children and in 1589 the Horsey estate passed to a distant cousin, Sir Ralph Horsey (d. 1612). His poor estate management and profligacy diminished the fortune. His son, Sir George Horsey (d. 1640) invested in schemes such as attempting to reclaim land by draining the Fleet at Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast. It was an ill-conceived project that was not feasible both practically and legally. Sir George died in penury in Dorchester gaol.

Within 100 years of the death of the wily and acquisitive Sir John Horsey II, who had gained so much from advantageous marriage and the Dissolution, it seems ironic that the family fortunes came to an abrupt halt.



[1] John Hutchins, The History And Antiquities of the County of Dorset, 3rd edn, 4 vols (London: John Bowyer Nichols, 1873), IV, pp. 252-53.

[ii] Hutchins, pp. 425-30.

[iii] Bettey, J. H., ‘Horsey family (per. c.1500–c.1640)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, <> [accessed 6 July 2019]



 Bettey, J. H., ‘Horsey family (per. c.1500–c.1640)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, <> [accessed 6 July 2019]

‘Clifton Maybank’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West (London, 1952), pp. 98-99. British History Online [accessed 12 July 2019].

Hutchins, John, The History And Antiquities of the County of Dorset, 3rd edn, 4 vols (London: John Bowyer Nichols, 1873), IV

Miller, H., ‘HORSEY, Sir John (1489-1546), of Clifton Maybank, Dorset’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 <> [accessed 7 July 2019]

Newman, John and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Dorset (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 376

Ridgeway, Huw, Sherborne Abbey, (London: Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers, 2014)

S.R.O., Phelips Manuscripts, DD\PH/224/114