Highlights of the British Collection:

Women in Monumental Brasses

Fashion and Family

Monumental brasses provide a good historical record of women’s fashion. It is possible to trace changes in style from the fourteenth century when women are shown wearing long gowns with narrow sleeves, known as cote-hardie, and pointed shoes through to the sixteenth century when Elizabethan women wore embroidered dresses and round toed shoes. Similarly changes in head-dresses can be identified from the simple veils shown on early brasses to the French hoods and elaborate head gear of later centuries.

The fifteenth century monumental brass of Thomas Peyton and his two wives shows his first wife, the heiress Margaret Bernard Peyton, wearing a long high-waisted gown made of a fabric with an elaborate floral design, perhaps an Italian silk or brocade. The dress has a decorative belt and a low, wide scooped neckline showing the fabric of the kirtle beneath. It also has patterned collar and cuffs, which might have been removable to use with other gowns. In many ways the gown is similar to that worn by Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, in a portrait dating to the period of his reign (1461-1470, 1471- 1483). Margaret’s hair is shown pulled back and she wears a ‘butterfly’ hennin (conical headdress) of the style worn in England in the late fifteenth century. A similar headdress can be seen on the 1479 memorial brass for Anne Denys Playters.

Margaret Bernard Peyton died in about 1445, at about the age of 25, following the birth of her fourth child. The clothing that she is shown wearing in on the memorial brass seem to date to 1480s, when the brass was designed.

The monumental brass of Dorothy Wadham shows dresses styles of the late sixteenth to early seventeenh centuries. Typically it comprised a gown with high-necked bodice and collar with a skirt worn over a padded roll or farthingale to hold it out at the waist. The long sleeves are tight to the arm, slightly puffed at the shoulder and end in a small cuff. A single-piece cap or coif is worn on the hair. Although the brass is dated 1618, the clothing is of a slightly earlier style. This includes the shoes which are flat with rounded toe, a fashion that went out of style in about 1610.

Brass of Sir William de Beaumont

Rubbing of the brass of Margaret Bernard Peyton, dated c.1445 from St Andrew's Church, Isleham, Cambridgeshire. She was the first wife of Thomas Peyton.

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Elizabeth Woodville (click to enlarge)

British Artist (c. 1500), Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV, Oil painting on panel. WA1898.1.
From the Tradescant collection

Anne Denys (click to enlarge)

Drawing from the brass of Thomas Playters, and Anne Denys, his wife dated 1479 from Sotterley, Suffolk.

Margaret Vernon (click to enlarge)

Rubbing from the brass of Margaret, wife of Sir William Vernon, Constable of England, dated 1470, from Tong, Shropshire.
She is wear a mid-fifteenth century cote-hardi in the trailing style. The elephant with striated ears at the foot of the lady, is unique.

Dorothy Wadham (click to enlarge)

Dorothy Wadham, co-founder of Wadham College, Oxford, with her husband, Nicholas. From their brass dated 1618, Ilminster, Somerset.
The clothing depicted on the brass is similar to that shown in a 1595 portrait of Dorothy Wadham now in the collection of Petworth House, West Sussex.

Monumental brasses can also proved information about the role of women in society and within their families.

Unmarried women

Some brasses show women with loose hair. This is often seen as a sign of a young unmarried girl, since loose hair was used to signify virginity; medieval brides wore their hair loose to show their virginity. However not all women on monumental brasses with loose hair were either young or unmarried.
Unmarried maiden, with uncovered hair. Bletchingley, Surrey 1470

Married women and their husbands

Men often married more than once, commonly due to the high rate of female mortality during childbirth. Monumental brasses often commemorate all of a man’s wives. This can be seen on the brass commemorating Ralph Attwoode (Rauffe Horwoode) and his two wives Elizabeth and Joan with their six children. Dated 1498, from Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire.

Women could also marry several times, due to a variety of factors affecting male mortality, such as combat, disease and politics. Therefore brasses can also commemorate a woman and her successive husbands; for instance the brass commemorating the heiress, Joan de la Pole, 4th Baroness Cobham (of Kent) (d. 1433/1434). Joan was born some time after October 1362, when her parents were married, and was married five times, the first being sometime before November 1380. Her husbands were:

  1. Sir Robert Hemenhale (born c.1363, died 1391, buried at Westminster Abbey).
  2. Sir Reginald Braybroke (born c.1356, died1405, following combat injuries, buried Cobham, Kent).
  3. Sir Nicholas Hawberk (born 1355, died 1407, buried Cobham).
  4. Sir John Oldcastle (Lollard leader, born c.1378?, executed 1417).
  5. Sir John Harpeden (born c.1375, died 1458, buried at Westminster Abbey).

Her brass shows her with her children, most of whom died young. The church at Cobham also contains the brasses she commissioned for her second and third husbands who are also buried there.

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Regenald Braybroke (click to enlarge)

Brass of Sir Regenald Braybroke, dated 1405, second husband of Joan

Lady Cobham (click to enlarge)

Brass of Lady Joan Cobham, dated 1433, from Cobham, Kent

Nicholas Hawberk (click to enlarge)

Brass of Sir Nicholas Hawberk, dated 1407, third husband of Joan

Unmarried Maiden

Unmarried maiden, with uncovered hair, dated 1470, from Bletchingley, Surrey.

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Ralph Attwoode (click to enlarge)

Rubbing from the brass of Ralph Attwoode (Rauffe Horwoode) and his two wives Elizabeth and Joan with their six children, dated 1498, from Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire.

Further Information


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Sarah Glover
January 2012