Brass of the month

November 2004: Prior Thomas Nelond,1432,Cowfold, Sussex

November's brass of the month is from Cowfold, Sussex and commemorates Thomas Nelond,  who died in 1432. This fine brass is kept beneath a protective padlocked carpet so is not normally available for visitors to view. 

This brass is an elaborate composition,  with Nelond praying to images of the Virgin and child, St Pancras and St Thomas. He is garbed in the monastic habit - a cassock and a hooded  cowl  with hanging sleeves.


This is a rare survival of a brass to a monk. Once such compositions would have been commonplace, but most were destroyed following the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.


Thomas became 25th Prior of Lewes Abbey in 1414, a position he held until his death. The house of St Pancras at Lewes was the first of the monasteries belonging to the Cluniac order in England and eventually became the largest and wealthiest. We know that Thomas was buried in his priory church as his brother, John Nelond of East Grinstead, directed in his will of 1437 that he should be buried in the Priory of Lewes 'near to the grave of my brother Thomas'.


Lewes Priory was dissolved in 1538. Following the dissolution of the religious houses, the King’s Commissioners acted swiftly to remove valuable materials and furnishings. The material from which brasses were made had a monetary value as scrap, so would not have been left in situ. So why is the brass now at Cowfold? 


Cowford brass

There is a growing body of evidence to show that some families rescued threatened monuments to their kin from monasteries and installed them in the comparative safety of parish churches. A key example is the creation of a family mausoleum in the chancel of Bottesford church, Leicestershire by Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland. Several of his predecessors as Lords of Belvoir and their families (the Albanis and the Rooses) had been buried in local religious houses. He arranged for medieval monuments to be moved from Belvoir Priory and Croxton Abbey.

There was only a narrow window of opportunity between the suppression of Lewes Priory on 16 November 1537 and the grant of it to Thomas Lord Cromwell on 16 February 1538 in which families could rescue their monuments as demolition began soon after it passed into Cromwell's hands. Several important monuments were certainly saved. The tombs to Richard Fitzalan, 2nd Lord of Arundel and his wife Eleanor, Joan de Vere and Maud, Countess of Surrey were all moved to Chichester Cathedral and a brass attributed to John Warenne is now in St. Michael church, Lewes.

Nelond's brass was undoubtedly moved to Cowfold for safety at the same time. Who had it moved and what their connection with him had been is unknown; over 100 years had passed since his death and he would have left no direct descendents. It cannot have been a straightforward task to move this massive slab a distance of 24km in the depth of winter. But we must be profoundly grateful that this magnificent brass survived relatively unscathed.

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Page last updated 03 November 2004