Monumental Brasses

Brass was used in Britain for many purposes, but especially for church monuments. About 10,000 monumental brasses of varying antiquity still exist in church floors all over England. There is a notable example at Stoke d'Abernon, where Sir John d'Aubernoun has lain almost seven hundred years (since 1277), so that countless worshippers must have walked over his grave during the intervening centuries without destroying his memorial.

The old monumental brasses were thick plates, let into the floor above the grave, the stone being incised so as to maintain a level surface. On the plate was inscribed an effigy of the deceased which usually showed his dress or armour, the figure of his wife, and often details of his life. Most of these plates were rectangular, with or without a frame bearing an inscription in Gothic characters; many were also carved into outlines of the figures of the deceased. Occasionally the engraved lines were filled in with coloured enamels. Monumental brasses probably first came into vogue in the Low Countries, but many of the Continental memorials were dug up and melted.

There were once a great many monumental brasses in Westminster Abbey, but according to Gilbert Scott, 'owing to the value of the material most of these have been stolen and only a dozen remain'. (12)

Brass, in fact, was regarded as so valuable that many of these plates were dug up, turned over, and the reverse side used for another subject.

One of these palimpsests, after being first used in Staffordshire in 1447, was treated in this way almost a century later, to record in 1538 the first deceased's eight sons and five daughters.

Even in 1644 there is an entry in the Parish Book of St. Margaret's, Westminster, which reads ', £1.13.4 received for 29 lb of fine brass and 96 lb of coarse brass taken from sundrie tombs'. (13)

12 SCOTT, G.G. Gleanings from Westminster Abbey (1898), p. 144.

13 BIRCH, G.H. Trans. of St. Paul's Ecclesiological Soc. (1890), 2, p. 111.