Brass of the Month

Copyright © 2012 Monumental Brass Society (MBS)

Page last updated 04 March 2015

March 2012 – John Browne, 1581, and wife, Halesworth, Suffolk


Copyright: Jon Bayliss (text) & Janet Whitham (photographs)

    On 26 May the society will be visiting Suffolk on an excursion. We will be stopping for lunch a Halesworth, a small market town, and examining the brasses there. One of them commemorates John Browne, who according to the inscription, led a quiet life before his death in 1581. The existence of his brass has been rather more eventful. In 1825 according to the modern brass to which the original inscription is joined by a hinge, the remains of his brass were fished out of the River Waveney, which divides Suffolk and Norfolk, at a spot called the 'roaring arch' at the second bridge on Earsham dam. Earsham is on the north side of the Waveney, in Norfolk. These remains are set in a stone above the original indent. Quite how and when the brasses came to be put in the river, some dozen miles north of Halesworth, is not known. The church was visited by the iconoclast William Dowsing on 5 April 1644, and he recorded five popish inscriptions of brass, but there is nothing about the Browne brass that would have given offence and it should have been left alone. Indeed the remaining brasses to John Everard, 1476, and William Fiske, 1512, should have been 'cleansed' but the inscriptions survive intact, so Dowsing was either not thorough or his instructions to deal with offending inscriptions were not followed. He visited four other churches that day.

    John Browne was recorded as holding two messuages, a yard, another yard called 'Hassards Yard'  and a meadow called 'Le Hope' in Halesworth in 1557, but he probably held other land outside the town. He had the adowson of Ubbeston in 1556 and his son John, who survived him by only ten years, was lord of the manor of Spexhall, about two miles north. The younger John also had a brass to his memory and that of his wife, Silvester, which has had a slightly less chequered history than his father's. In the mid-nineteenth century it was recorded as missing, although it had been in place in 1808. It had, in fact, moved no further than the rectory, in which it was still to be found in 1903, although it is back in the church today. Today the figure of Silvester, her six sons and separate inscriptions to John and Silvester remain but are reset. The figure of the younger John, like that of his father, is completely lost. A comparison of the brasses to father and son are instructive. The inscription to the elder John at Halesworth originally read (about two thirds of the original plate survives):


Here lyeth John Browne of Hallesworth, who lyved a

quiet lyfe, and Died the xxiiih of August in the yeare 1581

of the age of lxxx yeares and xxv weakes, he hadd bye

his onely wiffe, with whom he lyved fifty four

yeares and ffive monethes, Six Sons and ten

Daughters he hadd also lxv Grandchildren, of whom

liiii were livinge at the daye of his decease.


    His son's inscription at Spexhall is in Latin but gives its details in a very similar way. He died on 17 August 1591 aged 45, having been married for 25 years and leaving six sons and five daughters. There is a separate inscription for Silvester, also in Latin, telling us she died on 7 May 1593 aged 47. If her mother-in-law had a separate but much shorter inscription on the slab at Halesworth, it would account for the indent between the elder John's inscription, which makes no mention of his wife's name, and the two groups of children. This indent is long and narrow, suitable for a single line of inscription.

    There is enough remaining of the Halesworth brass to indicate that it belongs to those brasses that John Page-Phillips identified as the Daston style. I regard Daston instead as a group of similar brasses within which two or three different styles can be distinguished, with that exemplified by the Browne brass as the most distinctive. All these brasses were presumably designed, if not engraved, in Southwark, across the River Thames from London. The reuse of old brass plates was rife at this time, with the source of the plate generally being the Low Countries, where churches were being looted in the name of religion. The inscription of the Browne brass is one such piece, having on its reverse part of a marginal inscription in Dutch or Flemish and the edge of a man in civilian clothing. Another piece of the same brass can be found behind part of a shield at Great Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. Intriguingly, the plate with the ten daughters, of which only the upper part survives, looks like it should be palimpsest, although it is not recorded as such.  


    The modern brass to which the old inscription is joined records not only the complete wording of the old inscription but also the circumstances of its return to the church. This took place in or before 1868, when the Ipswich Journal carried a long report on the re-opening of Halesworth church after the addition of a new aisle, describing, with a few minor inaccuracies, the Browne brass and the modern plate. The Rev Samuel Blois Turner, elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1843 while he was perpetual curate at Great Linstead, Suffolk, had at some point, acquired the pieces retrieved from the river. It is unlikely that this was as early as 1825, the year after he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, at the age of eighteen. He was ordained a deacon at Norwich in 1829 and a priest the following year. He was appointed perpetual curate at Little Linstead, a few miles west of Halesworth in 1832, then at Great Linstead in 1838, before becoming rector of nearby South Elmham in 1861. His second wife, Marian, whom he married in 1852, was the daughter of Rev Robert Hankinson, rector of Halesworth. During the work on the church, the indent of the Browne brass was recovered and Blois Turner instantly recognised it as such, ensuring that the brasses were reunited with it, although now set into a separate piece of stone.