The earliest surviving brass in England is AD 1277 and the fashion lasted until the Civil War in the mid 17th century. Brasses were successors to the incised stone slabs decorated with a long cross of which we have one example in Penn Church and were originally exclusive to knights and their ladies and to ecclesiastics, but the c.1350 brass at Taplow to a fishmonger heralded the rise of the middle classes.
Brass was preferred because it was more durable and easily worked than stone and took up much less space. Only about 4,000 brasses survive in England, mainly in the eastern counties (228 in Buckinghamshire), out of an estimated 150,000, with the vast bulk destroyed during religious and civil upheavals, particularly following the Reformation in the 1530s and 40s when churchwardens’ accounts record the sale of the brass.
The anti-catholic sentiment of the following centuries meant that anything expressing ‘Popish’ sentiments was in danger of being neglected or vandalised. Thus only a few inscriptions with no figures survive in Beaconsfield and Wycombe churches and the six Amersham figures are not complete. Gratifyingly five post-Reformation brasses survive in Penn of which four are complete, of high quality and in good condition, although any earlier ones have gone. Nevertheless, ten times as many brasses survive in England than on the Continent where invasion and revolution have been much more frequent.
The oldest surviving brass in Penn church, to Elizabeth Rok who died in 1540. It seems likely that she was the first beneficiary of Henry VIII’s largesse when Chacombe Priory was dissolved in 1535, and so was the first lay proprietor of Penn Church.
Many people had their brasses prepared in their lifetimes anxious that the inscription should include a prayer for God to have mercy on their soul and ask for prayers on their behalf. The date would be left blank to be filled in by their descendants. Perhaps the most important function of the brass was to attract the prayers of passers-by to help the soul through purgatory, the spiritual purification before entering the future life when the dead were not able to help themselves and needed the prayers and devotions of the living particularly on the anniversaries of their death, which was why noting the date of death was so important. After the Reformation the value of prayers for the dead was discounted and inscriptions instead tended to recount the deceased’s good deeds and exemplary qualities, often in over-flattering terms.
Brasses were generally set east-west with the head to the west, as were the bodies beneath so that the deceased was ready to rise up to greet Christ on Judgement Day. The brass was always placed as close as possible to an altar in which holy relics had been placed. The brasses of the three Elizabethan and early Stuart Penns, all lords of the manor, were still in the chancel in 1847, but the other two brasses were ‘in the south aisle amongst the tombs of the Penn family’. William Penn, who died in 1693, is the first recorded head of his family to ask to be buried outside the chancel in the graveyard and even then his black marble tombstone hugs the wall of the chancel and the Lady Chapel. By 1925, all five brasses were grouped together in the southern half of the south chapel but were moved again, c.1950, to their present grouping in the south aisle when the World War II memorial was set up by the Rev. Oscar Muspratt.
The brasses were made of sheets of ‘latten’, an alloy of 75% copper similar but not identical to modern brass, which were imported until zinc, a necessary component, started to be mined in England in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The design was drawn, copied on to the metal with paint or a pointed instrument, and then engraved with a sharp metal chisel struck with a special hammer. The design seldom attempted portraiture and different workshops often developed a characteristic face. All the Buckinghamshire brasses are from London workshops. The lines were then blackened with bitumen or often a coloured pigment and the surface was polished. It was fixed with brass rivets. Palimpsests, old brasses turned over and re-used, are quite frequently found (there is one 1597 example in Penn), often looted after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The last three Penn brasses (1638, 1640, 1641) came right at the end of the fashion for brasses at a time when quality elsewhere was very low, but they are notable examples from the leading workshop of Edward Marshall the Royal Master Mason from the City of London.
Norman French was usual in England for inscriptions until the mid-14th-century (it was the official language of the law courts until 1362). The first inscription in English in c.1370 appears at Brightwell Baldwin, Oxon), but Norman French still remained in use to the early fifteenth century. Latin generally took over for the last century or so up to the Reformation and the many contractions of the words make them difficult to read, particularly when combined with difficult Tudor script as in the Amersham brass to John de la Penne of 1521. By 1500, English had gained in popularity as demonstrated in the 1540 Penn brass to Elizabeth Rok. After the Reformation, English generally took over except for ecclesiastics who stayed with Latin.
© Miles Green, June 2010
Photograph © courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS