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The earliest identifiable series of Norwich-made brasses began around 1450. While the effigies of men in civilian dress, ladies and priests produced by this workshop are close to the then current London styles, the effigies in armour differ very considerably from those made in the London workshops. However, although this Norwich workshop lasted for around thirty years, it is strange that the few surviving armoured effigies it produced all seem to come from the last ten years. One that is now lost, to Sir Henry Grey at Ketteringham, survived long enough to be illustrated by Cotman and appears to represent a slightly earlier style of armour. The brass of Ralph Blenerhaysett, who died in 1475, differs little from those at Bylaugh, Norfolk, Sotterley, Suffolk, and the lost effigy of Sir Miles Stapilton, again illustrated by Cotman, at Ingham, Norfolk, except for his better, but by no means perfectly, proportioned legs.

    St Andrew’s church at Frenze has a collection of brasses to Ralph’s family, the Blennerhassetts of which his is the earliest. The church is just east of Diss, near the border with Suffolk, and is next to the manor house that belonged until 1636 to the family but there is no sign of a village. The reason Ralph’s is the earliest brass is that he was the first of his family to own the property. Around 1423 he married Joan de Lowdham, heiress to this and other properties in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. It is no wonder that the inscription of his brass called him a venerabilis vir when he died over fifty years later. The Blennerhassett family came from Cumberland and Ralph was the fifth son of another Ralph, his arms bearing an annulet denoting that.

    While his marriage looks like a very advantageous one for a fifth son, he and his elder brother John appear to have been the only two surviving sons of their father. Ralph’s inscription is a straightforward one except for the day of his death, which has been read in various ways. I favour ximo, an abbreviation of decimo, the tenth. In translation the inscription reads Here lies the venerable man Ralph Blenerhaysett esquire who died on the 10th day of the month of November in the year of our Lord 1475 on whose soul God have mercy Amen.

    The family was continued by Ralph’s son John, who was himself described on his brass at Frenze as a venerabilis vir when he died on 20 November 1510, very probably older than Ralph had been at his death. John’s son Sir Thomas, the subject of another brass at Frenze, was around 70 when he died in 1531. The brasses at Frenze have suffered various vicissitudes and some, like that to Ralph’s widow Joan, died 1501, have disappeared entirely.   

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

March 2011 – Ralph Blenerhaysett, 1475, Frenze, Norfolk