Brassed off: following the trail of church’s long-lost memorials

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Local historian DAVID MORGAN has got his Brasso out and has polished up some traces of Croydon’s fashionable medieval, Tudor and Stuart past

High church: Sylvester Gabriel’s memorial illustrates how medieval clerics were dressed

Croydon Minster is, of course, a House of Prayer. Less well-known is that it has also been a House of Historical Fashion.

If all the Minster’s many brass monuments had survived the years, then students of historic fashion might have been regularly wending their way down Church Street for visits.

Lace ruffs, buckled shoes, doublets and knee-breeches would have been the attractions. Sadly, the disastrous fire of 1867 together with light-fingered workmen involved in the 1859 church restoration means that only one large brass figure still exists today.

Now attached to the south wall of the chancel, this brass is a memorial to Sylvester Gabriel, who died on October 4, 1512, just three years into the reign of Henry VIII. It seems that Gabriel’s brass memorial survived not only the great fire in Croydon Parish Church, but also the destruction of King Henry’s Reformation.

Gabriel had been a Rector at Wyberton in Lincolnshire and Folkington in Sussex, and was also a Canon at Chichester Cathedral and one of the first Masters of Clare College, Cambridge.

The brass would have originally covered the cleric’s grave. It may have survived the worst effects of the fire 150 years ago because the tomb will have been in the church crypt. It is not known when the brass was moved to its current position in the Minster.

It is fascinating in its detail. The brass figure is tonsured with long hair on the sides of his head. He is wearing a cassock, surplice, almuce and cope. An almuce is a shoulder cape while a cope is the full-length cloak, made with a semi-circular piece of cloth. Ornamental embroidery strips around the edge of the cope, called orphreys, contain quatrefoil motifs.

The clasp holding the cope together at the chest is of a shell design and is called a morse.

An academic clerk in holy orders, the monument shows the sort of attire that Gabriel would have worn in the later years of his life.

A brass to commemorate Elizabeth Fynche, the wife of a Vicar of Croydon, was originally placed in the chancel, but is long gone. The memorial is thought to have been stolen, along with five others, by workmen in 1859 who were employed in the restoration of the building. Elizabeth’s brass was eventually recovered and kept securely in the vestry, but it was destroyed in the 1867 fire.

Elegant: a Victorian brass rubbing is all that remains of the Elizabeth Fynche memorial

Thus, the only evidence of what it looked like comes from a Victorian brass rubbing. It shows an elegant, educated woman. The figure is wearing a tall hat with a wide brim, that she may well have adorned with a feather, a high ruff around her neck and a long over-gown which is open in front to show the embroidered petticoat below.

Her arms are folded and she carries in one hand a book, presumably the Bible, while fingers of the other hand seem to be marking a particular page.

Brass memorials were not made in the likeness of the deceased and this is evident here. The lady in the memorial is an older woman. Elizabeth died aged just 21.

The church registers and the brass plaque under the figure tell us much more about Elizabeth. She was the daughter of John and Clemence Kynge. John was a brewer. Her marriage to Samuel Fynche, the Vicar of Croydon, was on March 5 1582, a year after Samuel started the job here. It suggests that Elizabeth may have been just 14 at the time.

Richard Worde, the parson of Beddington, conducted the ceremony, with a licence issued “by the grace” of Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This was 25 years into the tumultuous reign of “Good Queen Bess”, Queen Elizabeth I, a period when trade with the colonies in the Americas was just beginning, when the Church of England was in its formative stages, and war with Spain, and the Armada, was looming.

Elizabeth Fynche died the year after the Armada’s invasion threat, on November 12, 1589. She was buried the next day. Her age is given on the brass plaque as 21. She was “the mother of five children at several births”. Her cause of death is not provided but her status as the vicar’s wife would have afforded her the best medical treatements available at the time.

Poor Elizabeth. Married at 14 (it was legal back then), mother of five. Died at 21.

Another brass missing from the church is that of Robert Jackson, who died in 1629. Originally placed on a stone on the floor of the north aisle, this brass was another of those that were stolen in 1859. It was recovered, but was also lost in the fire of 1867.

Stuart stylists: A brass rubbing taken more than 150 years ago provides a record of the Jackson’s 17th Century tomb

This brass contained two small figures. One represented Robert Jackson, the other Elizabeth, his wife. Both the figures were dressed in the fashion of the Stuart age. The male figure was just over 16 inches tall, with the female one just over 15. The figures were turned towards each other. The man has a moustache and beard and wears a short cloak.

Under the cloak he has a large plain falling collar, a doublet with tight sleeves and wristbands, knee breeches tied with bows at the knees, hose and shoes also tied with bows.

A sword is carried, suspended from a narrow belt. The figure is placed on a pedestal.

The female figure wears a low hat with a broad brim, a ruff, a peaked stomacher and an under-gown with close sleeves and plain cuffs.

A stomacher was the triangular shaped panel that filled the front part of a woman’s gown or bodice. Lastly, she has an over-gown with short sleeves terminating at the shoulders. She is not standing on a pedestal but on the ground.

The Jacksons were a well-to-do couple. Church records show that Robert, whose grave this brass adorned, died on October 11, 1629. He was the son of Robert Jackson and both are described as yeomen – possibly indicating that they owned some land in the area and had some standing. Elizabeth Jackson was the daughter of Richard Wackrell, who was also described as a yeoman. It was Elizabeth, outliving her husband, who wanted the memorial to be constructed in Robert’s “pious memory”.

Family, fertility and succession were as important to the Jacksons as they were to the Fynches. Elizabeth Jackson placed on the memorial their offspring: 17 children, 12 sons and five daughters. The Jackson 19, as it were…

Some small remnants of the old brasses which were picked up after the fire are attached to various walls around the Minster, together with another lost brass that was returned in 1887.

This is the memorial to William Heron, who died in 1562, and his wife, Alice. They can be seen on the north wall of the chancel.

Recovered: William Heron’s memorial, once feared lost, stolen, can be seen at the Minster today

William is represented by a figure who is wearing armour and standing on a pedestal with flowering plants.

A long narrow sword hangs on his left side from a thin belt and there is the hint of a dagger on his right. No gauntlets are worn on his bare hands, which are clasped in prayer.

Only a small part of the female figure survives. She is wearing a fashionable French hood. She has a small ruff as well as short sleeves, puffed and slashed at the shoulders.

William, a Justice of the Peace, and Alice would have been among the wealthiest members of Tudor society of the time.

We know that brass has been an important alloy in history because of all the sayings with the word contained in them: brass monkeys, brass tacks, as bold as brass, brass neck and top brass…

Croydon Minster is missing many of its brass memorials.

But every day, more is emerging of the stories behind these early monuments.

Read more: The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
Read more: Carolinas family with links to the days of Croydon’s races
Read more: 200-year-old documents reveal story behind the graves
Read more: Cleric who faced court at time of Pepys, plague and puritans

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1 Response to Brassed off: following the trail of church’s long-lost memorials

  1. Grace Onions says:

    Wonderful to see the history being highlighted – thank you 🙂

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