Monumental Brass Society

Ralph de Hengham

Date of Brass:
St Paul's Cathedral, London


September 2009
I have recently been reading, and admiring with great pleasure, the new Shire publication Monumental Brasses by Sally Badham with Martin Stuchfield. Drawing on the rich collection of 3,000 surviving brasses in the U.K., this new book also reminds us of the loss of monumental brasses which took place, especially through iconoclasm and destruction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (2) My choice for this month’s ‘Brass of the Month’ is one such lost brass, that of Ralph Hengham, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and later of the Common Bench, (d. 1311) formerly in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Very little of what can be termed ‘medieval’ survives from old St Paul’s. Of the many funerary monuments which once filled the Cathedral, only portions of four pre-1600 tombs survived the Great Fire of September 1666. The effigies of Sir Nicholas Bacon (d. 1579) Sir Thomas (d. 1594) and Lady Anne Heneage (d 1592), Sir John Wolley (d. 1595) and William Hewit (d. 1599) can be seen in the crypt but, alas, there are no surviving medieval brasses. (3) As such my choice of Hengham may be considered a surprising one in that it no longer exists not even as an indent. However, although the material object is now lost, the brass is known through the written record and in the publication of Sir William Dugdale’s (1605-86) The History of St Paul’s published in 1658. As a window into the past, this pre fire source is of extreme importance to those interested in the lost monumental brasses, tombs, effigies and monuments of old St Paul’s Cathedral.


At the encouragement of Sir Christopher (later Lord) Hatton, Dugdale undertook a number of visits to English cathedrals in 1640-41 with the purpose of recording the tombs, effigies and brasses within them. Dugdale was accompanied by William Sedgwick, a genealogist and arms painter, who produced a series of drawings which now provide, for many cathedrals, the only record of their pre Civil War monuments. This collection, known as both the ‘Book of Monuments’ and ‘Book of Draughts’ is now BL Add. Ms. 71474. (4) It was this collection which formed the basis for the illustrations made by Wencelaus Hollar in The History of St Paul’s. The purpose of this History was to act as a fund raiser for repairs and Dugdale frequently laments the damage and loss of monuments made during the Civil War: (5)


What may we do, that have lately seen the destruction of this magnificent Church, once the glory of our principall City, and of the whole Nation; and the Monuments of so many famous men in their times thus torn in pieces; yea, their very bones and dust pulled out of their graves in hope to discover some Treasure or Jewels buried with them (6)


It is not clear whether Hengham’s brass was one of those destroyed during the Civil War. There is no record of any pillaging of his grave and, unlike the bishops and aristocracy buried within St Paul’s, there was little likelihood of any wealth worth stealing. Of more value was the brass plate but Dugdale does not record whether this survived the iconoclastic inclinations of the 1640’s.

Ralph Hengham was born c. 1235 although his origins are unclear. It has been suggested he was of a Norfolk gentry family; however there is also some evidence suggesting that he came from Sible Hedingham in Essex where he had become rector by 1274. His origins seem to be modest and like many who entered the judiciary he began his career as a junior clerk from where he was presented to the church of Yardley in 1264. After serving as a clerk in the King’s Bench, Hengham joined the services of Richard of Middleton and following the latter’s appointment as Lord Chancellor in 1269, Hengham was quickly promoted within the judiciary. After serving a number of years on the eyre circuit Hengham was appointed Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1274, a position he held for 15 years. He was dismissed and disgraced in 1289-90, convicted of mis-conduct although pardoned on payment of a fine of 10,000 marks. However by 1299 he was in back in the king’s favour and in 1301 was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Bench which he served until 1309. Throughout his career, Hengham also held three cathedral canonries (at Hereford Lichfield and St Paul’s) as well as prebends in five collegiate churches and livings in ten counties. He was a man of wealth, as reflected in the fine he was obliged to pay in 1290, and with sufficient means to pay for an impressive, and expensive, memorial over his grave. (7)
It is not clear whether Hengham’s memorial was in place before his death but the resulting monumental brass came to form part of a series of tombs and brasses, for bishops, canons and clerks, which dominated St Paul’s up until the mid fourteenth century. Prior to the 1340’s, there were very few lay burials, as reflected through funerary monuments, within the Cathedral and with the space almost exclusively reserved for the clergy. Many were commemorated by brasses and it is almost certain that the lost brass to Henry de Sandwich, Bishop of London (d. 1273) was the earliest brass to commemorate an English bishop. (8)
The brass to Ralph Hengham is of Camoys style and was placed under a canopied recess and set in the north wall of the north choir aisle. His brass contains an effigy showing Hengham at prayer and dressed according to his status as a Chief Justice in collobium and coif. Professor Nigel Saul has recently commented that Hengham’s clothing was a typical representation in early fourteenth century funerary commemoration and similar to the tomb effigies of Sir John Stoner (d. 1354) at Dorchester Abbey (Oxon) and Sir John de Stouford (d. c. 1350) at West Down (Devon). (9) Hengham’s feet rest on a lion, with a curling tail, and the effigy is placed under a shaftless, pointed gable with an elaborate display of flames decorating it, both above and below. The marginal inscription is in Lombardic lettering and reads:


