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Old Brasses and Their Story


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A visit to an old church or cathedral will be rendered far more interesting and instructive if the visitor, in addition to an elementary knowledge of architecture, which will enable him to recognize the various periods during which the church has been built or altered, has some slight acquaintance with the costumes worn by the generations who have worked or worshipped within these sacred edifices. Often the church itself contains monuments dating from long ago which supply this information in the shape of sculptured monuments, or of brasses inlaid in the stone which lies above the grave of some long dead knight, civilian or ecclesiastic.

In the Middle Ages costumes changed but slowly, and therefore, even when the date of interment is Jacking, it is possible to identify the approximate period when the sculpture or brass was made.

It is, however, to brasses that this chapter is devoted, but much of the information it contains will help the visitor to recognize the date of sculptured work as well. Despite the havoc wrought by the Reformation, some 4,000 brasses still survive in the British Isles, and supply a magnificent history of contemporary armour and costumes from the thirteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century. The majority are in England, the southeastern counties being particularly rich in them, whereas in Wales there are but a few, in Scotland three, and in Ireland two, both at Dublin.

The English figure brasses differ markedly from those on the Continent, where figures, canopies and inscriptions are engraved on rectangular plates which practically cover the gravestone. In England, however, these three important parts of the composition are each separately set into the stone which forms the background, the only exceptions before the sixteenth century being as a rule the work of foreign craftsmen, although after that date, as the work deteriorates, we find many rectangular plates, usually affixed to the wall, whereon all the details are included.

Figure brasses to be seen in churches may be conveniently divided into five headings, namely, Military, Ladies' Costumes, Civilians, Ecclesiastics and Unusual Types, and we will briefly consider each of these sections in turn.

Military brasses may be roughly grouped into eight sections, each type being easily distinguishable from its predecessor, although, naturally, one type changed gradually into another, and we find transitional examples which serve as links to connect two periods. Starting with chain mail, we find that the necessity for increased protection against the progressively improving weapons of war led to the gradual addition of one piece of plate armour after another, until the chain mail practically disappeared. But from the sixteenth century the increasing efficiency of firearms gradually convinced the wearers of armour that the enormous weight they had to bear was not compensated for by the sufficiency of the protection it afforded. Elizabethan armour therefore tended to become lighter, and by the time of the Civil War we find the arms and legs left bare, the first indication of the coming abandonment of this ancient method of protection.

The Surcoat style of mail armour is the first type represented in monumental brasses. The whole body was encased in chain mail over which was worn a long linen garment called a "surcoat," hence the name of the style. Sir John Daubernon, who died in 1277 and is buried at Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey, is commemorated by the earliest brass which survives in this country. It should be noted that his is one of the few brasses which contain enamel work, for the shield has a ground of blue enamel. The most famous brasses of this early period are those at Trumpington, Cambridge; Acton, Suffolk; Chartham, Kent; and Pebmarsh, Essex.

The Cyclas Mail, 1325-circa 1347, marks a period of rapid transition. On the one hand the surcoat was cut short in front and slit up the sides so as to give greater freedom of action and becomes known as the cyclas, and, on the other, additional plates were added to protect the arms and legs. The brass of Sir John de Creke, c. 1325, at Westley Waterless, Cambs, shows the style excellently. Other famous brasses of the period are that of Sir John the younger, at Stoke D'Abernon, and those at Minster, Sheppey; Elsing, Norfolk, and Bowers-Gifford, Essex. The last two show a more complete advance towards plate armour than do the others.

The Jupon Period, 1350-1400, arose as a result of the French wars of Edward III, and the brass of Sir J. de la Pole, at Chrishall, Essex, shows its characteristics. The cyclas has been replaced by the close-fitting jupon; arms and legs are completely covered in plate, and the shirt of mail has shrunk to a mere vest, only noticeable at the bottom of the Jupon and at the armpits. The helmet is, however, linked with the body armour by a camail of chain, hence the alternative name for this style of armour. About this period breastplates and back pieces of plate also began to be worn, but can seldom be seen, as they are generally covered by the jupon.

The Lancastrian Period, 1400-1450, so called because the new style begins to appear about 1400, is distinguished from its predecessor by the fact that the jupon is usually discarded, and we see the breastplate, to which are attached strips of hinged plates to protect the stomach, represented in the brasses by lines. Small plates also protect the armpits, and in the brass of Richard de Freville Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire, we see all these peculiarities and also the Misericorde dagger with which the chivalrous knight was supposed to cut the throats of the wounded if they were past recovery. This Misericorde dagger appears, however, much earlier, namely, in some of the jupon brasses.

