Inscriptions on Brasses

Brass Rubbings Collection

Although the figures are the most interesting aspects of brasses, inscriptions are equally important in acknowledging the identity of the persons commemorated, the genealogy of the family, marital alliances, and a person’s trade or profession. They are most often found on rectangular plates below brass effigies (hence termed foot-inscriptions). Others, inscribed on brass fillets, were placed either around the edge of the stone slab (marginal inscriptions) or on its beveled edge (chamfer inscriptions). Occasionally, a large brass may have both a foot and a marginal or chamfer inscription.

Over time, the letter shapes of the inscriptions have varied. On the earliest brasses extant up to c.1360 Lombardic letters predominate—large, separate capitals either set individually into the stone slab, such as that on the brass to Margarete de Camoys (c1310) at Trotton, Sussex, or on a narrow brass fillet as shown on the mutilated brass of Sir William Fitzralph (c1323-31) at Pebmarsh, Essex.

From c1360 until c1590, black letter (Old English) characters were used, though these varied over the years. Early black letters (c1360-1420), influenced by the well-formed Lombardic characters, tended to be rounded, and so quite easily read. However, as the characters were composed of more or less straight lines from c1440-1460, letters resembled each other so closely and were so jammed together that inscriptions are often very difficult to decipher. Indeed, it is only with much patience that one can distinguish i, m, n, u, and v, for all were formed with identical strokes.

Fortunately, from 1460 on, more rounded black letters became popular, so once again legibility is usually not a problem. Finally, in the late sixteenth century, first the Roman lower case and later Roman capital letters gradually came into general use and have continued to the present. Interestingly, Roman numerals predominated until the sixteenth century, and though Arabic numerals began to appear c1450, they did not become popular until after 1500.

Three languages are to be found on brasses: Norman French, Latin, and English. The earliest, Norman French, was the language of the English court and nobility during the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. Inscriptions in that language tend to be quite simple, usually providing only the name of the deceased and a prayer for mercy, such as that on the brass of Sir John D'Abernoun II (c1327):

Sire : Johan : Davbernovn : Chivaler : Gist : Icy :
Dev : De : Sa : Alme : Eyt : Mercy
(Sir John D'Abernoun, Knight, lies here. May
God have mercy on his soul.)

Only after c1350 was the date of death included.

Although Norman French inscriptions are found as late as c1420, Latin was also used throughout this early period, especially on ecclesiastical brasses, and continued as the language of choice on most inscriptions throughout the fifteenth century. The Latin inscriptions, at first short and similar to those in Norman French, typically began either "Hic jacet" (Here lies) or "Orate pro anima" (Pray for the soul) and ended with "cuius anime propicietur deus Amen" (on whose soul may God have mercy. Amen.) It usually provided, too, the name(s) of the person(s) commemorated and the date(s) of death, as in the following inscription on the brass of John Babham (1458) and his wife Muriel at Cookham, Berkshire:

Hic iacent Johannis Babham qui obiit iiij die Octobris anno
domini Mo CCCCo lviijo Et Muriela uxor eius quorum animabus
propicietur deus Amen.

(Here lie John Babham who died the fourth day of October in the year
of our Lord 1458, and Muriel, his wife, on whose souls may God have
mercy. Amen.)

Gradually, however, the inscription included additional information about the deceased, his family, his trade or profession. That on the brass of William and Elizabeth Eyre (1509) at Great Cressington, Norfolk, is typical:

Orate pro aiabus Willmi Eyre Armigeri legis perito quondm
unius Justiciariorum Domini Regis de
Quorum pro Com. Suffolcie et Norffolcie et Elizabeth uxoris
eius unius filiarum Thome
Barnardiston militis qui quidem Willms obiit xxiiij die mens'
octobris Ao dni
Mo Vo ix et dicta Elizabeth obiit___die mens'___anno dni
Mo _____ quorum aie ppiciet' Deus.

(Pray for the souls of William Eyre, Esquire, skilled in law,
formerly Justice of the Peace for the Lord, the King,
of the Quorum for the Counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, and
Elizabeth, his wife, one of the daughters of Thomas
Barnardiston, Knight, which same William died the 24th day of
the month of October, in the year of our lord
1509, and the said Elizabeth died the ___day of the month of ___
A.D. 1___, on whose souls may God have mercy.)