[By (means of) these verses it is known that here lies the flower of the English; The blessed man called Radulphus of Hengham; of the laws which he drew up, they were truly established]

Of interest are the thirty nine alternating brass images of stars and sheep displayed adjacent to the effigy underneath the gabled canopy. A further ten singular brass stars and sheep are shown above. There is no heraldry shown on the brass and it is probable that the stars and sheep were a personal choice of display required by Hengham. We do not know the significance of these symbols, although stars and moons pepper the slabs of other early brasses. Unfortunately the difficulty with drawings of now lost brasses is the interpretation of them and in particular the degree of poetic license which the engraver may have given them. Above the canopy in the upper left and right corners of the monumental brass, are two confused images which are unclear. This is quite likely to have been based on an indent of what were originally censing angels and which would have been an obvious target during the iconoclastic targeting of ‘Popish’ imagery during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Although there is no surviving will for Ralph Hengham it can be reasonably assumed that it was at his request that he was buried within St Paul’s Cathedral where he held a canonry. The style of the brass, and to an extent the inscription, suggests that Hengham also influenced the design of this. This is particularly shown in the stars and sheep which are displayed along with his effigy on the slab. Unlike Sir John Stoner (at Dorchester Abbey) and Sir John de Stouford (at West Down), Hengham was not commemorated by a tomb effigy and this was almost certainly down to the availability of space within the Cathedral and a wish, either consciously or not, to mirror the tastes of the Cathedral clergy. The brass, and its place within what must have been a visually stunning and bright environment, also reminds us of Hengham’s wealth and status and of his need to be remembered. Thanks to Dugdale and Hollar, he achieved this.


1. I am grateful to Sally Badham, Rachel Canty and David Griffith for their comments on Ralph Hengham and his brass
2. Sally Badham with Martin Stuchfield Monumental Brasses (Oxford 2009), pp. 24-25
3. An indent to an unknown priest was found during excavations of the former Pardon Churchyard in 1969, see J. C. Page-Phillips ‘An Indent from Old St Paul’s’ Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society Volume XI Part 1 (1969) p. 42

4. Philip Whittemore ‘Sir William Dugdale’s ‘Book of Draughts’’ Church Monuments XVIII (2003) pp. 23-52
5. Sir William Dugdale The History of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (London 1658) p. 45
6. Ibid p. 48; see also Marion Roberts Dugdale and Hollar: History Illustrated (London 2002) pp. 77-78
7. For Hengham’s career, see Paul Brand, ‘Hengham, Ralph (b. in or before 1235, d. 1311)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 24 July 2009]
8. Nicholas Rogers ‘English Episcopal Monuments, 1270-1350’ in John Coales (ed.) The Earliest English Brasses: Patronage, Style and Workshops 1270-1350 (London 1987), pp. 29-30 and p. 40
9. Nigel Saul English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (Oxford 2009), pp. 271-272

Copyright: Christian Steer

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