The remarkable Mrs Wadham (senior)

8th March 2018

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Joan Wadham, mother of College founder Nicholas, was an extraordinary woman. Having had twenty children by her two husbands, she died aged 88 in 1583.

  • Monument to Joan Wadham

    Two carvings of Joan, kneeling behind her two husbands, with her children from each marriage  behind her.


A monument to her, possibly erected by Nicholas, the only son of her second marriage, can be found in the Norman church at Branscombe in Devon, as Peter Hill reports.

“There is no doubt that both the Founder of Wadham College and his wife were remarkable people. They had money, energy, and determination. Nicholas’s philanthropy and passion for education were carried through by his wife Dorothy, operating from her house, Edge, high in a combe above Branscombe in Devon.  And as is well known, she never visited Oxford during the whole process of construction and staffing.

“But Nicholas’s mother, Joan, (sometimes referred to as Jane), was also an extraordinary woman, in a different way. She had Cornish blood – her father was a Tregarthen – and she lived to a great age, probably 88.

“When quite young she first married John Kellaway of Cullompton (the spelling of his name has several variants). She bore him no fewer than fourteen children, if one can believe her memorial stone.  I can only find seven of them recorded in genealogy sites : George, Elizabeth, Anne, Mary, Catherine, Florence and Agnes. One must assume that several of the others died either at birth or shortly afterwards.  

“Her husband died in February 1531 at the age of 37. She then married John Wadham, an important local Somerset official and Justice of the Peace, who had been born at Edge in 1505 (he lived until 1578), but who lived at Merifield near Ilton.  She had six children by him, of whom Nicholas was the first born (in 1532 at Merifield) followed by Johanna (1533, Merifield), Joan (1536, Bristol), Florence (1538, Merifield) and two others. So she must have produced almost a baby a year over a period of twenty years!

“In the fine Norman church at Branscombe is a detailed monument to her, carved in stone, and still bearing traces of colour. Nicholas Pevsner suggests it may have been erected by her son Nicholas.

  • carviing on the tomb

    'Here lieth intomb’d the body of a virtuous and antient Gentlewoman descended of the antient House of the Plantagenets sometime of Cornwall, namely JOAN one of the daughters and heirs unto John Tregarthin in the county of Cornwall Esq. She was first married unto John Kelleway Esq. who had by her much issue. After his death she was married to John Wadham of Meryfield in the county of Somerset Esq., & by him had several children. She lived a virtuous & godly life and died in an honourable age…..September in the year of Christ 1583.'

“The church register gives a little more detail:  Mrs Jone Wadham, wid.,was buryed the 30th of September 1583.
“Looking at the tomb carving, set between two classical columns and below a pediment, are her two husbands, both kneeling. To the left is John Kellaway, in doublet, ruff, hose and academic gown. Behind him on a smaller scale is Joan, kneeling, in ruff and gown with puffed sleeves; and behind her are her children, who seem to be separated into nine girls below and five boys above, all dressed like their parents.

“To the right kneels John Wadham in full armour and a ruff, with his helmet and crossed gauntlets in front of him. Behind him appears a second image of Joan – how often do you appear twice on your own gravestone? – with five children behind her –the official church guide says one more has broken away.  It adds that five are girls and one is boy – Nicholas.
“The armorials are very complicated. There are three coats of arms: The lozenge in the centre is Joan’s. The Kellaway/Tregarthen arms are to the left; the Wadham/Tregarthen arms are to the right. The six segments of Joan’s shield are duplicated on the right side of both the Kellaway and the Wadham shields, as is common heraldic practice: husband to the left, wife to the right.

"The Kellaway arms are unusual (quartered, on the left): there is a saltire of grozing-irons, or glaziers’ snippers, with four Kelway pears between them.  The same arms are also to be found in a window of the great hall at Lytes Cary Manor, since Henry Lyte, the great Tudor botanist, in 1546 married a Kellaway, Agnes, as his first wife. This would make Joan the mother-in-law of Henry.

"The Wadham arms, on the right-hand shield, yield much greater detail, because a similar shield for the Wadhams, in the south  window of the library at Montacute, has been the subject of a commentary by a Herald, Oswald Barron. Top left of the nine segments are the arms of Wadham, a white chevron on a red ground with three roses. Two along are a couple of stags’ heads, the arms of Popham. In the middle row on the left below Wadham are the arms of Zouche;  and below them on the left, is a two headed eagle over blue and white bars, the arms of Speke, a well-known Somerset family. Third along on the bottom line are the arms of Ralegh. I am unable to identify the other shields, but no doubt there are experts who can help.

"I assume the crossed grozing-irons (without the pears) which appear in the top-left segment of Joan’s own arms, (and in the other two shields), represent Tregarthen.  The Tregarthen family also had a crest with a red chevron surrounded by three mermaids, but there is no sign of it here.

"If it is correct that Nicholas raised this monument to his mother, which takes such trouble over her husbands, her offspring and her ancestry, then he did her proud."

Reporter Peter Hill is a retired BBC Correspondent, living in South Somerset. He has published a number of articles on William Arnold, the architect of both Montacute House  and Wadham College.

  • Details of the Kellaway/Trearthen arms (left), Joan's lozenge shaped coat or arms in the centre, and the Wadham arms on the right.