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Monumental Brasses and Incised Slabs:

A Window onto the Past

ON THE EVE OF THE BATTLE OF AGINCOURT, Shakespeare's Henry V assures the French envoy that if his men return to England their memory will live on in brass:

A good many of our bodies shall no doubt

Find native graves; upon the which, I trust,

Shall witness live in brass of this day's work.


Detail of brass to Thomas, Lord Camoys, d. 1421, at Trotton, Sussex

The king's prediction was fulfilled. Thomas, Lord Camoys, commander of the left wing of the army, was to be commemorated by a brass at Trotton (Sussex) (illustrated above), Sir John Harpedon, one of his captains, by a brass in Westminster Abbey, and Thomas Chaworth and John Reynes, two esquires in his host by brasses at Launde (Leics.) and Clifton Reynes (Beds.) respectively. Sir Thomas Rempstone, a Nottinghamshire knight in the engagement, was to be commemorated by an incised slab at Bingham (Notts.).

Medieval brasses and incised slabs

Monumental brasses are one of the most common forms of memorial to have come down to us from the middle ages. They are matched, if not exceeded, in number by incised slabs. The attraction of brasses and slabs to the modern enthusiast is that they can be rubbed: that is to say, reproductions can be made of them using heel ball and paper. Both memorial types are richly deserving of all the attention they receive. Not only are they often works of consummate beauty; they can also tell us a great deal about those they commemorate.

Brasses and slabs also provide invaluable material for the study of genealogy and heraldry and the development of armour and costume. Margaret Peyton is shown on her husband's brass at Isleham (Cambs.) dressed in a richly brocaded gown, the design of which is undoubtedly based on a contemporary fabric (illustrated opposite).

The earlier of the two memorial types is the incised slab. A slab is a flat memorial with an effigy of the deceased, a cross, or other appropriate subject, with epitaph, cut directly into the stone. A brass, by contrast, is engraved on sheets of metal inlaid in matrices cut into the stone.

Figure of Margaret Peyton 1484 brass at Isleham, Cambridgeshire

Origins of incised slabs

The origins of the incised slab lie in remote antiquity. The earliest, of eighth to tenth century date, are engraved with crosses and/or inscriptions. From the late eleventh century it became increasingly popular to engrave the grander slabs with representations of the deceased. At Selston (Notts.) is a full-length effigy of a priest, which cannot be much later than 1100 (illustrated opposite). The material used for the making of these early slabs was usually sandstone or limestone, which is easily engraved. From the fourteenth century, in England, the use of alabaster became common. By the sixteenth century the main centres of English production were in the north Midlands, near the alabaster quarries. A notable succession of alabasterers, including Richard and Gabriel Royley, operated at Burton-on-Trent.

Incised slab of a priest vested for mass, c. 1100, at Selston, Nottinghamshire

Origins of brasses

The engraving of brasses developed as an offshoot from the making of slabs. By the later part of the thirteenth century, manufacturers began inlaying slabs with resins or metals so as to add a richer finish to the composition. Bodily features such as the head or the hands might be inlaid; eventually, and after experimentation, the entire figure was. When that was done, the 'brass' had arrived. At Westwell (Kent) an incised slab to John de la More, had brass inlays for the upper part of the figure and the canopy (illustrated opposite).

Incised slab with lost brass inlay to John de la More, 1309, at Westwell, Kent


Probably the earliest surviving English brass is the tiny fragment of the head of a priest at Ashford (Kent) (illustrated opposite), dated c.1280. Almost certainly it formed part of a larger composition, in all likelihood a cross memorial, with the figure of the deceased at the centre. The rest has been lost, however, leaving only the head. It is not known whom the brass commemorates. 

