Monuments and Memorials

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.

There are monumental brasses to four of the five generations of the Penne family of the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the only one missing is to David and Sybil Penne. David died on 3 February 1565, just over two years after his wife, and his will directed that his body was to be buried in Penn chancel, ‘among myne ancestors’. He also directed that the body of his wife should be removed from the place where she was then buried and be placed beside his body. An alternative account of when Sybil’s tomb was moved in 1829 was that ‘only a little yellow hair and a few hair-pins’ were found in the grave, suggesting that her body had been previously removed. However, there is no record that this was ever done and it may be that her absence is why no brass was ever prepared – unless of course it was lost or damaged when the family brasses were all moved to the south aisle.

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, Penn Parish Newsletter, No.15, June 2010
Photograph © courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

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Sarah Curzon (1678-1707) & Charles Curzon (1684-1713)

Sarah Curzon and Charles Curzon, the oldest daughter and youngest son of Sarah Penn and Nathaniel Curzon, are both buried at Penn and there are two small wall monuments in the chancel of Penn Church in their memory. Both spent their childhood in Penn and Charles went to Berkhamsted School and was a doctor of civil law in London.

A comparison of the Penn Parish Register entries with the wording on the two wall monuments throws up surprising mistakes. Sarah’s baptism is recorded on Feb 11 1678, and her burial as ‘Madam Sarah Curzon, eldest daughter of Sir Nathaniel Curzon, Baronet of Kedleston in the County of Derby’, is noted on Jan 26 1707. She was therefore 28, nearly 29 years old. The memorial however records her death on Jan: 19th, 1701. Aged 29 Years.

Charles’ baptism was on 1 Feb 1684 and his burial is recorded in the Register as ‘Dr Charles Curzon a civilian, youngest son of Sir Nathaniel Curzon was buried on Feb 11 1713’. He was therefore just 29 years old. His monument however records his death as on Feb. the 4th, 1713. Aged 32 Years.

Thus Sarah’s monument is six years out and Charles’s mistakes his age by three years, which suggests that both were put up a  considerable time after their death. This was probably because there seems to have been a serious fire in the chancel in the early 1730s which would have damaged earlier monuments.

Sir George Grove wrote many years later about his grandfather’s memory of such a fire in the chancel at that time. We know for sure that in 1736 Sarah and Charles’s elder brother, Sir Nathaniel Curzon, rebuilt the upper part of the chancel and he presumably erected the new monuments. However it is surprising that no one thought to check the Register.

There is an earlier note in the Parish Register, in 1678, ‘Memorandm In ye first day of August the Act of Parliament came into force for burying in woollen’. This refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts which attempted to protect the English Wool Trade requiring that all bodies should be buried in wool with the exception of those who died from the Plague. A five pound fine was imposed for burials which did not comply with the Acts. This legislation was in force until 1814, but it was an expensive alternative and only a few Curzons, Penns and Bakers are so noted in the Penn Register up to 1713 and none thereafter.

The Register entries for Sarah and Charles Curzon both record payment of the requisite fine. Charles’s entry records that ‘His corps were brought from London & buried at Penn… and Affidavit made of his being buried in linen (for which forfeiture was paid) before John Smith Esqr. Justice of the Peace for the County of Middlesex.’ Sarah ‘was buried in Linnen… and the Penalty for Burying in Linen paid the same day’.

© Miles Green, Penn Parish Newsletter No 19, March 2011
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton, ARPS

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The Rev. John Bennet (1663-1716),
– Vicar of Penn 1700-16

John Bennet was born in Coventry, went to Oxford University and then straight from there to be an Usher at Berkhamsted School from 1682 until September 1700. He taught all the Curzon boys, who were then living at Penn, as well as Roger Penn, their cousin and heir to the Penn Estate. In September 1700, after the last Curzon boy, Charles, had finished his schooling, Roger Penn gave John Bennet the living of Penn and he was inducted by the Rev. John Theed, the Headmaster of Berkhamsted School.

The long attachment of the Curzons to Berkhamsted for many years after they had moved to Kedleston, was presumably because they thought very highly of their young teacher, who was only 11 years older than John, the eldest Curzon boy. These close ties explain why his is the only portrait of a Vicar of Penn hanging in Penn House. It was painted in 1707 when he was 44 years old.

He was a very active Vicar indeed. He completed a brand-new vicarage; hung five new bells, of which three still survive today; put up a gallery over the south door ‘for a choir of young men who had learned to sing psalms’; hung Queen Anne’s arms over the chancel arch; and put up the unusual one-handed clock on the tower. In subsequent articles we shall look at these important additions to the  church in more detail.

