Monumental Brass Society

Member of the Bacon family

Date of Brass:
Early C14
Norfolk (formerly Suffolk)


 June 2012

The identity of the only remaining brass in St Andrew's church at Gorleston has been the subject of controversy for years. It has a shield bearing arms that belong unmistakably to the Bacon family and the figure formerly rested his feet on a boar, the family crest.

We know that the lost indent of Sabine, mother of John Bacon, recorded in the church between 1561 and the late eighteenth century, was once the slab next to the brass. We also know that it was moved into the church after the Dissolution from the Augustinian Friary at Southtown, which borders Gorleston to the north. Weever records that the friary contained a number of Bacon family burials: Sir Robert Bacon, Sir Henry Bacon, Sir Robert Bacon (presumably a different Sir Robert), Lady Sabina the wife of . . . Bacon, John Bacon his son and nine other children. In the following paragraph, Weever mentioned Sir Henry Bacon of Gorleston, died 1335, differentiating him from the Sir Henry previously listed. It seems likely that other Bacon monuments were moved at the same time as Sabine's.

There are coffin-shaped slabs in the south porch of St Andrew's, which may be Bacon monuments. Nall, writing in the mid nineteenth century, remarked that many stone coffins had been dug up at the friary. He noted two other indents in the Bacon family chantry at the east end of the south aisle. He also quoted from the 'visit' of Dowsing's assistant Francis Jessup of Beccles to Gorleston, but this is now known to be a forgery. Even so, Jessup may well have visited Gorleston and deprived us of the identification of the Bacon brass.

The arms on the shield have two mullets pierced in chief (also interpreted as two rowel spurs), the arms of Bacon, but are differentiated by a bend fusily on the lower part. Joseph Foster, in the late nineteenth century, identified the effigy as Sir Henry Bacon and gave his arms as Gules a bend fusily sable, on a chief argent two spur-rowells of the second. This breaks the long-standing heraldic rule that colours shall not lie on colours. His source for the arms but not the identification seems to have been Hervey, who made his notes in 1561 and had the letter b as a label pointing to the bend on his drawing of the shield. He put g (gules) as the ground for this part of the shield, and or as the ground in chief and had another label b pointing one of the mullets. He repeated this on one of the shields on Sabine Bacon's brass, except that there was no bend to be labelled. The b was presumably interpreted by Foster as black (sable), which would have been correct for the mullets, but might it not have another meaning? Unless there is colour remaining, tinctures on the shields on brasses are difficult to determine without information from other sources. May b not be signifying that the surface of the brass was left blank? The surface could have been recessed and scored to take a colour that could no longer made out. Hervey, as a professional herald, would presumably have written sa for sable. No known member of the Bacon family bore arms with a bend fusilly.

The effigy is also difficult to date precisely. It was manifestly not engraved by the workshops responsible for other comparable armoured figures. It is less boldly engraved and the design, while similar, seems weak in comparison. The use of plate armour suggests a date similar to that of Sir William Fitzralph at Pebmarsh in Essex, now thought to date from 1331-8, as does the use of strips of brass for the marginal inscription. Sir William's armour differs in that he has plates protecting the upper surface of his feet, which old drawings show that Bacon did not. Bacon's ailettes are rectangular rather than round and his smaller shield is supported by a much less substantial shoulder strap.

Sally Badham concluded that the brass represented John Bacon, son of Sabine. He probably died shortly after 1304. She recognised that the armour and marginal inscription counted against this view but argued that they were not conclusive as they represented nothing that could not be paralleled around 1305. She assigned the brass to the Ashford series, attributed to master Ralph, a marbler producing incised slabs and brasses between c. 1273 and c. 1308. Claude Blair did not accept her arguments and favoured a date in the 1330s because of the English tendency to lag behind continental Europe in the armour they favoured, both on the battlefield and on monuments.

The brass was sold to a brazier in the late eighteenth century but rescued and returned to the church around 1830, when the slab was placed upright in the chancel.


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