On some brasses, such as that of Sir Thomas Grene (1462) at Green’s Norton, Northamptonshire, the inscription is devoted almost exclusively to genealogical information. Here sixteen lines of Latin provide details about Grene’s parents, his grandparents, his wife, and her family. In addition, small figures suggest that Sir Thomas and his wife Maud had three sons and one daughter.

Although English inscriptions occasionally appeared in the late fourteenth century, they became popular by the end of the fifteenth and gradually superseded Latin as the language most often used. And as time passed, like their Latin counterparts, inscriptions tended to increase in length, with more extensive details about the persons commemorated, becoming often genealogical records.

Deciphering the inscriptions, especially those of the first half of the fifteenth century, is often a difficult task because the cramped straight black letters and abbreviations seem to defy recognition. Actually, the Norman French inscriptions fourteenth century are among the easiest to read, for though some use peculiar and spellings, a knowledge of modern French makes translation fairly easy. Still, one may have to struggle with abbreviations or quaint spellings, such as on the inscription to William Tonge (1389) at All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, London:

Pries p lalme Willm Tonge q’ gyt ycy ky dieu de sonn alme eyt mercy.

(Pray for the soul of William Tonge who lies here. May God on his soul have mercy.)

The Latin inscriptions, however, are more difficult, for medieval Latin contains many words and constructions not found in classical Latin. Abbreviations and singular spelling add to the difficulty as does the appearance of Latin verse in hexameters and elegiacs. Fortunately, the preponderance of brasses employ the following stock phrases:

Hic jacet [or] Orate pro anima --> (name, profession, wife) --> qui obiit (date) --> cuius anima propicietur deus amen

Often these words are abbreviated or spelled as follows:

Hic iacet [or] Or’ p aia . . . q’ ob’. . . cui’ aie ppiciet’ de’ ame.

Here, then, are some aids in translating Latin inscriptions:

  1. The i is usually used for j; t often for c; i and y, and v and u are often interchanged, v usually written as u.
  2. The syllables pro, per, and prae are often reduced to p as in p (for pro) or p'dicta for predicta.
  3. Letters m and n are often omitted, a straight line over the next or preceding vowel indicating this, as in aia for anima or ame for amen. Occasionally the s is omitted, as in ecclie for ecclesie.
  4. The z usually indicates us as in aiabz (animabus).

Many words are abbreviated. Some of the more common are the following:

Ao dni : anno domini (A.D.)
aia, aiabz : anima, animabus (soul/s)
armig’ : armiger (esquire)
capels : capellanus (chaplain)
cui' : cujus, cuius (whose)
dna : domina (lady, dame)
dns, dni : dominus, domini (lord)
ecclie : ecclesiae (church)
ei' : ejus (his or her)
Jhs, Jhu : Jhesus (Jesus)
mens’ mesis : mensis (month)
millmo, millimo : millesimo (thousand)
nup’ : nuper (lately, formerly)
pos. : posuit (placed)
quoda : quondam (once, formerly)
sci : sancti (saint)
ux' : uxor (wife)
Xps: Christ (from Greek XPICTOC)

English inscriptions present little difficulty if one uses one’s imagination, for spelling remained erratic up to the eighteenth century. The earliest, from the time of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century, have some obsolete words, though usually one can grasp the meaning from the context: for example, certes (certainly), eke (also), hem (them), her (their), mede (merit), whylom (once), and wot (know). The thorn "Y" as in ye stands for th, and the y itself often replaces i, as in lyfe or kyng. Throughout the early period and even in the early seventeenth century such deviant spellings as sowlys, charite, fader, moder, crysten, auncynt, and decessed often suggest the contemporary pronunciation.

In the description of the brasses of this guide, inscriptions have been recorded as found on the metal plates and/or marginal fillets, with all the abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of spelling. It is hoped that the above explanations and examples will help the reader to establish the complete text of each. Translations of Norman French and Latin are provided for most inscriptions, the few exceptions being mutilated brasses and some complicated Latin verses.

