Monumental Brass Society

John Wybarne

Date of Brass:
c.1370 and c.1510
London B (male effigy)


March 2004

March's brass of the month is from Ticehurst, Sussex. The inscription records that it commemorates John Wybarne, who died in 1490, and his two wives, Edith and Agnes. John Wybarne was the son of John Wybarne of Hawkwell, in Pembury, Kent, by his wife Agnes, daughter and heir of John Sidley, and the brother of Nicholas Wybarne, a knight hospitaler of Rhodes, He was possessed of considerable property in Ticehurst parish, and was a great benefactor to the church. He married first Edith Hide, by whom he had 9 children, and secondly a widow, Agnes Harris, who survived him and by whom he had 2 children.

This brass is very odd composition, with two figures of ladies 18 ins. in height in the fashionable dress of the early sixteenth century, either side of a 34ins high figure of a man in armour of c.1370. At the top of the slab in which the brasses are laid is the indent of a shield.

The will of Agnes Wybarne, who survived her husband, directs her executors 'to bye a convenient stone to laye upon my husband John Wybarne's grave, and myne, in the chancel of Tysehurst'. It appears that Agnes's executors took her instructions literally, for they made use of an earlier graveslab. The tombmakers perhaps removed the shield as the arms would have been inappropriate, kept the figure of the knight and added a new inscription and two figures of ladies to represent her and Edith. As the slab is only 27 ins wide, they would have been unable to have fitted in two more figures the same height as the knight, so had to compromise by using diminutive figures. Thus Agnes's executors would have got a showy monument at a bargain price.

The main re-use of old brasses was at the time of the Reformation, when due to the dissolution of the monasteries and the iconoclastic attacks on churches, huge amounts of old brasses were sold. Most were turned over as re-engraved on the reverse (palimpsests). However, there is evidence of brasses being sold off long before this. There is ample documentary and material evidence of the validity of the criticism levelled against friars in ‘Piers the Ploughman’s Creed’ that:

‘And in belding of tombes Thei travaileth grete
To chargen ther chirche flore And chaungen it ofte’.

People were willing to pay for the privilege of intramural burial, especially in favoured positions such as near specific altars or images; a person’s standing in life would be judged by many who came after by the position of his monument within the church. The presence of an existing monument in the chosen position was not necessarily a bar to the fulfilment of their ambitions. Often the church authorities were willing to take up old floor slabs, sell them, and also enjoy the income from fees for burials in the now vacant position.

In the second quarter of the 15th century, the sacrist of Bury St Edmunds Abbey was rebuked for removing gravestones. But such reprimands had little effect: documentary evidence bears out that avaricious church authorities remained eager for the income generated by the sale of old tombstones cleared for new burials. For example, in 1457 the churchwardens of St Michael Cornhill, London brought an old gravestone for 2s 4d and resold it for 6s 4d, a tidy profit. Again in 1539 the churchwardens of St Dunstan-in-the-West, London sold a marble stone from the church to the executors of a man buried that year and separately sold to someone else 'the pictours in latyn upon the same stones'. Reclamation trading was clearly not a 20th century invention!

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