He also completed the first really useful visitation returns which give us a most valuable glimpse of Penn at that time. There were only 480 souls in the parish in 109 families, with no schools, almshouse, or public meetings of any kind. There were four services of Holy Communion held during the year attended by only 50 or 60 people and the Vicar noted that ‘there were many at years of discretion who never communicate’, as well as many baptised who had not been confirmed. About 10% of the families were Dissenters (4 or 5 Quakers, 3 or 4 Anabaptists, 1 Presbyterian) and there were no Roman Catholics. This gives us a surprising view of Penn three centuries ago – only about 1 in 4 or 5 adults were fully-fledged Anglicans, and a considerable majority were not regular church-goers.

© Miles Green, Penn Parish Newsletter No 20. May 2011
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

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The Rev. John Bennet (1663-1716),
– The Church Bells

John Bennet was still only 37 when he was first appointed as Vicar of Penn in 1700 by his former pupil Roger Penn, who was himself only 23, having inherited the manor of Penn from his father when he was 16. So Vicar and Patron, good friends, young and enthusiastic, set about transforming the church and Vicarage. The first few years Bennet concentrated on finishing off and improving the new Vicarage started by his predecessor. He was its first occupant and had no curate, by no means typical of the time. His successor for instance was to live in Amersham and let one half of the Vicarage to a carpenter and the other half to a shoemaker.

1702 Tenor bell. The inscription runs around the top.

John Bennet then turned his attention to the church, to the bells in particular, which he obviously regarded as an important declaration of the church’s presence. We know from churchwardens’ accounts elsewhere (none survive for Penn at that time) that bell-ringing was popular in the 18th-century. The late medieval church had four bells and a sanctus bell (a small bell rung during the high point of the Mass when the host was raised, the bell rope for which has left deep channels in the stone work at the side of the nave west door). One of the bells had gone by 1637, and perhaps more by 1700. Anyway he decided that they should all be  replaced and ordered five new bells for ‘Penn-Church Steeple’ from Samuel Knight, a Reading firm, which were cast in 1702 and hung on 5th January 1703.

Each bell had its own inscription:



Three of these bells are still in place today after three centuries. A sixth (treble) bell was added in 1919. The largest bell, the Tenor (no. 5, now no. 6 ), weighs ½ ton  and has a diameter of 3 ft 8 ins.The five bells together weighed nearly 2 tons. (CW stands for Church Wardens.)

On a board in the ringing chamber is a poem painted on a board, probably at about this time, although the reference to a king puts it after Queen Anne died in 1714.

© Miles Green, Penn Parish Newsletter No.21, July 2011
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

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The Rev. John Bennet (1663-1716),
– The Church clock

On the north-facing wall of the tower is a rare example of a one-handed clock. It was put up on 17 April 1715, ten months before the death of the Rev. John Bennet, the very active Vicar whose achievements we are outlining. We know this, both from a note by the Vicar in the parish register and from the clock itself which has inscribed on a brass dial:

William Lee George Salter
Churchwardens 1715
Richard Carter att High Wycombe fecit

Mechanical striking clocks have a much longer history than one might think. The first recorded example in England was in 1352 on the Great Tower of Windsor Castle. By the 15th-century, ‘turret clocks’ as they are called, were common on larger churches. There was one at Aylesbury in 1490, at Wing a few years later, and even at small places like Haddenham before 1552. By 1638, they are recorded in churchwardens’ accounts in at least 33 parishes in Bucks. Unfortunately, Penn’s accounts do not survive for that period. Our clock mechanism has what is called an ‘anchor escapement’ which means it was made after c.1670.

The long pendulum was invented c.1660. The resulting greatly increased accuracy meant it became worthwhile to have a minute hand, and by the 1670s they were in general use. Our one-handed clock with a long pendulum was therefore some 40 years out-of-date by 1715 and it has been suggested that it may have been transferred from another church. Richard Carter may therefore have installed the clock rather than ‘made’ it, which could explain why his name has so far not been found in the records of clock-makers. (Update – below)

The mechanism was repaired in 1925, after 15 years of silence, at the initiative of Pat Cuthbert, who some of you will remember. She was then only 13, but, unaided, raised the necessary £25 by making and selling baskets. In 1979, there was a far more radical overhaul at a cost of £850. The weekly task of winding up by hand the two very heavy weights which dropped through some 32 feet was replaced by electric winding gear. The mechanism remains entirely original and keeps good time to within half a minute a week. It all now sits inside an oak case given in memory of Frank Perfect (1894-1976) who was responsible for all repairs to the church for 50 years. The clock was featured on a live radio broadcast striking the hour for Britain’s first general election after WWII.

