Monumental Brass Society

Sir John Say and wife Elizabeth

Date of Brass:
London D


February 2005

February’s brass of the month features the outstanding monument commemorating Sir John Say, Speaker of the House of Commons, and his wife Elizabeth, 1473, from Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. This brass is one of the rare survivals still retaining its original enamel.

Little is known of Sir John’s early life. He married Elizabeth, daughter and heir of Laurence Cheyne of Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire and settled at Broxbourne. Say soon rose to prominence and in 1449 appears as a member of the Privy Council. He certainly represented Cambridgeshire in the Parliament of 1448-9 and Hertfordshire in the Parliament’s of 1453, 1455, 1463 and 1467, and probably in all the Parliaments of that period.

Say was maligned and embroiled in much controversy during his life. In 1451 his name was included amongst a number whom the House of Commons prayed to be removed from the presence of Henry VI! Sir John was indicted for treason and in 1469 was appointed with Sir Thomas Urswyck (his important brass may be seen at Dagenham, Essex) “to inquire into the state of the coinage, and certain alleged abuses at the Royal Mint”. He also managed to successfully switch sides from the House of Lancaster to that of York and survive! He became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1463-5 and 1467-8 and so claims the distinction of being one of nine speakers to be represented on a brass.

Say was knighted in 1464 and following his first wife’s death in 1473 married Agnes, daughter of Sir John Danvers of Cothorpe, Oxfordshire. Sir John died on 12th April 1478, the year after his marriage. His second wife died within a few months and was buried with her first husband, Sir John Fray, at St Bartholomew-the-Great, London.

The brass is set on a low altar tomb positioned on the south side of the chancel and depicts Sir John Say in armour wearing a close-fitting short-sleeved tabard emblazoned with his armorial bearings. A large sword is suspended from a central position. Although, sadly, the head has been lost, it is possible to discern the ends of a Yorkist collar of Suns and Roses, (the distinctive badge adopted by Edward IV after the Battle of Mortimer Cross in 1461) from above his hands.

Elizabeth is portrayed sporting an excellent example of the butterfly headdress. She wears a fur-trimmed gown over which is a heraldic mantle embroidered with her family arms of Cheyne.

Above the figures is an elaborate achievement bearing the arms of the Say family, which still retains its original enamelling to delineate the various heraldic colours. The crest is a large, but friendly looking, stag.

Two shields occupy positions at each comer of the Purbeck coverstone. That in the top left hand corner (dexter) again bears the arms of Say. It is interesting to note just how much of the enamel has perished from this shield when compared with a century-old dabbing preserved in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries. The shield in the top right hand corner (sinister) was lost between the years 1866 and 1876 but was emblazoned with the arms of Cheyne quarterly Engayne and Pabenham.

A raised letter chamfer marginal inscription in English completes the composition. The latter, which occupies three sides of the coverstone, is sadly mutilated. However, it is fortunate that Robert Bruce Cotton noted the inscription in 1593 when it was more complete, as did the antiquary, John Weever who published it in his Ancient Funeral Monuments in 1631. The slab also contains an indent and rivet holes for a chamfer marginal inscription on the fourth or east side (i.e. that abutting the pillar) which would have contained the date of Sir John’s death. It is interesting to speculate whether this fillet was ever engraved or perhaps the engraver, finding it difficult to undertake the task in situ, removed it to the workshop and never replaced it! It seems highly unlikely that this strip would have been lost between 1478 and Cotton’s record of 1593.

It is not certain whether Sir John Say was buried with his first wife at Broxbourne but what we can say is that he commissioned a memorial of great beauty and interest which survives for us to enjoy today.

© Martin Stuchfield

Photos: © Martin Stuchfield


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