Brass of the Month

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June 2012 – Member of the Bacon family, Gorleston, Suffolk, early fourteenth century

 

    The identity of the only remaining brass in St Andrew's church at Gorleston has been the subject of controversy for years. It has a shield bearing arms that belong unmistakeably to the Bacon family and the figure formerly rested his feet on a boar, the crest of the family. What is clear is that the lost indent of Sabine, mother of John Bacon, recorded in the church in between 1561 and the late eighteenth century, which was once the slab next to the brass, must have been moved into the church after the Reformation, when the Augustinian Friars' church at Southtown, which borders Gorleston to the north, was destroyed. Weever records that the Friary contained a number of burials of Bacon family members. He listed Sir Robert Bacon, Sir Henry Bacon, Sir Robert Bacon (presumably a different Sir Robert), Lady Sabina, the wife of . . . Bacon, John Bacon his son and nine other children. In the following paragraph, he gave Sir Henry Bacon of Gorleston, died 1335, differentiating him from the Sir Henry previously listed.

    It seems likely that other Bacon monuments were moved at the same time as Sabine's. There are coffin-shaped slabs in the south porch of St Andrew's, which may be other Bacon monuments rescued from the Friary. Nall, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, remarks that many stone coffins had been dug up at the friary, which was at the southern border of Southtown. He noted that there were two other indents in the chantry of the Bacon family at the east end of the south aisle. He also quoted from the forged record of the visit of Francis Jessup of Beccles, Dowsing's deputy for the hundred of Lothingland and four other parishes. Jessup's visits to Lowestoft, Bungay and Somerleyton in 1644 were recorded by parish authorities, one of them noting that Jessup could not read. Jessup presumably visited Gorleston and had the bulk of the brasses there removed, thus depriving us of the certainty of identification of the Bacon brass.     

    The problem of identification has two aspects: the arms on the shield and with the dating of the effigy. The shield has two mullets pierced (also interpreted as two rowell spurs) in chief, the arms of Bacon, but are differentiated by a bend fusilly on the lower part. Joseph Foster, in the late nineteenth century, identified the effigy as Sir Henry Bacon and gave his arms as gules a bend fusily sable, on a chief argent two spur-rowells of the second. This breaks the long-standing heraldic rule that colours shall not lie on colours. His source for the arms but not the identification seems to have been Hervey, who made his notes in 1561 and had the letter b as a label pointing to the bend on his drawing of the shield. He put g (gules) as the ground for this part of the shield, and or as the ground in chief and had another label b pointing one of the mullets. He repeated this on one of the shields on Sabine Bacon's brass, except that there was no bend to be labelled. The b was presumably interpreted by Foster as black (sable), which would have been correct for the mullets,  but might it not have another meaning? Unless there is colour remaining, tinctures on the shields on brasses are difficult to determine without information from other sources. May b not be signifying that the surface of the brass was left blank? The surface could have been recessed and scored to take a colour that could no longer made out. Hervey, as a professional herald, would presumably have written sa for sable. No known member of the Bacon family was recorded bearing arms with a bend fusilly.


    The problem of dating the effigy arises for two reasons. The first is that the brass was manifestly not engraved by the workshops responsible for the other comparable armoured figures. The figure is less boldly engraved and the design, while similar, seems weak in comparison. The use of plate armour suggests a date similar to that of Sir William Fitzralph at Pebmarsh in Essex, now thought to date from 1331-8, as does the use of strips of brass for the marginal inscription. Sir William's armour differs in that he has plates protecting the upper surface of his feet, which it is known from old drawings that Bacon did not. Bacon's ailettes are rectangular rather than round and his smaller shield is supported by a much less substantial shoulder strap.  

    Sally Badham came to the conclusion that the brass represented John Bacon, son of Sabine. He probably died shortly after 1304. She recognised that the armour and marginal inscription counted against this view but argued that they were not conclusively negative as they represented nothing that could not be paralleled at around 1305. She assigned the brass to the Ashford series, a series attributed to master Ralph, a marbler working producing incised slabs and brasses between c. 1273 and c. 1308. Claude Blair did not accept her arguments and favoured a date in the 1330s because of the armour and the English tendency to lag behind continental Europe  in the armour they favoured both on the battlefield and on the effigies that commemorated them.

    The brass was sold to a brazier in the late eighteenth century but rescued and returned to the church around 1830, when the slab was placed upright in the chancel.


References

J Weever, Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), 856

J G Nall, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft (1866), 156-149

S Badham, ‘The Bacon Brass at Goleston, Suffolk’, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society, vol 16, part 1 (1997), 2-25


Copyright: Jon Bayliss