Monumental Brass Society

John Byrkhed

Date of Brass:
London sub B


August 2007

August's brass of the month is, although damaged, of great interest.

Headless and lacking parts of its canopy and inscription, as well as all but one of its shields, the brass of John Byrkhed at St. Mary, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex, is not immediately attractive. However, an investigation of the life of the person commemorated adds considerable interest to the brass. In his will, made on 24 July 1467 and proved on 5 October 1468, Byrkhede requested to be buried in the chancel, and his brass still lies there, in its original stone, though usually covered by a carpet. He appointed as his executors his cousin Hugh Ives and his nephew Gilbert Hert, and as overseers Thomas Wynterborne, who was one of the first Fellows of All Souls, Oxford, and Thomas Rygby, gentleman. It was one of these, most probably Wynterborne, who commissioned the brass, which is a product of the ‘Sub-B’ London workshop, and who composed the inscription in rhyming hexameters. This records that pitiless Atropos slew Byrkhede on the feast of St. Cuthburga (31 August) 1468. Wynterborne and Byrkhede worked together as officials in the administration of Cardinal Bourchier and in 1471, the year he was elected dean of St. Paul’s, Winterborne also became rector of Harrow.

Byrkhed, like many other canons, is depicted in processional vestments. The fashion for this mode of representation seems to have been set by the canons of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Dugdale illustrates several brasses of c. 1400 which show inhabited orphreys. Of surviving brasses, the earliest are William Ermyn at Castle Ashby, Northants., and John Sleford, at Balsham, Cambs. Nearer in date to the Byrkhed brass are John Blodwell at Balsham, a London B product, and Henry Sever, at Merton College, from the London D workshop. Byrkhede’s cope depicts saints who were evidently selected for their particular connection with his life, although sometimes the connection is now obscure. The saints shown are, on the left, from top to bottom, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Peter, John the Evangelist, Richard and Paula, and on the right, John the Baptist, Anne, Laurence, Nicholas and Bridget of Sweden.

Byrkhed’s surname suggests an origin in the north-west of England and the bequest of vestments and money towards the purchase of an antiphoner to the parish church of Wigan may indicate his birthplace. His shield, three garbs set in a lead field, which still survives in the bottom right corner, resembles the arms of the Earls of Chester (Argent three garbs or). Throughout his career he was dependent on the patronage of the Archbishops of Canterbury. The arms of two of them, Thomas Arundel (d.1414) and Henry Chichele (d. 1443), were formerly at the upper corners of the brass. It is probable that it was Arundel who ordained him or at least appointed him to his first living, the rectory of Patching. Patching, though in West Sussex, is a peculiar of the archdiocese of Canterbury. St. Richard of Chichester probably owes his presence on the brass to Byrkhede’s time in Sussex. In 1416 he vacated Patching on becoming rector of Hollingbourne in Kent. Then, in 1419, he vacated Hollingbourne on becoming a canon and prebend of Cobham. Shortly afterwards he became rector of Blackawton, Devon, which he exchanged in September 1422 for the rectory of Hawkhurst, Kent, which he retained until his death. In his will he left 26s. 8d. to be distributed amongst the poor parishioners of Hawkhurst, and St. Laurence, the patron of Hawkhurst church, was included among the saints on the cope. From 1428 until his death Byrkhed was canon of Wells and prebendary of Timberscombe, but neither St. Andrew, the patron of Wells Cathedral, nor St. Petroc, the patron of Timberscombe, features on the brass. The inscription states that Byrkhed’s ‘charity, gravity, fidelity and prudent manners made him honourable in the estimation of the chief prelates of the kingdom’. He was seneschal of Archbishop Chichele and assisted him in the foundation of All Souls College. Chichele made him one of the executors of his will and for his services he was made a member of the confraternity of All Souls in 1465. It was Chichele who rewarded him with the rich living of Harrow. As rector of Harrow, Byrkhede undertook a major rebuilding, providing the church with its distinctive spire and a fine wooden roof.

At the head of the orphreys are the Blessed Virgin, the patron of Harrow church, and Byrkhed’s name-saint, St. John the Baptist. A curious feature of the image of the Baptist, often found in manuscript illuminations, is the head still attached to his camel-skin robe. SS. Peter and Anne, the next pair of saints, are so widely venerated that it is difficult to place any particular interpretation on their presence. The same can be said of St. John the Evangelist, in the third row, and St. Nicholas, in the fourth. The rare image of St. Paula, at bottom left, may reflect Byrkhede’s interest in biblical studies. He bequeathed a Bible to Master Thomas Roo and a volume of St. Jerome’s commentaries to his chaplain James Birkhed (presumably a relative). At the bottom of the cope are two uncommon female saints. St. Paula was a Roman widow who moved to Bethlehem and supported St. Jerome in his biblical studies, symbolised by the book that she holds. Balancing her is another holy widow, St. Bridget, the founder of the order of the Most Holy Saviour (the Bridgettines). She is shown receiving her Revelations, her face upturned to the divine light and her hands in the orans pose of adoration. The upturned gaze is commonplace in the iconography of St. Bridget, though she is usually shown writing. Byrkhede made no bequest to Syon, the one English Bridgettine house, but left money to two other monasteries renowned for their piety, the Charterhouses of London and Sheen.

Above the canopy are two missing scrolls. One of these still survived in 1786, when it was recorded by Gough as reading: ‘Jhu blessyd mitt thu be’. The occurrence of vernacular pious interjections at this date is not uncommon. A secular inscription in English is recorded in the will. Byrkhede bequeathed to his cousin and executor Hugh Ives a standing cup of silver with a cover, inscribed with the reason or motto: ‘Al my pleser’. Master Wynterborne was given another silver standing cup with a cover, pounced and gilt on the outside, with a finial in the form of a flower. Thomas Rygby, the other overseer, received a third silver standing cup, pounced and parcel gilt, with a finial in the form of an eagle. These are all gone, melted down long ago, but the brass remains as a testimony of the life of John Byrkhede.


J.G. Nichols, ‘The Brass of John Birkhede at Harrow’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, I (1860), pp.276-84.

H.K. Cameron, ‘The Brasses of Middlesex. Part 14’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, New Series XXIV (1973), pp.165-8.

Byrkhede’s will is TNA, PROB 11/5 (Godyn), ff.190v-191v.

© Nicholas Rogers

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