An unknown priest of c.1280 at Ashford, Kent, probably the earliest surviving English brass

The purpose of brasses and incised slabs

The main reason why brasses and incised slabs were laid in the middle ages was to elicit the intercession of the faithful. In Catholic theology it was held that the sufferings of the soul in Purgatory could be eased, and the soul's passage speeded, by the prayers of the living. Thus a brass or slab served in some sense as an obit: as a way of ensuring the flow of prayers. A passer-by, seeing the figure of the commemorated, would be prompted to say a prayer or two on his or her behalf. Increasingly, the point was reinforced by an appeal for prayers on the inscription, but early on the inscription was of limited value because relatively few could read. Sight of the praying figure was what mattered. William Lawnder's brass at Northleach (Glous.) shows him kneeling in prayer with scrolls bearing the words of his prayers snaking up to lost figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Trinity (illustrated opposite).

Brass to William Lawnder, c.1510, at Northleach, Gloucestershire

If brasses and slabs were primarily conceived to elicit prayers, they also served a second purpose - to preserve a person's memory; to attest his importance when alive. It is this aspect which accounts for the worldly references on memorials - the symbols of power, the trappings of rank, the emblems of office, and so on. From the mid fourteenth century increasing play was made of heraldry and symbolism. Elaborate coats of arms were shown, and personal and political connections advertised.

By the fifteenth century livery collars, signs of magnate affiliation, were shown around wearers' necks, and badges on their breasts. Thus on the brass of Sir Anthony Grey, 1480, in St Albans Abbey, the Yorkist collar of suns and roses is shown, attesting the deceased's connections with the ruling Yorkist line: the Greys married into the Woodvilles. Robert Barley is shown sporting such a collar on his incised slab at Barlow (Derbys.) (illustrated opposite). Many other fifteenth-century tombs and brasses show the Lancastrian collar of SS.

Incised slab to Robert and Margaret Barley, 1467, at Barlow, Derbyshire

Yet alongside the preoccupation with honour there is evidence of an undercurrent of concern about worldliness. From the 1440s people began to be commemorated by shroud or cadaver effigies, such as that of John Symonds and his wife at Cley (Norfolk) (illustrated opposite). The purpose of these brasses was probably to remind the onlooker of death and what followed it - Purgatory and Judgement.

Detail of shrouded figure on brass to John Symonds and wife, 1512, at Cley, Norfolk

The early modern period

In the seventeenth century, after the rejection of Catholicism and of a belief in Purgatory, direct death imagery became common. On the brass of Joan Strode and her husband at Shepton Mallet (Somerset) the figure of death leaps from a tomb to thrust his spear at Joan and, at the same time, to hand her a laurel wreath (illustrated below).

Throughout the period of their use brasses and incised slabs retained a dual character: a witness to status in this world, and an aid to salvation in the next.


Detail of brass to William and Joan Strode, 1649,

at Shepton Mallet, Somerset

The funerary sculpture trade

While brasses and slabs teach us about the commemorated and their aspirations, they can also teach us something more - about the organisation of the funerary sculpture trade.

One of the most fruitful lines of investigation in the last thirty years has been into 'style' - that is, the identification of workshop patterns. Every workshop or firm engaged in the production of brasses and slabs had particular trademarks, particular ways of drawing faces or depicting armour. By grouping together effigies or inscriptions of like style, we can identify workshops and in this way reconstruct the organisation of the industry.

From an analysis on these lines it emerges that the making of brasses and slabs in London in the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries was dominated by a series of big firms. These are known to scholars by the name of the person commemorated by the earliest surviving monument in their series. The first identifiable workshop is associated with the name 'Basing' - so-called from the incised slab of Prior William de Basing in Winchester Cathedral. After this, comes the 'Ashford' workshop - so-called from the fragment at Ashford described earlier. After this, in the first half of the fourteenth century come the 'Camoys', 'Septvans' and 'Seymour' workshops. At least one of these workshops can be associated with a known 'marbler' or engraver. This is the 'Camoys' series which can be associated with Adam de Corfe.

Seymour style brass to Sir John and Aleyne de Creke, c.1340-5, at Westley Waterless, Cambridgeshire


After the Black Death there was a process of rationalisation in the London trade, and two big workshops emerged. These are known for convenience, in the absence of their managers' names, as 'A' and 'B'. For the next half century these two firms divided most of the English market between them. In the early fifteenth century 'A' went out of business or was taken over, and a workshop known as 'D' took its place. 'B' and 'D' then dominated the market till the 1470s. 'B' is associated on documentary evidence with a man called William West. By happy coincidence, a brass showing West survives. This is the brass to William and Joan West, his parents, at Sudborough (Northants.), 1415, on which he is shown, second from the left, among the children (illustrated opposite). This was presumably a brass which he engraved himself.

