by David L. Miles

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LOST BRASSES Lost brasses could turn up absolutely anywhere so if this subject interests you then keep your eyes peeled, because you never know when you may suddenly take a step back into history. If, during the course of your travels you should come across a piece of brass that appears to have some sort of inscription or pattern engraved upon it, then it is quite possible that you have discovered part of a lost brass from a church or monastery. Brasses have been lost or stolen and even destroyed during every period since the Middle Ages, although most of the losses ocurred at the time of the Reformation and up till the end of the seventeenth century.

During the Middle Ages accidental damage and wear were both taking their toll of brasses of the 13th and 14th century. Some brasses had smaller brasses around them with either an inscription or armourial devices relating to the person or persons to whom the main brass related. Being small and detached from the main part they were very susceptible to working loose and as nobody during this period was in the least bit interested in brasses rather than refixing them it was much easier, and cheaper, to just throw them away. Nowadays we hear much about redundant churches but this is really nothing new, redundancy came to churches even in the Middle Ages and many were destroyed by fire and never rebuilt. The brasses in these abandoned churches were just left until someone stole them or in some cases they were removed so that the slabs that they had been attached to could be used as building material in new churches, or extensions to existing ones. These slabs were in great demand as they made excellent foundations on which to build. The slabs were not only used in the building of religious edifaces. They have been found in the most unlikely places.

Over one hundred were discovered built into a wall in Derbyshire, one was found being used as the foundation of a stile and a whole row of them was unearthed at the bottom of a country garden, the owner was most surprised when told of their true nature. Where a brass has been removed from it's slab it leaves behind an indentation and this is called an indent and most of our present day knowledge of lost brasses is derived from the surviving indents. It has been calculated that if all the brasses which have been lost, stolen or destroyed could be accounted for they would outnumber the surviving brasses by a considerable amount. Reference to brasses being removed in the Middle Ages are numerous, it was quite common for brasses to be lifted from one church and after being re-engraved on the reverse side be sold to the relative of the deceased person who was to be buried in another church, this saved the craftsman the cost of the materials, although I doubt if these savings were passed on to the customer. This sort of fiddling was going on all the time, even by the church authorities themselves who in those days were never slow in siezing a chance to make some money. They would remove all the brasses and slabs from a church floor thus making room for more burials to take place for which a fee was charged and memorial brasses could then be placed in the church in honour of the deceased. This process would of course entail another fee being paid. Once the floor was covered in brasses the whole process could begin again, could this be the reason some churches were more prosperous than others?

During the Reformation which brought about the dissolution of the monasteries and the advance of Protestantism under Edward VI, large numbers of brasses were destroyed, a study of surviving indents and old records suggests that the number was phenomenal. This truly was a great loss as not only were the monks, nuns and friars depicted on these brasses but also local benefactors, merchants and noblemen along with their families who had also chosen to be buried within the confines of the monastery. Some fine examples of this type of brass are to be found in St. Albans which was at that time one of the richest abbeys in England, there are only about eighteen or nineteen surviving but the indents show that at least forty eight others were lost. When some churches were demolished or converted into private dwellings the brasses were sold as scrap metal as was the lead from the roof and the metal from the bells, the sale of metal from just one church would have raised about twenty pounds, which is not very much by todays standards.

In 1635 when Lieutenant Hammond toured the country he reported that most of the cathedrals had been stripped of their brasses and the remaining brasses had been defaced in some manner. One method used had been to remove the heads arms and legs from the brass, presumably this was easier than trying to lift the whole thing. The advent of the civil war and in particular, Oliver Cromwell, have in the past been blamed for outragous acts of destruction in his attempts to rid the country of idolatrous images and other influences of a papel nature probably only accounted for a small percentage of damage deliberately caused. What was more destructive was the effect of the troops commandeering any large building, including churches and monasteries and using them as barracks for the troops and stables for their horses. Looters also abounded in these times and the odd brass or two would not have been ignored.

