Brass of the month

May 2003: Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire c 1380-90

Torryngton brass

This brass commemorates Richard Torryngton, a prosperous London wool-merchant, who exported wool with his partner, John Norborw. He died in 1356. His wife Margaret Incent died in 1349, presumably a victim of the Black Death.

What survives of the brass shows the pair in civilian dress, a fragment of the marginal inscription and two shields The arms above his head are those of Torryngton, also once seen in the east window of the north transept aisle: Silver a cross fretty gules between in chief  a saltire engrailed and a double cross formy azure. The arms above her head are Incent: Gold on a bend gules a roundel in chief. The 17th century Hertfordshire historian, Chauncy, recorded that the arms of Incent and Torryngton were also 'round the church on every pillar, and on the woodwork, on the side of the Church', suggesting that the pair may have been responsible for building works here. The outer south aisle is the only surviving part of the fabric dating from the mid fourteenth century and this may have been their contribution.

A particularly interesting aspect of the brass is that the pair are shown holding hands. This posture enjoyed a limited popularity from the 3rd quarter of the 14th century, both on brasses and on relief monuments. In some cases there is evidence that it indicates a particularly loving bond between the couple. Richard II's fine cast bronze effigy in Westminster Abbey shows him holding hands with his Queen, Anne of Bohemia, to whom he was deeply devoted. At Owston, Yorkshire is a brass to Robert and Ada Haitfield, commissioned following her death in 1409; they are shown holding hands and she is described in the inscription as 'sa femme ouesque lui en droiturel amour foies plein', leaving the reader in no doubt as to Robert's affection for her. Despite these examples, however, in other cases the hand-holding position may be no more than a symbol of the legal and religious bonds of matrimony.

It has traditionally been assumed that, like most brasses, this one dates from shortly after Richard's death, but it was made very much later. The brass engraving workshops were in disarray for at least a decade following the Black Death and produced only minor brasses. Large figure brasses of this sort did not return to the London brass engraving workshop's repertoire until the early 1360s. The commissioning of a number of brasses was delayed at this time, but Richard Torryngton's brass was delayed more than most, as it was not made until the 1380s. The evidence for the later date is twofold. First, the headdress Margaret wears was not commonly seen on monuments until c 1370. Secondly, and most crucially, stylistic analysis demonstrates that the brass is a product of a workshops known as 'London Series C', which did not begin operations until the 1380s.

The brass has fared badly over the years, being shunted round the church and with parts of the brass coming loose and being lost. The original composition of the brass was more elaborate than appears from the rubbing above. Waller's drawing of 1838 (reproduced in the MBS volume free to all new members) shows that the figures originally stood under an elaborate double canopy. The brass is no longer in its original position. It has been in the nave, then under the north transept arch, then mural in the chancel and finally, since the 1960s, mounted on a board with the missing parts outlined in the south west corner of the nave. Only the upper half of the original  slab survives, jammed between the sculptured Torryngton tomb and the east wall of the north transept.

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