Brass of the Month

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Page last updated 04 March 2015

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

January 2013 - Martha Lister, 1663, Sheffield Cathedral, Yorkshire

Today it is set in a pavement of white marble fragments and consists of an inscription in an oval cartouche surrounded by scrolls and foliage, with an achievement set above it, all enclosed in a round-topped arch on corinthian columns, the arch having a large 'keystone'. Below the columns is a border of brass with a semi-circular feature at the mid-point. Either side of this are skulls and cross-bones. It appears to be virtually complete, the only obvious missing bit being a short section above one of the tassels at the bottom of the achievement. The whole composition is is big enough to cover a double grave. The Listers were a prominent family in the North Riding of Yorkshire, William's grandfather being Sir William Lister, who fought at Marston Moor in 1644 and was MP for the West Riding and the City of York in 1645. He died in 1650. His father, Colonel William Lister, died on 7 December 1642 at Tadcaster fighting for Parliament. The manor house of Thornton in Craven was destroyed by Royalist troops and Sir William received £1500 in compensation in 1646. The Listers had acquired the manor of Thornton in 1563 from the second earl of Rutland. Martha's family, by contrast, was only recently rich. Her grandfather Thomas, buried at Sheffield in 1616, was a yeoman farmer, although probably well-to-do. Her father, Stephen Bright, profited as bailiff of the earls of Arundel in the Sheffield area to the extent that he was able to buy lands worth £600 a year. He died in June 1642, when Martha was only two, was buried in the middle of the chancel at Sheffield and commemorated by a brass lost before 1800. His son John, twenty year older than his half-sister Martha, was a colonel in the parliamentary army and later a baronet. He married Colonel William Lister's widow and was no doubt responsible for marrying his stepson to his sister.

   While there are no other brasses from this workshop as large and elaborate as the Lister brass, a couple of others follow it in featuring inscriptions in cartouches. That to Francis Ratcliff of Sheffield Manor, died 1686, is placed murally near the Lister brass and that to Roger Newham of Inkersell is on the wall of Staveley church in Derbyshire. It must have been produced within a few months of his death on 4 June 1687, for below it as a pendant is a smaller plate to his wife Katherine, who died 17 November the same year and whom Roger's inscription names as one of the two people responsible for his monument.  

   The inscriptions at Sheffield and Staveley are at opposite ends of the group in terms of date, so there has been some evolution of the lettering style, even if we ignore the use of lower-case letters on the latter. The distinctive treatment of the number 6 remains, which is what first enabled me to begin to identify this group as having a common origin. Unfortunately, because of the fine engraving of the squiggle inside the bottom loop of the number, this squiggle is the first thing to disappear when a brass has been polished too often and this appears to be a current threat to much of this group, if not to those at Sheffield and Staveley, as few people realise that brass polish works by removing a microscopic layer of metal each time.


While the popularity of monumental brasses as memorials in the south-east quarter of England had already begun to wane before the disaster of the Civil War in the 1640s and declined rapidly thereafter, in some other parts of the country brasses actually grew in popularity. Yorkshire is a case in point. In York itself the brothers Thomas and Joshua Mann each turned out a number of distinctively lettered plates in the 1660s and 1670s, Joshua continuing in to the 1680s, while following their respective professions of architect and instrument maker. The work of their contemporary in York, the Quaker Phineas Briggs (1653-1692) is similar. The production of brasses was not limited to York. There are many plates in the Sheffield area indicating that a number of engravers there made brasses. The name of one is known: 'Robt. Thorpe in Sheffield the carver' signed the brasses of Anthony Senior, died 1654, and his son, Richard, died 1656 aged 4 at Darley Dale in Derbyshire but both plates are lost and we do not know what Thorpe's work looked like. Sheffield was of course well known as a metal working district as far back as Chaucer's time.

   From the mid 1660s to the late 1680s a particular style of lettering occurs on monumental brasses in the area, with particular concentrations in Sheffield Cathedral and Rotherham parish church. One example on the floor of the former stands out. It is the brass to Martha, daughter of Stephen Bright of Carbrooke and wife of William Lister of Thornton in Craven, who died on the ninth of September, 1663 aged 24. It is the earliest example by five years of this style I yet know but it is likely that it was laid down shortly after her death as her husband survived her by only three years. It is, however, possible that the memorial once included a separate inscription to William.

The Newham brass at Staveley

Detail of the Lister brass