The parliamentary instruction of 1641 titled Resolution on Ecclesiastical Innovation was followed by another act in 1643 which was almost word for word identical to the previous act under Edward VI, which when boiled down to the nitty gritty meant the removal from churches of any ornaments, pictures, decorations or inscriptions that were evocative of papel influences. The responsibility of carrying out this work was put upon the shoulders of various individuals one of whom wasWilliam Dowsing who, fortunately for the historians, chronicled his work meticulously in his diary. His instructions were to inspect the churches of Suffolk and Cambridge and to remove 'superstitious pictures and ornaments'. Some parishes on hearing of Dowsings approach anticipated him and removed brasses themselves and most likely profited themselves at the same time. At St. Clements in Ipswich, the churchwardens had beaten up and disfigured inscriptions four days before his arrival thus avoiding any demeritorious remarks in his report. During the mid seventeenth century antiquarians began to record and catalogue brasses and monuments and some very interesting facts emerged, for instance, at Ingham in Norfolk, one parishioner who found himself a little short of cash removed some brasses from the local church and sold them as scrap metal. The identity of the vendor and the purchaser were both known but the clergy and churchwardens were not interested and no one made any attempt to reclaim them.

The eighteenth century claimed many more brasses, mainly by neglect, petty theives accounted for some of the losses and when Hereford Cathedral's west front collapsed in 1786 it is said that some two tons of brass was disposed of. This was not an isolated case iether, in almost every instance of church repair or rebuilding during this period the brasses were either thrown away or sold. The destruction of brasses was not always caused by man, at Dunwich in Suffolk, many fine brasses may be lying even now on the seabed swept away and deposited there by the encroaching sea. The age of restoration came about in 1837 and led to an increasing interest in the churches and their fittings, it also was responsible for the first wave of brass rubbers, which initiated the first books on the subject to be published. During all the activity of restoration many brasses were appropriated by the workmen who were busy retiling the floors.

The 20th Century.

Quite a large number of brasses have been lost this century. The first world war was responsible for a small amount of damage but the second world war caused much more damage to churches and where the bombed out remains stood in neglect so theives and looters moved in. This state of affairs was not limited to England alone of course, the same kind of vandalism was repeated all over Europe. Redundant churches are another great temptation to thieves and even churches that are used regularly are not immune to being the subjects of theft. At least forty brasses have been stolen from churches in the last thirty years and there is no reason to suppose it will stop there. Having read about all this destruction over such a long period it is only natural to wonder about means of preserving these precious artefacts. Brass rubbers are playing their part alongside professional historians and church authorities who are now an enlightebed species and in the main are taking great care of their brasses indeed many have banned brass rubbing in the mistaken belief that it is wearing away the brasses.

Experiment has shown that if a brass was rubbed three times a day for one hundred years it would wear by 0.054mm, at this rate it would take two thousand years to wear away an engraved line 1mm deep. No brass is ever rubbed that number of times, a more realistic figure would be twice a week. Yet all over the country hordes of well meaning cleaning women descend upon the brasses with their clothes and metal polish and do more damage in one year than rubbers would achieve in a century. Carpeting over the brasses, as many churches have done, is not really the answer even though it does limit the scratching by shoes etc, because it does not remove the effects of pressure which flexes the plates thus loosening them and eventually causing them to become detached. Let us hope that someone can discover a way of protecting the brasses in such a way that they may be seen by everyone and at the same time be kept safe from further losses.

One factor that weighs heavily on the shoulders of responsible church custodians is that of security. Crime prevention Officers from Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire have jointly produced a 26 page booklet which gives advice on safeguarding churches, these are available from your local crime prevention office. If you should find a brass or a part of one please contact the Monumental Brass Society or Oxford University Archeological Society so that it may be recorded and possibly identified for you. This kind of cooperation is essential if we are to fill in another piece of the jigsaw that makes up our knowledge of missing brasses.

David - - April '97

(This page was offered to me, by David, to provide additional information on church brasses - Maurice)

David . . bw2k@compuserve.com     Maurice


Last modified 23rd September 2006

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