Monumental Brass Society

Christopher Peyton and Sir Robert Peyton

Date of Brass:
1507 1518


January 2020

This month's contribution highlights the contrast between the present condition of two brasses at Isleham with that of many others in Cambridgeshire.

On 28 August 1643 Parliament passed an ordinance stating that 'all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished'. These were to include 'images and pictures of saints or superstitious inscriptions'. Churchwardens were to carry out this work, or Justices of the Peace if they failed to do so, and it was to be done before 1 November 1643. On 19 December 1643 the Earl of Manchester issued a warrant to William Dowsing to carry out such work in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

Dowsing commenced his work the following day in Cambridge, and by 3 January had progressed to the wider county, and then on to Suffolk within a couple of days. A great many brasses were left without inscriptions and religious imagery after his visits and those of his deputies. Fortunately for us they did not visit every church in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and were often content to leave orders for the work they believed needed doing, rather than doing it all themselves. Such orders were not always followed. Dowsing himself kept a journal of what he did, which survives in transcripts. If his deputies did likewise, no trace survives.

The northern part of the county was either not visited or the section of Dowsing's journal dealing with it is lost. Girton retained its brasses complete with inscriptions although some of them have been lost since. Isleham, in the north-east corner of the county, also kept its brasses but the two discussed here may have been subject to earlier iconoclasm. They commemorate Christopher Peyton, died 27 June 1507, with his wife Elizabeth and a son and a daughter; and Sir Robert Peyton, died 18 March 1518, with his wife Elizabeth, whose date of death was not filled in, with their children. Both retain their inscriptions but everything else is lost. Both had religious imagery. Christopher and Elizabeth were shown kneeling before what was most likely (from its outline) the Virgin Mary with her Child. The brass of Sir Robert and Elizabeth had much more complex imagery, with a Crucifixion with figures of Mary and John either side. There were also prayer scrolls above Sir Robert and Elizabeth. 

Two earlier and larger brasses in the church commemorating members of the Barnard family are more complete. They both have figures with inscriptions and canopies, the latter missing parts of their side shafts, but no pictorial religious elements. A third Peyton brass, to Elizabeth, died 15 November 1516, had no figures but has lost its central cross, whereas a post-Reformation brass commemorating Richard Peyton, died 13 April 1574, and his wife Mary is complete. 

In 1550 an Act of Edward VI's Parliament ordering the destruction of religious imagery in churches was accompanied by a schedule protecting 'any Image or Picture sett or graven upon any Tombe in any Church . . . . which hathe not bene comonly reputed and taken for a Saincte'. This exclusion was because iconoclasm was extending to such monuments. Unfortunately some senior puritan churchmen ignored this exclusion and launched offensives against tombs in the early 1550s. Queen Elizabeth had to make a similar proclamation in September 1560 because attacks on monuments were still taking place.

The religious imagery on the Peyton brasses at Isleham was clearly illegal under the 1550 Act, but the effigies of the Peytons themselves were equally clearly not. Was the depiction of the Peytons praying to such images enough to justify their removal along with the images themselves? Cambridge University had nurtured reformers to a greater extent than Oxford, and the relative proximity of Isleham to Cambridge may have led to attacks on these two brasses around 1550.  

Copyright: Jon Bayliss



Trevor Cooper, ed., The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War (2001)

Phillip Lindley, Tomb Destruction and Scholarship: Medieval Monuments in Early Modern England (2007)

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