Unlocking Our Collections: Monumental Brasses

Monumental brasses were used as a form of memorial from the 13th century. They became popular because they could be inserted into stone slabs, on walls and floors, and therefore did not take up space within churches. They also provided a memorial that might elicit prayer from visitors to the church in which they were displayed – brasses usually featured a written dedication, naming the deceased and requesting prayers for their soul. Most of the examples to survive in England date from the 14th century, partly because by this time they had gained in popularity and general use, particularly among the landed gentry and wealthy ‘middle classes’ – brasses commemorated both bishops and knights as well as farmers and merchants.

Brasses were produced by workshops that employed artists and craftsmen, and distinct styles have been identified which allow specialists to assign brasses to specific production locations across the country. This has helped us better understand how brasses were commissioned and produced, and how demand led to the emergence of a new industry which led to the growth of regional workshops. In some cases, 13th and 14th century brasses were reused – turned over and re-inscribed to form a new memorial in the 16th century.

In the 1800 and 1900s the Society acquired a small number of monumental brasses and brass fragments. The brasses come from a variety of locations, and represent a rather random array of examples reflecting less a distinct collection and more the interests and activities of individual Fellows who then donated their brass collections to the Society.

Brasses are a valuable artefact because of how much they can tell us – they can be used to study costume and jewellery, heraldry, religious beliefs and ideas surrounding self-image and status. They are also useful to genealogists, to historians studying palaeography (the study of script), and to architectural and ecclesiastical historians.

Figure of a Man in Armour (LDSAL 774)

This monumental brass dates from the 1480s and was manufactured in London. The brass was alleged to have been dredged from the River Thames in the 19th century. The crown on his left shoulder identifies him as a Yeoman of the Crown, a title that reflects a distinct social class in medieval England as a result of his position as an attendant within the royal household.

Figure of a Lady (LDSAL 786)

Dated to the 1590s, this brass was manufactured in Southwark. It depicts a lady wearing an unusual broad-brimmed hat, which is quite a contrast to her otherwise classically feminine appearance. Her hat is worn above another form of headgear –probably a type of linen head-covering known as a coif. Her coif therefore may be a sign of her traditional womanly modesty, while the hat is a separate sign of her status, as well as a wish to appear ‘cutting-edge’ and fashion conscious.

Tall-crowned hats such as these were popular among men in the 1570s and appear to have been quickly adopted by women – the popularity of this masculine style among women was to be heavily criticised in the early 17th century, and even led to the production of satirical pamphlets in the 1620s that criticised women for wearing the “ruffianly broad-brim’d Hatte” instead of “the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe.”

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