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The Triumph of Death over all Estates

The Triumph of Death over all Estates

This month’s image is from ‘Burch’s Book of Drawings’ (CCA-LitMS/A/14). This late sixteenth century manuscript, the majority of which was compiled between 1590 and 1592, was made by William Burch under the patronage of John Nettleton. Nettleton had compiled a substantial library of printed books and medieval manuscripts and this manuscript, alongside Nettleton’s decision to employ William Burch (a talented arms-drawer), represent a celebration of his library and antiquarian interests: it is bursting with heraldry, natural history, and copies of manuscript images and prints.

One of the most spectacular images within the manuscript is The Triumph of Death over all Estates, which depicts death coming to men of varying social standings, who are ordered within the visual narrative by their status. The Triumph reminds readers, then and now, of the flesh’s fragility and that death comes to all indiscriminately.


CCA, LitMS/A/14 (Burch’s Book of Drawings), fol. 85r.

Such grisly reminders were a common motif in pre-modern literature and art, frequenting plays, poetry and portraiture. As a Momento Mori motif, this image’s purpose is to prompt self-reflection, serving as a reminder to live life with death in mind. After all, a godly life would lead invariably to salvation. With this in mind, each image has a rhyme attached: ‘Earle or Viscount geue thy account’; ‘Go hence sir knight, tis almost night’; with each verse harnessing a common language of death and ending.

This image might seem an odd choice for the new year, but for sixteenth-century people this time of year was as appropriate as any other to be reminded of one’s own mortality. Pre-1752, England’s official new year was on the date of the annunciation, 25th March, but this did not stop 1st January gaining significance as ‘New Years Day’ in line with the Roman calendar.

The first of January held specific significance for renewal, hope and charity for early modern people. In the refrain of the seventeenth-century broadside ballad ‘New-Yeeres Gift’, the orator asks God to ‘send a good new year’, and when going to public prayer on 1st January John Evelyn hoped to have God’s ‘blissing the Yeare now entering’.[1] January’s New Year, falling as it does within the twelve days of Christmas, was accompanied by festivities like feasting, drinking, play-going, and gift-giving to celebrate the birth of Christ, with these activities conversely prompting self-reflection about Christ’s sacrifice for mankind and a reminder to lead a godly life.

These reminders often came in the form of gifts, gifts that performed the generous celebratory spirit of the New Year, but might also fulfil a devotional purpose. As George Puttenham wrote in The Arte of English Poesie: ‘there be […] epigrammes that were sent usually for new yeares gifts or to be printed or put upon’ various objects and banqueting foods, combining a lavish gift with a verse. [2] An equally common New Year motif was the giving of objects inscribed with Momento Mori.

Although these kinds of gifts were not unique to the New Year, the death of the old year alongside the birth of the new was an appropriate time to remind people that it was never too late for self-reform. This duality is evident in one of Mary Talbot’s New Year’s gifts to her mother Bess of Hardwick: an embroidered cushion which acted as an expensive and beautiful domestic object, but also enabled her to pray comfortably, aiding her godly behaviour.[3]

So The Triumph image within the Burch manuscript, although not made for New Year, taps into the culture of death of the period as a reminder to live life for God. It intricately renders appropriate clothing for each estate, balanced by death, the skeleton, and icons like the spade in the left-hand margin evoking the fall of man and the importance of work. All of which carry particular significance on a day when a lot of us will be making New Year’s resolutions: a practice that has persisted for hundreds of years.

This spectacular manuscript is due to be lent to the exhibition ‘Looking at Animals’ at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, from May until September 2018.

Further Reading:

  • The Diary of John Evelyn, by Guy de la Bédoyère (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), p.196.
  • George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), p.47.

[1] London, British Library, Roxburghe 1.39. <> and The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. by Guy de la Bédoyère (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), p.196.

[2] George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), p.47.

[3] Felicity Maxwell, ‘Happy New Year, Early Modern Style’, <>

Article by Hannah Lilley, PhD student, MEMS, University of Kent.

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