The Yorkist Period is so called because it evolved during the Wars of the Roses and dates roughly from 1450-85. Its characteristic is the addition of extra plates to the already complete suit of plate armour, intended to protect such vulnerable points as the joints of the elbows and shoulders. Sir R. Sentleger, at Ulcombe, Kent, is an excellent example of this period, and shows in addition the tasses which were attached to the bottom of the laminated plates by buckles.

The Tudor Period, c. 1485-1560, marks the beginning of the degeneracy of British brasses, but it is also characterised by a number of elaborate examples wherein the knight wears a tabard engraved with his coat of arms over his armour. The brass of J. Shelley, at Clapham, Sussex, shows such a garment, and also the most notable change, namely, the broad feet which replace the pointed steel shoes of the preceding period. Shelley's wife also has her coat of arms engraved on her mantle. The brass of Sir Thomas Bullen, 1538, Hever, is of both historical and artistic interest, since it shows the father of Queen Anne Bullen (Boleyn) wearing the mantle of the Garter.

The Elizabethan Period, 1560-1625, is illustrated by the brass of E. Bulstrode, at Upton, Buckinghamshire, which shows him wearing a ruff and with long laminated plates attached direct to the corselet.

The Stuart Period, 1625-1660, marks the end of armour and contains very few good brasses, for by this time the art was rapidly dying out. Sir Edward Filmer, 1638, at East Sutton, Kent, is an exception, and must conclude this brief survey of armour-clad figures which appear on British brasses. From the brass it appears that Sir Edward relied on leather boots instead of plate for his legs.

As regards Ladies' Costumes it is usual to group these with those of their husbands, and a careful study of the examples already referred to enable readers to perceive the characteristic changes. Unfortunately, Sir John Daubernon either had no wife or no one troubled to commemorate her. Lady de Creke, however, gives an excellent example of female costume at the time of the Cyclas mail, the most notable feature being the wimple, which covered the lower part of the chin and was copied from the Eastern veil. It also occurs in the brass at Minster. The wife of Sir John de la Pole is shown without her mantle in a close-fitting garment with enormously long sleeves, but most ladies of the Jupon period are shown in a long mantle which is joined across the breast with a cord. The style of hairdressing, in a mass of small ringlets, is also a noticeable feature, as illustrating the fashions of the times.

By 1405 sleeves had grown full, as can be seen in the representation of the wife of de Freville, who also has a curious high collar, a somewhat unusual feature. A close-fitting jacket, apparently bordered with fur, is another variation which is sometimes seen.

As the fifteenth century wore on various strange head-dressings occurred, including different forms of the mitre head-dress, which begins to appear about 1430, and which can be seen in the brass of the wife of Sir Thomas Brook, at Thorncombe, Devon. The butterfly head-dress is the characteristic of female costume during the Yorkist period and may be seen in the brass of Sentleger. Tudor ladies adopted an elaborate mantle with a separate head-covering somewhat resembling a hood, as exemplified in the brass of J. Shelley and wife. The dress of the Elizabethan period, with its ruffle and farthingale, can be easily recognized from the brass of E. Bulstrode, the mantle being cut away in front to show the embroidered petticoat, while in Sir Edward Filmer's brass we see not only the older fashion, which is worn by the mother and includes a ruff, but in the lower register the daughters display the new fashion wherein the ruff has vanished.

Civilian Costumes in the fourteenth century consisted of a short tunic reaching to the knees and a long mantle worn from the shoulders. In the early fifteenth century the tunic became longer, reaching almost to the ankles; sleeves were long and full at the wrists and there was usually a high collar. That of Sir Thomas Brook, at Thorncombe, Devon, is a characteristic example.

Although we get minor variations, such as brasses of judges, who wear ermine-edged mantles, in the main the costume worn by Sir Thomas Brook remained in common use up till the Tudor period, when there grew up a great vogue for long cloaks or mantles reaching almost to the feet. These continued to appear on brasses right through the Elizabethan period, but sometimes we can see the slashed doublet, as in the rectangular brass of J. Cotrel, 1595, in York Cathedral. Of Stuart civilians little need be said. The work is poor, but a late example of 1640 is that of G. Coles and his two wives, who have beneath them their respective children. This brass is at S. Sepulchre's, Southampton.

Some of the most beautiful and elaborate brasses in England are those of the clergy, and they show practically every form of vestment worn by Church dignitaries before the Reformation. Unfortunately the style alters but little, and save for the fact that early ecclesiastics have long curly hair and the later ones have it cropped rather short, there is little to distinguish them.

Bishops and mitred abbots wore exactly similar costumes on ceremonial occasions, and the brass of Abbot de la Mare in S. Albans Abbey must be taken as representative. It is a fine characteristic example of foreign work, and shows at a glance the difference between foreign and English work. On the abbot's head is his mitre and in the crook of his arm rests his crozier. Round his neck is seen the embroidered edge of the amice, a kind of scarf. The big cloak is a chasuble, elaborately embroidered. On his hands are gloves, set with a jewel in the middle of the back, and from his right wrist depends his maniple. Underneath the chasuble hung his stole, but it is not easy to see it, and under it he wore three garments, the bottom edge of each being clearly distinguishable, namely tunic and dalmatic and, lastly, a white alb, corresponding to the modern surplice worn by the clergy.

