No 5: John Pen (1534-96) & his wife Ursula (died 1610)

The earliest members of the Pen(ne) family recorded in the church are John and his wife Ursula Walleston and their six sons. They are commemorated on one of the five fine brasses in the south aisle. John’s will directed that he should be buried in the chancel and he was, but the brasses were all moved to the south aisle at some stage and then rearranged again in c.1953 when the Rev. Oscar Muspratt removed the pews and re-established a Lady Chapel.

The church remained essentially Catholic in appearance and ritual until John Penne was into his teens and he clearly remained Catholic in his sympathies because he and his wife were listed as absentees in 1584 at a time of compulsory church attendance and the following year his wife agreed to pay a fixed annual fine towards providing horses for the Queen’s service in return for exemption from penalties to which they were liable for their recusancy (i.e. their refusal to acknowledge the Queen as head of the Church).

It may well have been that they were protected from the more unpleasant consequences of their loyalty to the old religion by Elizabeth’s fond memories of John’s mother Sybil Penne, foster mother from 1538 onwards to Elizabeth’s young brother who became Edward VI. Sybil lived at court and as John was only a year younger than Elizabeth they may well have played together as children. Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth herself all gave Sybil Penn gifts, land and an annuity. She was still living at Hampton Court when she died of smallpox in 1561.

A few years ago, Earl Howe found amongst his family papers the original letters patent, complete with a large royal seal, appointing John Penn as Elizabeth’s Escheator for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1574. The Escheator’s role was to ensure that the Crown received its dues when a royal tenant died, either without a successor or when the successor was underage, because in both cases the property reverted to the Crown. It may well have been a lucrative post because John was able to buy a good deal of property in Penn in the 1580s and 90s, including Baylins Manor, land in Forty Green, around Penbury Farm and from the Puttenhams of Puttenham Place.

Reverse of shield

Shield with ‘graffiti’

The brasses were all expertly examined in 1954 when the remaining portion of John’s damaged figure and their joint shield were loose. The shield was found to be a palimpsest, i.e. it had been re-used and the reverse (see illustration) is cut from the brass to a gentleman in a furred gown, c.1520, probably from London monastic spoil following the dissolution of the monasteries. The thickness of the shield is 3.25mm and the figure 2.5mm. For some reason, the initials ‘FL’ and W35(?) have been cut into the shield. Perhaps it is early graffiti?

The inscription is unexpectedly incomplete giving the wrong year and no date for John’s death and no year or age for his wife. The parish register, which could have been consulted, records the burial of ‘Mr John Penne Esquire on 12 Oct 1596 and of Mistress Ursula Pen, wid, on 2 May 1610′. This apparent neglect may reflect an uneasy relationship with their eldest son William since John’s will directs that a covenant to pay William an annuity to keep his family in meat and drink is only to be executed if William behaves himself. The reversion to a Latin inscription may be a last demonstration of their Catholic sympathies. The verse below translates roughly (with thanks to Earl Howe for help in interpreting some apparently rustic Latin)  as follows:

These limbs may be enclosed in an earthen grave
But only the stars hold their pious souls
Those whom love has united death has no power to separate
We have sealed together in this tomb.

© Miles Green, October 2008.

No 6 & 7: John and Elizabeth de la Penne 1521/1537

The earliest surviving monument to anyone from Penn that I have found is a brass to John and Elizabeth de la Penne in St Mary’s, Amersham. It is a surprise to find that although the Muster Returns of 1522 show that John Penne was the biggest landowner in Penn with some 500‐600 acres he was living in Amersham ‘within the town’ where he was assessed with the second highest figure for moveable goods and a further 200 or so acres. He was the ‘firmarius’ or farmer of the Amersham glebe land, a role which also carried the responsibility for care of the church and churchyard.

Although the Penne family were lords of the manor of Penn they did not hold the patronage of Penn Church until Henry VIII granted it to John’s eldest son, David and his wife Sybil (neé Hampden) in 1541 and so John’s residence and burial in Amersham is less surprising. As a consequence of royal grants and patronage, the Penne family were to acquire much more land in and around Penn in the following century and thereafter they were all buried in Penn Church.

There is a plaque on the front of Penn House with the date ‘1536’ which Earl Howe is pretty sure is a souvenir ‐ and a genuine one ‐ from the Tudor house, two thirds of which was pulled down in c.1760.

The memorial brass is on the floor just inside the door of St Andrew’s Chapel in St Mary’s  Amersham. It shows John in civil dress rather than in the armour more usual in a landed family and he is described as ‘Magister John Penne’ in a will of 1520, which translates as ‘Master’ to indicate his social status. The same title was also used for the Rector of Amersham, the Vicar of Penn and another lord of the manor and could have indicated an MA. The French form of his name as ‘de la penne’ on the brass had gone out of fashion a century and a half earlier, and he was not using it when he appeared in the court hearing of 1520 or in 1496 when he was recorded as John Pen. Its use would seem to be a proud assertion of his ancient lineage. No brasses of any contemporaries survive in St Mary’s, which again tends to confirm his comparatively high status.

