Brass of the Month

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Copyright: Jon Bayliss

December 2016, Richard Gerveys and wife Jane, 1574, Constantine, Cornwall,

Aston, Warwickshire

The brass of Richard Gerveys and his wife lies inlaid on a slab in the chancel of the church of St Constantine King of Cornwall in the west of that county. The family was living at nearby Helston  when it acquired Bonallack in Constantine by marriage during the fourteenth-century. Jane, Richard's wife was the daughter of Thomas Trefusis of Trefusis, another nearby settlement. Their son and heir Thomas likewise took a Cornish wife, Anne, daughter of Nicholas Herle of Trenouth.

    Richard and Jane's brass was made in London. It is a little unusual in that the effigies are set against an architectural background rather than being separately inlaid. The marginal inscription suggests that they died a very short time apart, both being buried on the same day. A slight uncertainty as to the year is suggested by the last four characters of the year (iiij) having been cut  in a different script from the rest. This might be explained by the failure of the engraver to finish cutting the inscription that had been painted on the brass prior to engraving and a local man being employed to make it good before the paint wore entirely away. The inscription reads:

+Of your charite praise ye the lorde for / the Sowles of Richard Gerveys Esquier & Jane

his wyfe dowgther of Thomas Trefusys Esquier which God of his greate and / mere

goodnes hathe taken to his Infinyte / mercie whose Bodjes lyethe here buryed the second

daye of October in the yere of or Lorde God A Thowsand fyve hundereth lxxiiij

    By 1860, the central plate with the effigies of Richard and Jane Gerveys had been found to be palimpsest (engraved on the reverse). Immediately beneath that, on the reverse of the plate showing the Gerveys children, eight sons and six and a half of the eight daughters, is the corner of a large rectangular brass with a Flemish inscription. Behind the larger plate is much of the upper part of a man in armour c.1400.. The two reverses are thought to be part of the same brass. The marginal inscription of the brass of Anthony Browne at South Weald in Essex, discovered to be palimpsest around 1950, is cut from parts of the same Flemish brass.

    Although monumental brasses were sometimes recycled in the Middle Ages, especially in locations where there was pressure on burial space such as the London friary and parish churches, sixteenth-century reuse of brasses was driven by religious and economic changes. The religious changes led to the dissolution of the monasteries in the later 1530s and of the chantries and the collegiate churches in the mid 1540s, each yielding substantial quantities of brass and other copper alloys, especially bell-metal, for the crown. Bell metal could be recast as cannons to be used for the defence of the realm.

    The economic changes began earlier with the financial machinations of the Fuggers of Augsburg, rich merchants bankers who achieved a virtual monopoly of European copper production and trade in 1499. This led to sharp price rises in the price of copper and its alloys. The alloy used for monumental brasses was 75-80% copper. In 1525, the king of Hungary seized the copper mines that the Fuggers ran in his country. The result was a further steep increase in copper prices. Although the Fuggers quickly resumed control of the Hungarian mines, they did not drop prices back to their previous level. England had under-exploited reserves of copper but no known source of the other major element used to make brass – zinc. Zinc was not known in its metallic form at this time but the ore that contained zinc was calamine. Brass was produced on the continent by mixing calamine with copper and charcoal in sealed crucibles and then heating the mixture. As zinc boils at a lower temperature than copper melts it was not possible to mix the two metals in open containers. As early as 1529, the high price of copper drove Henry VIII to start investigating whether England had the native resources to start its own production.

    Nothing much happened other than the passing of laws against the export of various metals until after Elizabeth I came to the throne. She brought in German mining experts to prospect for copper and calamine in the 1560s. Copper mines were established in Cumbria and calamine was discovered in Somerset. However, attempts to make good-quality brass failed, possibly because coal that produced sulphurous fumes was substituted for charcoal. By this time, the supplies of copper alloys that had come from English churches were largely exhausted but the Fuggers were not the dominant economic force they had been earlier in the century. The revolt of the northern Netherlands against their Spanish rulers led to the sack of churches in the Netherlands from 1566 into the 1580s and the sale of their brasses in England to raise the money to finance the revolt. As a result Flemish brasses from these churches were cut up, turned over and engraved to supply monuments such as that to Richard Gerveys. By the mid-1580s, renewed attempts to make brass in England had been successful and the reuse of old material no longer necessary.

    Engraving the back of old brasses used to be regarded as a cheap method of making new ones but the price rises of the first half of the sixteenth-centuries give us the reason why so many palimpsest brasses used even the smallest scraps of old metal. Brass was much in demand by other trades, particularly by founders and pewterers, the latter using it to make the moulds from which they cast their wares. The brass moulds used for making large pewter dishes could weigh 150 pounds (68 kg) or more.


The reverse of the main plate

For more information see John Page-Phillips, Palimpsests: The Backs of Monumental Brasses, 2 vols (1980). Volume 1 describes the attempts at making brass in England and the historical causes of palimpsests. For the production of copper in Elizabethan England and its difficult birth, see Eric H Ash, Power, Knowledge, and Expertise in Elizabethan England (2004), chapter 1, ‘German Miners, English Mistrust and the Importance of being “Expert”’.