Mass vestments are admirably represented in the brass of L. de St. Maur, 1337, at Higham Ferrers, Northants. They consisted of amice and chasuble, but no gloves were worn. The maniple can be seen sticking out from under the sleeves at the right-hand side, and the stole is clearly discernible. Unlike a bishop, however, the only other garment worn was an alb, which, as in this case, often had a piece of embroidery in the rectangular square at the bottom. The priest's tonsure is clearly visible.

Another important ceremonial robe was the cope, a vestment closely associated with processions. The fine brass of J. Sleford, to be seen at Bal-sham, Cambs., shows it to perfection, and under it was worn the almuce. The latter was a large cape usually lined with fur, with two long lappets hanging down in front; these are clearly seen in the brass.

In the earlier brasses the clergy are usually shown either in mass vestments or copes, but in the fifteenth century we often find them represented in some of the less important garments such as cassocks and almuce. Moreover the growing prestige of the universities led to a large number of brasses being made in which the academic tabard, without sleeves, the cape or tippet, and the hood are shown, usually over a cassock. Such brasses are naturally most numerous at Oxford and Cambridge, and particularly good examples are to be found at Magdalen and Merton colleges, Oxford, and at King's College, Cambridge.

With the coming of the Reformation these elaborate vestments gradually vanished, but they did not disappear quite as quickly as many people imagine. The last mass vestments shown are on a brass of W. Strylar at Rouceby, Lines, a.d. 1536; the last full episcopal robes are seen on the brass of R. Pursglove, Tides-well, Derby, in 1579, that is to say in the middle of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but copes survived much later, as can be seen from the brass of Bishop Harsnett, who died in 1631, arid wears mitre, cope, gloves, and holds in his hands a crozier. The ordinary clergy, however, were content with a long cassock, the Geneva gown and a scarf with long ends, while the brass of Bishop E. Guest shows him wearing rochet and chimere.

Before.dismissing the clergy passing reference must be made to brasses of monks and nuns, of which quite a number survive. The finest is that of T. Nelond, Prior of Lewes, 1433, at Cowfold, Sussex, while an interesting brass of an abbess holding her crozier occurs at Elstow, Beds.

In addition to the usual figure brasses a number of interesting variations occur. Thus, sometimes figures appear on a kind of bracket, as in the case of John Strete, 1405, Upper Hardres, Kent, who kneels in academical robes at the foot of a bracket whereon stand figures of S. Peter and S. Paul. Sometimes the deceased appears inside a floriated cross, as in the case of the brass of J. Harold, c. 1390, to be seen at Hereford Cathedral.

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Pictures for Old Brasses and Their Story

TWO EARLY BRASSES OF KNIGHTS IN CHAIN MAIL: AT STOKE D'ABERNON AND CHARTHAM
TWO EARLY BRASSES OF KNIGHTS IN CHAIN MAIL: AT STOKE D'ABERNON AND CHARTHAM >>>>
SIR J. DE CREKE AND HIS WIFE
SIR J. DE CREKE AND HIS WIFE >>>>
A KNIGHTLY PAIR AT CHRISHALL
A KNIGHTLY PAIR AT CHRISHALL >>>>
SIR R. DE FREVILLE AND WIFE
SIR R. DE FREVILLE AND WIFE >>>>
SIR R. SENTLEGER AND HIS BUTTERFLY HEAD-DRESS DAME AT ULCOMBE, IN KENT
SIR R. SENTLEGER AND HIS BUTTERFLY HEAD-DRESS DAME AT ULCOMBE, IN KENT >>>>
THE FATHER OF ANNE BOLEYN
THE FATHER OF ANNE BOLEYN >>>>
AN ELIZABETHAN COUPLE
AN ELIZABETHAN COUPLE >>>>
SIR T. BROOK AND HIS WIFE
SIR T. BROOK AND HIS WIFE >>>>
A STUART BRASS, EAST SUTTON
A STUART BRASS, EAST SUTTON >>>>
ABBOT DE LA MARE AT S. ALBANS
ABBOT DE LA MARE AT S. ALBANS >>>>
J. SLEFORD IN COPE AND ALMUCE
J. SLEFORD IN COPE AND ALMUCE >>>>
L. DE S. MAUR AT HIGHAM FERRARS
L. DE S. MAUR AT HIGHAM FERRARS >>>>
A POST-REFORMATION BISHOP
A POST-REFORMATION BISHOP >>>>

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