Grateful thanks to Michael Bayley, who looks after the clock and the bells, and Geoff Mansfield, a local clock restorer, for their expertise and advice; and to Eddie Morton for his excellent photographs.

© Miles Green, Penn Parish Newsletter No.21, August 2011
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

The Church clock & Rich Carter
In  my earlier article about the church clock I noted that it is inscribed ‘Richard Carter att High Wycombe fecit’, but since there was no record of Richard Carter as a clock-maker and a one-handed clock was already so old-fashioned when it was installed in 1715, I suggested that maybe he didn’t actually make the clock, but merely transferred it from another church. I have since been contacted by a clock enthusiast who has a very fine grandfather clock, dated to c.1710, and complete with a minute and even a second hand, which is inscribed ‘Rich Carter’ and ‘High Wycombe’. So he clearly was an expert clock-maker working in High Wycombe. The mystery remains, why such an old-fashioned design for our church clock?

© Miles Green July 2012
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS


The Clock Face

In April 2016 Miles Green and Michael Bayley inspected the unusual single-handed clock dial on the north wall of the bell tower and reported it was rotten. During that year a number of specialists were called in to submit estimates for its repair/replacement following which the PCC agreed to ask Edward Stuart, BADA Dipl., CGLI Cert., of Curbridge, Nr. Witney, to carry out the work, once a faculty had been obtained from the Oxford Diocesan Registry. In September 2017 the Faculty came through and within days the old face had been taken down and whisked away to Curbridge. As the experts had predicted the woodwork of the old face was so rotten it needed to be replaced entirely. As an aside, although the clock mechanism itself is dated 1715, the face was thought to be from the mid-twentieth century which due to its exposed north-facing position and water overflowing from the blocked hopper above, had done its time.

Edward Stuart and his craftsmen made a new, more solid face in thick marine ply framed with hardwood mouldings. This was then painted in weather resistant paint in blue to match the original and finally the numerals and the pointer were gilded with 24 carat double gold leaf.

Thanks to Bob Graydon and his Red Spider lift which obviated the need for scaffolding, the face (an exact replica) was installed on 8th February 2018 and Revd. Mike Bisset was taken for a fly-past inspection.

© Oliver Heal, March 2018
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

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The Rev. John Bennet (1663-1716),
– The Church clocks

In my last article I summarised the history of the one-handed church clock which you see as you walk towards the church from the main road. Perhaps the most interesting conclusion that came out of my researches and discussions with Michael Bayley, who looks after the clock, and Geoff Mansfield, a locally-based clock restorer, is that it was almost certainly not the first clock on the tower and that the same mechanism once drove at least three, possibly four clock faces at the same time.

The earliest view of the church was drawn before the present clock was put up in 1715. It may even have been commissioned by John Bennet when he first arrived in 1700. The drawing shows a clock already in the same place on the north wall as it is today. It also shows another one, very high up facing Pauls Hill, which cannot have been a sundial since it was facing east. The 1715 register entry refers to setting up ‘the Church-Clock with the Hand-Dials’, and the plural indicates there were then at least two clock faces. Views of the church for the next 150 years continue to show them both.

There is another clock face now hanging inside the clock chamber in the tower, disconnected from any mechanism. Oscar Muspratt, the Vicar from 1945 to 1989, told me that until 1947 it used to be inside the main body of the church on the west wall of the nave where the organ now hangs. There is a bricked-up hole in the west wall of the clock chamber through which a drive shaft from the clock mechanism went into the nave. This clock face has the date 1813 on it and was presumably added then. Does anyone remember it?

An apparently accurate oilette shows that the east-facing clock-face had been removed, and replaced (assuming it was the same one) on the south side lower down. This must have been before 1903 when major repair work on the tower, which was cracked from top to bottom on two sides, would have required the removal of the south facing clock-face and it was not replaced.

All these clock faces would have been worked by long drive shafts from the same clock mechanism. This is not an unusual technique and the mechanism is more than strong enough, keeping them all to exactly the same time and using one of the tower bells to strike the hour. No later photographs show a clock-face on the east or south sides and so only one of the three or four clock faces is still in position.

© Miles Green, Penn Parish Newsletter, No.23,  January 2012
Photographs courtesy Eddie Morton ARPS

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