Brass of the Month

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Copyright: Jon Bayliss

May 2018, Thomasine Palmer, 1544 Moulton St Mary, Norfolk

When the first major workshop making monumental brasses was established in Norwich in the mid-fifteenth century, it initially produced work based on London models and used the same material into which it set its brasses, Purbeck marble, a stone very familiar to its clientele. Purbeck marble had been exported from the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, not just in the form of slabs and tombs to the marblers' workshops in London but also direct to customers elsewhere who wanted fonts and other items such as cross slabs to cover graves. Both were particularly in demand in Norfolk, then one of the richest areas of the country. However, the Norwich marblers soon began using a different sort of marble in which to set their brasses. It came from a site close to Vaudey Abbey in Lincolnshire and was also used by other workshops in Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and elsewhere. The marble quarry at Vaudey Abbey was described by John Leland in around 1540 and again by William Harrison in his Description of England in 1577. Harrison was probably copying what Leland had written as it is likely that the quarries at Vaudey Abbey were not worked after the Reformation. The quarries at Purbeck continued production of marble into the last third of the sixteenth century in the face of declining demand, the London workshops turning to Wealden marble thereafter. Leland saw Purbeck as a source of paving stone and failed to mention the marble. The reason that the quarry at Vausey Abbey failed to survive the Reformation was the enormous number of used marble slabs available from former monastic churches to the marblers in Norwich and the other workshops in Eastern England.

The Purbeck marble industry also suffered, as is clear from the grant to the town of Corfe of a market early in Elizabeth's reign to compensate it because its inhabitants were ' impoverished because they live by the working of marble, which art is in decay because it consists in the manufacture of sepulchral monuments and other monuments now not in use'. Although the industry in Purbeck survived, it was much diminished.

    This month's brass illustrates the situation after the Reformation. It is a Norwich-made brass of a type more usual for a London-made product, a lady kneeling at a prayer desk, although examples produced in London were more likely to be mural, either in marble frames or on the back wall of tombs. Thomasine Palmer died on 7th October, presumably in 1544. Most mentions of the brass in the literature give the year as 1544 but Suffling illustrated the brass and the year in the inscription is shown clearly as 1546 and although the main part of the year on the inscription is now covered, it can seen that it ends 'j' rather than 'v'. However, what can be seen of the year suggests that Suffling's 'rubbing' is not wholly reliable, as the top of one of the 'C's rises above the others, unlike in his illustration, and there are four upright strokes after the 'l', suggesting 'iiij' or 'vij'. Her figure and inscription are set in Purbeck marble but there is no obvious sign that the slab is re-used, prompting the thought that Purbeck had become the only source of new slabs not so very long after the Reformation. Her brass is palimpsest with drapery on the reverse, thought to be from a Flemish lady of c.1500 and possibly linking with two other Norwich-made brasses to people who died in 1544. As the brass was relaid following a long period in private possession, unfortunately without the obverse being illustrated, and the date was given as 1544 in the restoration report, there seems to be no reason to doubt the year.

    Thomasine's husband Henry had died in 1525 and asked in his will of 1523 to be buried ' before the door of the choir'. His brass is at the east end of the nave, perhaps in its original position and is an inscription only plate. It is close to Thomasine's and another inscription to his daughter, Anne, who died in 1535, and was the wife of James Underwode. Thomasine's parents, John and Catherine Holler, lie under another inscription brass just to the west. John died in 1505. He was armigerous but the shield is lost. Henry Palmer seems to have made the transition from yeoman to gentleman is the early 1510s, perhaps following his marriage. He and Thomasine lived in East Dereham at the time that they brought actions in the Court of Chancery to get hold of the deeds to lands in and near Moulton that had been left to Thomasine by her father.


F Blomefield, History of Norolk (2ns ed), vol 11, p110

E R Suffling, English Church Brasses (1910 & 1970 reprint), p 157

W Lack, Repairs to Brasses 1987, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society, vol 14, pp 226-7

The National Archives contaib various documents relating to Henry Palmer, details accessible from and actions in the Court of Common Pleas from

Replica  of the reverses of Thomasine Palmer’s brass

Henry Palmer, died 1525

John & Catherine Holler