(continued …… (7))

The previous article noted that earliest surviving monument to anyone from Penn seems to be the memorial brass to John and Elizabeth de la Penne, which is now under the carpet just inside the door of St Andrew’s Chapel in St Mary’s Amersham. It shows John in civil dress rather than in the armour more usual in a landed family, but a proud assertion of his ancient lineage would seem indicated by his use of the French form of his name which had gone out of fashion a century and a half earlier.

The Monumental Brasses of Buckinghamshire notes that two parts of the original brass have been lost – a depiction of 5 sons and 6 daughters as well as two shields bearing the arms of husband and wife – and observes that John’s date of death has been added later to the brass. The brasses were moved from the south transept to the north transept (now St Andrew’s Chapel) in 1973, but as there is no mention of the depiction of sons and daughters in a record of 1847 (George Lipscomb’s History and antiquities of the County of Buckingham), the damage must have been done earlier, perhaps in a move from the chancel. The style of engraving is of a London workshop of that period. The later addition of John’s date of death in 1537 indicates that the brass was engraved around the time of the earlier death of his wife Elizabeth, in 1521. A space (shown on  the right in yellow highlight) was left blank for John’s date from ‘obiit’ in line 4 below to ‘quor’ on the next line, but it was restricted and so the inscription is in a considerably more contracted form than his wife’s.

The inscription is in Latin, as was still generally the custom at that time before the Reformation, and the many contractions makes the words difficult to read, particularly when combined with the scribe’s uncertain Latin and difficult Tudor script. The original inscription has a line above a word or a superscript to indicate a contraction. The letters omitted are shown in red in the transcript below:

Orate pro anīmabus Johannīs de la penne et Elizabeth uxoris eius filie Petri Hally
Pray for the souls of John de la penne and of his wife Elizabeth daughter of Peter Hally

Armigeri que quaedem Elizabeth obiit vicesimo primo die mensis
Esquire and the certain (same) Elizabeth died on the twenty first day of the month

Novembris Anno uni millesimo v°xxj°
of November in the one thousandth year 5 hundred and 21

Et Idem Johannis obiit xxvij die mense decembris
And the same John died on the 27th day in the month of December

Anno uni m v xxxvij quorum animabus pro’picíetur Deus. Amen.
in the one thousandth year 5 hundred and 37 may God have mercy on their souls. Amen.

© Miles Green, December 2007, February, 2008
Photographs © courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

No 8: Elizabeth Rok

The earliest brass in Penn Church was originally in the Lady Chapel but was moved in c.1950, to the present grouping in the south aisle when the World War II memorial was set up by the Rev.Oscar Muspratt. It is to Elizabeth Rok who died in 1540 and shows a woman dressed in a shroud, a popular form at that time, usually quite small as this one is. It is fixed to a slab of Purbeck marble and the style of engraving is of a London workshop of that period.

There is a broken scroll above the head with the words ‘In the day of Judgement, Lorde d(eliver me) The inscription is as follows:

God which art Creatour & Redemer of all
faithfull people
Graunt unto ye Soule of Elizabeth Rok thy
servaunt & also to
the Soules of all trew bilevers depted
Remyssyon of all their synes
that through devout prayours they may
attayne thy gracious
pdon whiche they have alwey dsyed by crist
our lord Amen
9 AUGUST 1540

By 1540, Henry VIII’s Reformation had been underway for ten years. In 1538 every parish church was ordered, for the first time, to have an English bible and the wording of the inscription breathes the spirit and language of the first English Prayer Book which was to appear in 1549.

No other mention of this lady has been found so far, but 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.

Burial in the Lady Chapel was a considerable privilege and indicates a high status. A search of the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII for this year  should establish this. It was not until the year after she died, in 1541, that Henry VIII granted all Chacombe Priory’s rights and possessions to David and Sybil Penne in recognition of her care of his son, the future Edward VI.

There is no record of Elizabeth Rok’s burial because although churches were ordered to keep a register of all baptisms, marriages and burials from 1538, Penn’s register does not survive until 20 years later. This may have been in part because, in 1539, the Vicar of Penn was himself put in Aylesbury Gaol ‘on account of the utterance by him of certain opprobrious words’. He had presumably been unwise in expressing his view of new arrangements. However, he survived and was suffering from the plague the following year and at some stage seems to have abandoned priestly celibacy for marriage. He stayed as vicar for many

© Miles Green, April 2009.
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton, ARPS.

No 15: Brasses a General Review

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