What Brasses Tell Us

Inscriptions, as we have seen, are important in identifying the deceased, providing information about the family pedigree, and perhaps indicating a person’s trade or profession. In addition to such factual information, a brass may also include appropriate shields of arms, merchant marks, religious symbols, and, until the mid-sixteenth century, prayers for the dead. Indeed, in Catholic England, almost every inscription, whether in Norman French, Latin, or English, had some type of prayer, either at its beginning or conclusion.

Brasses, then, had both secular and religious purposes, the latter sometimes enhanced by scrolls, memento mori, or accounts of the generosity of the deceased in providing money for refurbishing the church, establishing a charity, or alleviating the hardships of the parish poor. The inscription on the brass of Sir George Speke (1528) at Dowlish Wake, Somerset, for example, informs us that he rebuilt one side of the church, and that of William Wadham (1618) at Ilminster, Somerset, notes that he founded Wadham College, Oxford. The twenty-six effusive Latin verses that comprise the inscription to John Cottusmore (1439) at Brightwell Baldwin, Oxfordshire, inform us that with many tear and much weeping all England laments the death of so exemplary a Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, as does his sorrowful wife Amice with whom he begot eighteen offspring before his death on the third day before the Kalends of September in 1439, and ends with the hope that St. Paul will embrace John Cottusmore and with the aid of his prayer make possible a glorious eternity in Heaven.

A brass, too, might call attention to our universal frailty by depicting the deceased in a shroud or as a skeleton or corpse and by including such admonitory verses as the following that remind us of our mortality:

Quisquis eris qui transieris, sta, perlege, plora
Sum quod eris fueramque quod es: pro me precor ora.

(Whoever you are who pass by, stop, read, weep.
I am what you will be; I was what you are:
I beseech you, pray for me.)

Occasionally, promises of grants of indulgence are made if a prayer is offered on behalf of the dead. The Norman French inscription on the brass of Dame Joan of Cobham (c1310-20), for example, promises "quarante jours de pardoun" (forty days of pardon), but that on the brass of Roger Legh (1506) at Macclesfield, Cheshire, rewards the reader who says five pater nosters, five aves, and the creed with twenty-six thousand years and twenty-six days of pardon.

Scrolls, too, are often short prayers: "Miserere mei deus" (Lord, have compassion on me), "O beata Trinitas, libera nos" (O blessed Trinity, free us), or "Miserere nobis" (Have mercy on us). Pre-Reformation brasses with English inscriptions may also have scrolls issuing from the mouths or hands of the figures, often merely a "Jesu mercy" or "Lady helpe," the inscription itself duplicating in English the stock Latin beginning and conclusion as on the tomb of John Trembras (1515) at St. Michael Penkivel, Cornwall:

Pray for the soule of master John Trembras maist'
of arte & late p'son of this churche whiche decessed
the xiij day of Septembre in the yere of our lord
god Mt Vc & xv on whose soule Jhu have mercy.

After the Reformation, such prayers or any reference to traditional Catholic belief was considered "Popish" and superstitious. As a result, the offending prayers on older inscriptions were often scratched out, as they were on the brass of Andrew Evyngar (1533) at All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, London, or the entire inscription might be removed from the stone slab. Not surprisingly, after the 1530s, inscriptions avoid specifically Catholic references. Rather, we may find an "O praise the Lord" or a statement, such as that about Katherine Staverton (1577) at Cumnor, Berkshire, that she "Dyed a good Christian." Occasionally, there is still a plea for the prayers of the readers, as on the brass to Hugh Bristowe (1548) at Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, In the first eight of the sixteen lines of English verse that comprise the inscription, Hugh tells us that he served as parson of the church for forty years and died on 28 November 1548. Then these lines follow:

Hugh Bristowe was my name
I was called of many a one
By crewell dethe my body was Slayne
And brought to my grave under this stone
Besechying Criste to have Mercy
On my pore Sowle and all Christen
Desyeryng you and youre Charitye
To say our Lordes prayer. Amen.

