John Islip
Born: 10 Jun, 1464
Died: 12 May, 1532
Field: Priest; abbot
Location in the Abbey: Islip chapel
Type of memorial: Tomb

John Islip was Abbot of Westminster from 1500 until his death in 1532 and was buried in the chantry chapel he built at Westminster Abbey. Only part of his tomb now remains but we know from the mortuary roll which still survives in the Abbey archives that it showed a recumbent figure of the abbot in his vestments beneath a black marble slab supported by brass pilasters in the middle of the floor. The slab and pillars now form the altar table in the upper chantry chapel. The chapel, which dates from 1524-26 and 1530, is off the north ambulatory with a stone screen and contains carved images of his name and his rebus (pun on his name) of an eye and a slip or branch - I-slip. His coat of arms is also shown: ermine a fess engrailed between three weasels, surmounted by a mitre. The design has been attributed to master mason Henry Redman. Originally there were wall paintings by Master Humphrey but only faint traces of two figures in grisaille can still be seen each side of the upper chantry altar. A quarry of glass depicting his rebus was presented to the Abbey in 1924 and now forms part of the post war stained glass window in the lower chapel. A sculptured head of Christ, shown to the west of his chapel, is now in the Wallace Collection in London. Part of the recess can be seen from the chapel of St John the Evangelist.

A diary of his early life is also preserved at the Abbey and shows he was born on 10 June 1464. His birthplace was seemingly Islip in Oxfordshire, which was also the birthplace of King Edward the Confessor and of Simon Islip, archbishop of Canterbury. He had a sister called Agnes. His family surname could have been Giles as a shield on the Islip Mortuary Roll shows the arms of this family and St Giles features. On entering the Westminster monastery as a novice on 21 March 1480 he assumed the name of his home village not that of his family, as was the usual custom. He held various posts within the monastery such as domestic chaplain to the abbot, sacrist and prior. When he was 36 years old he was made abbot on 27 October 1500 and was a friend of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, becoming a Privy Councillor. The former king used to dine with Islip and was given his favourite marrowbone puddings. Under Islip's rule Henry VII's Lady Chapel was built, the abbot laying the foundation stone in 1503. In his time the nave was completed and the west towers finished as far as the level of the nave roof . He also added the room called the Jericho Parlour and the Abbot's Pew in the Abbot's house (now the Deanery).

Death and burial

He died on 12 May 1532 at his manor house of Neyte in Chelsea (part of the manor of Eybury or Eye). The streets were lined with mourners and the Abbot of Bury officiated at the burial and the Vicar of Croydon preached. His burial was called "the funeral of the Middle Ages" as only a few years later monasteries in England were dissolved by Henry VIII. On Islip's mortuary roll, intended to be sent round to chief monasteries to announce his death but never finished, are pen drawings of the Abbot among the virtues, on his deathbed, his hearse in front of the High Altar, his chapel and the coronation of Henry VIII, at which Islip assisted (this last drawing also shows a depiction of the west tower and a central tower). These drawings are attributed to Gerard Horenbouts, court painter, and are the earliest views of the interior of the Abbey.

The altar in the lower Islip Chantry chapel was restored to its place in 1940 (designed by Sir Charles Peers). This had been displaced and  a large monument put in its place (now in the triforium). The upper chapel was designated as the Nurses' Memorial Chapel in 1950.

A stone head of an abbot, thought to be of Islip, was found as infill in a buttress of the north transept in the late 19th century and is now in the Abbey collection.

Photos from the roll and of the chapel and stone head can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.

Further reading:

"Westminster Abbey. The last days of the monastery as shown by the life and times of Abbot John Islip " by H.F.Westlake, 1921

"The Jesus Chapel or Islip's Chantry at Westminster Abbey " by John Goodall, in Journal of the BAA, vol.164, 2011.

"The medieval Abbey revealed" [newly discovered images of the Islip Roll in the Bodleian Library] by Matthew Payne in The Westminster Abbey Chorister, summer 2016.

"The monks of Westminster" by E.H.Pearce. 1916

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"The obituary roll of John Islip" by W.H.St John Hope, 1906

"History of Westminster Abbey" by Richard Widmore, 1751, appendix with account of the interment

"The Manor of Eia or Eye next Westminster" [for an account of the house at Neyte] by W.L.Rutton, Archaeologia LXII, 1910.

"From Westminster Abbey to the Wallace Collection: Torrigiano's Head of Christ" by Alan Darr, in Apollo 116, 1982

Islip's prayer book is Latin MS.165 in the John Rylands Library.

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