Detail of brass to William and Johanna West,c.1430, at Sudborough, Northamptonshire, parents of William West, brass engraver

Alongside the London workshops for most of the medieval period there were workshops in the provinces. The most active of these regional ateliers were based at Coventry, Norwich and York; however, in the sixteenth century there were smaller ones at Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Kent (probably Rochester). The work of the regional engravers is easily distinguished by a range of stylistic idiosyncrasies from that of their London counterparts.

A Suffolk style brass to Ursula Allingham, 1522, at Hawstead, Suffolk


Post-Reformation brasses

In the post-Reformation period brasses continued to be made - and made in great number. One of the most prolific workshops was that of the Huguenot immigrant, Garat Johnson, at Southwark. Many post-Reformation brasses were conceived in wholly traditional style, with full-length figures, and were laid on floors and tombs. However, the use of small mural brasses showing kneeling figures became more common.

A major source of brass plate after the Reformation was despoiled brasses from the monasteries. Discarded brasses were bought up by the engravers, who would adapt them for re-use. Usually the brasses were turned over and engraved on the reverse. Sometimes, however, existing figures were simply modernised a little and a new inscription supplied. 

Detail of brass to Walter Curzon and wife, c.1540, at Waterperry, Oxfordshire, with re-used plates

The tradition of brass and slab engraving lived on into the late seventeenth century, but finally died out in the eighteenth, when the use of ledger stones became common. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, however, there was a major revival in brass engraving as a by-product of the Anglo-Catholic revival. Fine examples of Victorian brasses can be seen at Oscott College, Birmingham (illustrated opposite), Truro Cathedral (Archbishop Benson), St Nicholas, Guildford (Rev. W.S. Sanders), and All Saints, Boyne Hill, Maidenhead (Rev. Gresley and Canon Drummond).

Detail of Victorian brass by Pugin to Bishop John Milner, 1826, at Oscott College, Birmingham

European brasses and incised slabs

Nearly 3,000 figure brasses survive in the British Isles, mostly in southern England, and rather fewer incised slabs. In the medieval and early modern periods many thousands of brasses and incised slabs were laid in most of the countries of Continental Europe. On the Continent, however, disappointingly few of these memorials have come down to us: the combined scourges of Reformation, Revolution and World War have exacted a heavy toll. Only a handful of brasses have survived in France, Italy and the Iberian countries. A reasonable scattering of brasses is to be seen in the Low Countries, notably in the cathedral at Bruges. Much the biggest concentration on the Continent, however, is to be found in the eastern lander of Germany and in Poland. The brass to Bishops Godfrey and Frederick von Bulow, 1375 at Schwerin (Germany), is the largest and grandest surviving. Engraved all over on one plate, in the Flemish manner, it measures nearly 14 feet in length. 

Incised slabs survive in great number on the floors of many abbeys and parish churches in France, although in many cases they are wholly or partially effaced. A fine collection of slabs is to be seen at the Ste Chapelle, Paris. At Rheims Cathedral is the excellent slab of Hugues Libergier, architect of the (now destroyed) abbey church of St Nicaise, Rheims. He is shown holding the emblems of his trade. Some monuments combine an incising with brass and marble inlays, as on the fine c.1320 slab to a sub-deacon at Noyon, France (illustrated opposite).

Detail of incised slab with brass and marble inlays at Noyon, France


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Page last updated 03 January 2008


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A brass which exhibits both approaches is that of Walter Curzon and his wife at Waterperry (Oxon.) (illustrated below). Originally the brass was laid to the memory of one Simon Kamp and his wife at Holy Trinity, Aldgate, London, c.1442. When the monastery was dissolved, the brass was bought by Curzon's executors, who arranged for its re-use. The inscription and the upper half of the lady's figure were turned over and re-engraved, while the other parts were preserved but modernised with additional shading and detail.