Brass of the Month

May 2008: William de Grey [1495] and his wives Mary and Grace, Merton, Norfolk

                          May's contribution is a brass that set an interesting precedent.

Anyone reading this who is not a member of the MBS may not be aware of the excitement generated by a metal-detector find in the fields a short distance from Merton church in Norfolk a couple of years ago. Part of one of the scrolls that had been missing from a brass in the church for hundreds of years was unearthed and has now been set back into its indent. It was the first time that a find recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme had been linked to an existing brass. This was all reported in the society's Bulletin 103 in September 2006. The brass commemorates William de Grey, whose death on 10th or 12th of February 1494/5 is recorded in various inquisitions post mortem, and his wives Mary and Grace. 

The de Grey family arrived in England with William the Conqueror. Various branches of the family achieved prominence and are represented on brasses at different places in England and Ireland. Sir Thomas de Grey married the eldest daughter and coheir of Fulk Baynard of Merton in the first half of the fourteenth century and so Merton came into the possession of the de Greys, who still retain it. The surviving de Grey brasses at Merton begin with William, who died in 1474, the father of the subject of this brass, another William. Although all the inscription has been lost, the brass retains not only three shields, representing the arms of William and his two wives, but also the figure of William himself, resplendent in his heraldic tabard, so there is no doubt of the identities of the figures. All of them are kneeling at prayer but William and his second wife hold their hands apart in the 'orans' position, as do some of the children, while his first wife and the rest of the children hold their hands together more conventionally. His first wife was Mary, daughter of Sir Henry Bedingfield, an East Anglian family represented on many brasses, while his second, Grace, daughter of Thomas Teye, was the widow of Francis Hetht, subject of a brass at Feltwell St Mary in Norfolk, who died in 1479 . She survived William.

The brass is one of the best products of the Norwich workshop that has been associated with the glazier William Heyward. Those who actually made brasses were called marblers as their main products were the marble stones into which brasses were set. Some late medieval tax records for Norwich have recently been published and reveal that there were three people in the 1489 assessment called 'Marbeler'. Marion Marbeler (probably the 'moder marbeler' referred to in Heyward's will) was surely Marion, widow of Thomas Sheef, the marbler believed to be responsible for the Norwich 1 style, while Richard Marbeler was no doubt Richard Fox, presumed author of the Norwich 2 style, probably initially in association with Marion Sheef. But who was Robert Marbeler? Was he the man who actually made the Norwich 3 style brasses, like this one at Merton, perhaps relying on William Heyward for the designs?

The nature of the losses from the brass, namely the prayer scrolls, the image at the top centre of the brass and the inscription formerly below the figures, which would probably have started with an imprecation to pray for the souls of the deceased, strongly suggest selective destruction for religious reasons, most probably during the Civil War period. This view is reinforced by the finding of the fragment of prayer scroll that fits the indent above Grace's figure, as it suggests that the motive for removing it was not to make money by reusing the metal. One can imagine that Merton, with its extensive complement of brasses belonging to the recusant de Grey family, would have been a natural target for someone like Captain Gilley, who implemented the Parliamentary Ordinance against superstitious images and inscriptions in other parts of south Norfolk in 1644. A further fragment of this brass, also found  close by at a later date, is soon to be put back.

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

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