Brass of the Month

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Copyright: Jon Bayliss

October 2016, man in armour, c.1410, Holbeach, Lincolnshire

This month's brass lies on the floor of All Saints' church in Holbeach. Holbeach became one of the largest parishes in England because of the retreat of the sea. There is now no sign that sea-going vessels could once sail into the centre of the town up the Holbeach river, the church being on the riverbank.  

The brass of a now headless man in armour and missing canopy, inscription and four shields has not been identified with any certainty. It has been suggested that it may represent Sir John Littlebury, whose marriage to Margaret de Gorham brought him land in the parish. Its worn state means that it was once in a part of the church floor much more trodden than its current position at the west end of the north aisle. It lies on the north side of the tomb chest with sculpted effigy commemorating Sir Humphrey Littlebury, dating from around 1365. This tomb, like the brass, must once have occupied a much more prominent position in the church.

    The brass belongs to a small group of brasses in this area thought to have been made in Boston, designated the Fens I series by Sally Badham. They bear a strong resemblance to the brasses of the series C made in a London workshop in the late fourteenth and very early fifteenth-century. Presumably a marbler trained in the London workshop relocated to Lincolnshire immediately after it came to an end and started up his own workshop. It seems to have lasted around twenty years. Its comparatively small output of brasses can partly be explained by the expansion of its range to include incised slabs of Ancaster stone. The disappearance in little more than the last two hundred years of two of the few armed figures from the Fen I series makes the survival, even in a worn state, of the figure at Holbeach more welcome. The figure was engraved at the time that changes in armour and its accessories were being introduced. The cloth jupon that had covered the upper body, reaching below the hips, was discarded. The plates of mail (lames) that form the skirt (fauld) of the armour were now exposed, as shown by the lines across it. Mail appears below this and also covers the armpits. Some of the armours shown on brasses at this time have metal plates covering the armpits. Another change that was taking place at this time was the mail aventail of the bascinet, covering the neck and the shoulders, was being replaced by plates. On some contemporary brasses and effigies there is a fringe of armour between the new plates and the breastplate. On the brass at Spilsby of William, Lord Willoughby d'Eresby, the most prestigious brass from the Fens I workshop, the fringe is quite wide. On the Holbeach figure the loss of all but the lowest part of this area and the wear on the brass make it difficult to determine what was originally shown here.

There are faint short engraved lines that look as if they depict mail, but whether this was a fringe below a plate bascinet or the bottom edge of the aventail cannot now be ascertained. The brass would be dated to around 1410 if it showed an aventail, a little later if not. However such attempts at arriving at a date would be frustrated when a comparison is made with the smaller Fens I figure of Robert Hayton at Theddlethorpe All Saints. Although Hayton died in 1424, he is shown wearing the by then outdated aventail but no jupon. Although there are a couple of London-made brasses from the period after 1410 that show the aventail, they represent men who died in the 1380s and 1390s, one of the alongside his son in up-to-date armour.

    The wear on the figure mean that in making the rubbing the aim was to produce an even dark gray rather than a deep black, which would have tended to have obscured the faint lines of engraving still remaining. An even gray is more difficult to achieve than an even black, as the result shows. The wear is also uneven as the well-defined lion shows.   


Sally Badham, Brasses from the North-East (1979), pp 18-21, 31-32 & pl 17-18