Most inscriptions, especially after the Reformation, tended to grow longer, with more extensive details about the persons commemorated, increasingly becoming genealogical records as well as providing information about the life and character of the deceased and perhaps their good works for community or country. The brass of Thomas Noke (1567) at Shottesbroke, Berkshire, for example, informs us that Father Noke, as he was called, was a venerable old man who lived a full and noteworthy life. Created an esquire by King Henry VIII, he was made a Yeoman of the Crown for his "excellencie in Artilarie." Over a life span of eighty-seven years, we learn, he had three wives and eleven children by them, one son and three daughters by his first wife, three sons and three daughters by his second, and one daughter by his last wife Julian. He managed to outlive most of his family, for at his death on 21 August 1567, we are told, the only members of his immediate family living were his wife Julian, one son, and two daughters, in addition to two brothers and one sister.

Although the inscription itself tended to emphasize secular concerns, appended poems are more often of a religious nature. Take, for example, that on the brass of William and Elizabeth Armar (1560) at All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, London:

He that lyveth so in this worlde,
That God is pleased with all,
He nede not at the Judgment day,
ffeare nothing at all.

Therfore in peace lie Downe will we,
And take our rest and slepe
And offer to god in Sacrifice,
Our bodies and soules to kepe.
Unto that day that god shall call,
Our bodies to rise again,
Then we with other shall come together
To Glorify his Name.

This penchant for doggerel verse with both a secular and religious reference can be seen in the inscription on the brass of Arthur Dericote (1562) at Hackney, Middlesex:

Here under fote lieth Arthure Dericote who buried was of late
Of London Somtyme Citizen, and of Esquiers state.
Of Drapers whilome Copanie, but laste of Hackneie towne
A parishyoner he was full good, all vice he leaid a downe.
Wives fowre by mariage had, that lawfull was and righte
Marie, Eme, and Margarete, and Jane the fourthe she highte.
By whome two children heare he had, and ended then his lyfe
The xii day of November moneth, one childe alive and wyfe.
A thousand and five Hundred, and Sixtie yeares and two
Sence Christes Incarnacion he ganne to live a newe
God graunt to Christians all of life such race to rune
That at the lenghe thei may receave of Christ a Joyfull Dome.

Inscriptions, too, can suggest something more personal about the life of the deceased—some specific act of importance, some family sorrow. That to Captain Thomas Hodges, 1630, at Wedmore, Somerset, focuses on his bravery in battle, his death, and his burial:

To the memorie of Captaine
Thomas Hodges 
In the County of Somerset Esq: who
at the Seige of ANTWERPE about 1583
with unconquerd courage wonne two
Ensignes from the ENEMY;
where receiving his last wound, he gave
three legacyes, his soule to his LORD
IESUS; his body to be lodged in Flemish
earth; his heart to be sent to his deare
wife in England.

One can sympathize with John and Marie King, who, after losing their eight month old daughter in 1630, lost their second son, William, three years later just ten weeks after his birth:

Here the sad Parents second Sumons Lyes
Withdrawn to draw from Earth to Paradise
Their stooping thoughts. Hee hasten’d to repay,
What they could lend, dull, macerated clay,
To feast with Wormes; What Heaven gave, theire doth rest,
To feast with Innocents. Thus from the brest,
Ravish’t by Death, so nere our Saviours Birth,
To share in Saints and Angels Christmas mirth.

The brass commemorating Anne Savage, who died in 1605 at the age of twenty-five, depicts her lying in a four-poster bed, her newly born child beside her. But, Anne died in childbirth, and the Latin inscription here translated suggests the difficulty of becoming resigned to the passing of a loved one, for left behind were her husband, a small son Daston, and the new baby:

Husband and father and son complain of the fierceness of fate,
Fate which has snatched Anne Savage away from the love of her mate
And her eldest child Daston for she, like a Phoenix, returned;
Bringing to birth, came to death. Anne, while giving life, death discerned.
Five times five had the years rolled by when Anne, who from God
Gained her soul, now gave it back but left her bones under the sod.

So here, as on most brasses, we find the melding of the two themes— the worldly life and the hope for a better one in a life to come.

Next, Iconography

Hamline University is not seeking additional rubbings for its collection.