Brass Rubbings Introduction
By Professor Emeritus George Vane
In Shakespeare's play Henry V, just before the King sends his weary, sick soldiers to the battlefield of Agincourt where he hopes for victory but fears he will lose many good men, he rouses them to action with the famous St. Crispin's Day speech. But soon after he comments to the French envoy,
A many of our bodies shall no doubt
Find native graves; upon the which I trust
Shall witness live in brass of this day's work:
And those that leave their valiant bones in France,
Dying like men, though buried in your dunghills,
They shall be fam'd . . . .
As the words suggest, a brass is a memorial to bear witness to the dead. It might be a simple effigy or merely a plate inscribed with information about the deceased. Or, it might be quite elaborate, with several figures, a canopy, heraldic shields, and religious emblems in addition to an inscription. For a monumental brass is composed of one or more pieces of brass plate, each engraved with a figure, inscription, shield, or other decoration such as a saint—set into the surface of a stone slab, either as a single plate or with different parts of the composition cut out and set in separately. The stone is laid in the church either as a grave cover—perhaps on an altar tomb, on the floor, or on the wall—or as a memorial without burial. The person or persons commemorated are depicted in armor, vestments, or civilian clothes of the period.
Brass monuments were introduced in the thirteenth century, not just in England, but throughout northern Europe, and their popularity grew, for brass had a number of advantages over such expensive memorials as tombs with alabaster figures or incised stone slabs on church floors. The metal was durable and capable of taking an engraving, and because the brass plate was flat, it could be placed anywhere in a church: on the floor, wall, or top of a tomb. Moreover, the brass figures did not have to be full-size portraits. They were acceptable whether they were one foot or five feet high.
Evidence suggests that once there were a quarter of a million brasses in Europe. Now scarcely four hundred remain on the Continent, and only about eight thousand in England, of which half are figure brasses in various states of preservation.
On the continent, plunder and invading armies over the centuries took their toll, especially in Germany during the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, during the French Revolution when brasses were taken up to be melted down for munitions, and, more recently, by the devastation of two world wars.
If England was spared much of the destruction that came with the continental wars, its own religious controversies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the loss or mutilation of church ornaments of all kinds that religious zealots regarded as idolatrous or Popish. The Civil War of the 1640s contributed especially to the loss of brasses in the great cathedrals. In two afternoons, for example, Oliver Cromwell and his men stripped the cathedrals of York and Lincoln of two hundred brasses each. Even the Royalists plundered churches. Charles I himself ordered most of Oxford Cathedral's brasses melted down for gunshot.
Such destruction meant that the cream of English brass work was lost forever. We can only surmise from the remaining stone indents what these fine monuments were like—life-size effigies under lofty canopies with a wealth of heraldry and a grandeur of saints and Trinities. Unfortunately, losses have continued even since the seventeenth century, first from the so-called "restorers" of the late nineteenth century who tore up, sold, or buried brasses under new flooring, then from plain neglect, and, more recently, from theft.
What we have left, then, are some four thousand figure brasses, the remnants of a once-flourishing minor art, and a valuable series of illustrations and commentary on the history, manners, and customs especially of medieval and renaissance England.
For brass rubbers, figures of men in armor are perhaps the most popular, and there are literally hundreds extant, yet, interestingly, not all armored figures are knights. Most were only country squires who probably never saw battle and may not have owned a complete suit of armor. The Hundred Years War that ended in the mid-fifteenth century occupied only a few English troops and the Wars of the Roses later in the century, primarily the retainers of various warring barons. Yet, the feudal spirit demanded that every lord of the manor be ready to lead his followers into battle, and social custom decreed that he be depicted on his brass in full armor.
For us, the result has been fortunate, for we have a complete pictorial history of the use and development of armor from the early fourteenth until the seventeenth century—of knights who fought with Edward III at Crecy and Poitiers in the mid-fourteenth century, of men who were with Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, of barons who may have fought at Bosworth Field in 1485 when Richard III met his end.
Military effigies are but one type. On brasses, we can study the vestments of various ranks of clergy from priest to archbishop, and on civilian brasses, we can trace the development of fashion in costume of men and women for a period of five hundred years—whether it be the varieties of ladies' headdresses, the change in men's dress from tunic to knee-breeches, or the rise and fall of the ruff.
Other brasses display a fascination for skeletons or figures in shrouds, for chalices and bleeding hearts, or for elaborate floriated crosses. After 1420, children often appear on small plates beneath their parents and dressed much like them, the sons under the father, the daughters below the mother. The many coats of arms on shields or costume make possible the study of heraldry and genealogy, and inscriptions illustrate the development of language and spelling from the fourteenth century on, for brasses are almost the only dated medieval works of art.
Brasses, then, and the rubbings made from them can serve in various ways as historical documents. All classes except royalty are depicted on brasses, from duchesses and archbishops to brewers, yeomen, and grocers. Occasionally, one can recognize a figure who played a minor part in English history, but generally those depicted are unknown to fame. There is no brass, for example, to Geoffrey Chaucer, but his son Thomas is shown with feet resting on a unicorn on a brass in the lovely church at Ewelme, Oxfordshire. Anne Boleyn is not commemorated on a brass, but her father, Sir Thomas Bullen (1538), is depicted in the robes of a Knight of the Garter at Hever, Kent.
Other brasses tell us not so much about specific people as about the growing importance of various professions. The profitability of sheep-raising and the marketing of wool can be seen by the number of fine brasses dedicated to wool merchants, often in churches they helped to build. Here we see these middlemen on huge brasses, dressed in rich civilian robes with fur-trimmed sleeves and collars, their feet resting on woolsacks or sheep, the emblems of their new wealth.
But, often it is the simple plates, roughly cut, with naive epitaphs, that are among the more interesting, for they show a class of society that rarely figures in historical records. The brass of John Eager, for example, has, badly incised by some local craftsman, the words "JOHN EAGER DES. MARCH THE 22 1641" above a recumbent skeleton in a shroud below which on this small brass plate are these verses:
You earthly impes which here behold
This picture with your eyes
Remember the end of mortal men
And where their glory lies.
Hamline University is not seeking additional rubbings for its collection.