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The Case of the Cowthorpe Brass

19th-century metal theft

Churches have been a target for thieves since time immemorial. On Saturday 9th June 1860, the York Herald reported on such a crime, with the headline, “Sacrilege at Cowthorpe”:

“Within the last few days, the Parish Church of Cowthorpe, near Tadcaster, was entered by thieves, and the following property stolen : — A white metal flagon and basin, a pewter plate, and a quantity of brass from off the tomb of Brian Rowclyff, who founded the church in the year 1445. On one of the pieces of brass, a narrow plate, is engraven in Old English characters, a Latin inscription, and upon another brass plate, which is about 2 feet 6* inches long, by 4^ or 5 inches deep, is the following, also engraved in Old English :— ” O Lord that art of myghtes most eternal god in trinite Fadre and Sen and holy gost most humbly we pray unto the Do show thy mercy and pyte ou Brian Rowel vtf and Johan his Wyff Forgyt thai r synne and iuquite and bryng tha ym to thy joyfull lvff. Amen.”

It is unclear whether the brass was removed as a desirable artefact, stolen-to-order to be sold on the black-market and ending up in a wealthy Victorian gentleman’s townhouse or whether it was taken for its metallic value to be melted down for scrap. Equally unclear is whether the thieves initially succeeded in removing the brass memorial in its complete form, the fragments surviving today having been recovered a short time afterward the theft – about a third of the original medieval memorial survived the crime and is, to this day, proudly mounted on a display panel on the north wall of the chancel – or whether it was already in pieces.

If only partially removed during the incident, the thieves were possibly in a hurry, satisfied they’d acquired the item sought, i.e. a brass effigy of a female figure with some bonus material consisting of the decorative canopies, heraldic shields and surrounding dedicatory inscription or they’d acquired sufficient scrap metal to sell on. Perhaps they were disturbed and made off in haste, failing in their grand scheme to take the entire memorial, damaging it in the process and, for whatever reason, failing to return for the rest of this heavy and unwieldy piece of booty. The report claims they’d also taken some other liturgical items from the church so they were evidently attempting to make the most of their ‘visit’.

As a result of this larceny, very little remains of a once magnificent and, by that time 366-year-old, monument. What does survive shows the heavily worn figure of Sir Bryan Rouclyff, eminent lawyer, Baron of the Exchequer under Henry VI, and benefactor and builder of this church, holding up a model the edifice itself, an achievement of which he was rightly proud. He is shown wearing the judicial robes of his profession. Sadly, his wife, Joan Hammerton, was taken and never recovered, leaving only her diminutive right hand evidence of their desire to conspicuously celebrate their  joint enterprise in reconstructing the church for their parish and its people. A representation of the tomb of Sir John Burgh, Rouclyff’s maternal uncle, who died in 1450, lays at their feet.

Thankfully, some time before 1860, a sketch of the complete memorial brass was made and included in the survey of memorial brasses by antiquarians J.B. and L.A.B. Waller, published in 1864 (the Redundant Churches Fund helpfully included a copy of this drawing in the earliest edition of the visitor-guidebook to St. Michael’s church published in the late 1970s).

Additional questions till loom over the modus operandi of this crime and the brass at the time of the theft might not have been such a desirable object. By the time Waller saw the brass, it had apparently already suffered a period of neglect and, according to Waller, “I found it in a most disgraceful state”. It is therefore possible that this memorial had already been partially or wholly dismantled by the time of the theft. Its original stone tablet was discarded in the churchyard where it remains to this day, underneath the east window.

It was Rouclyff’s wealth and patronage which paid for the new St. Michael’s church in Cowthorpe in the late 1440s, offering respite to the local parishioners from their daily trudge through mud and flood to attend mass in the old building which, by the 1440s, had been rendered inaccessible every time the nearby River Nidd burst its banks. The appeal for a new church is recorded in contemporary registers of Archbishop Booth of York and Rouclyff allowed parishioners to attend mass in his own private chapel in his house while construction was underway.

Despite his achievement, in his will of 1494, Rouclyff requested burial, not in St. Michael’s but in the Franciscan Friary in York, this house dissolved only forty years later under Henry VIII’s and Cromwell’s direction. Rouclyff’s wish had evidently been granted and he was laid to rest in a tomb in the friary – his son’s will (also Bryan), proved in the early 1500s, records his own desire to be buried ‘next to his father’ in that same church.

Neither the newspaper article nor subsequent scholarly research has explored the possibility that this memorial, therefore, might have had an earlier provenance not in St. Michael’s church in Cowthorpe but in the Greyfriars’ house in the city of York. In the sketch published by the Wallers, the formulaic wording, ‘Hic Jacent’, or ‘Here Lie’ (pl.) ‘Brianus Rouclyffe‘, clearly survives at the start the inscription, indicating that this monument was originally intended to mark the burial place of Rouclyff and his wife. If so, this brass may well constitute one of the only surviving artefacts from the house of the Franciscans in York, most of its treasures having faced certain and violent destruction under the watchful eyes of Cromwell’s commissioners. This would also make the nineteenth-century theft of such a remarkable artefact even more shocking and difficult to digest.

The epitaph does, however, continue, ‘fundator et constructor hujus ecclesiae‘ (founder and builder of this church), adding further mystery as to its original placement but more likely just a twist of fate.

Rouclyff probably commissioned the memorial some time before he made his will – possibly several years and probably soon after the new church was complete or even as part of his specification for the church. The depiction of the tomb of John Burgh provides a terminus-post-quem of 1450. Rouclyff and his wife would undoubtedly have discussed the design of the monument with its maker, at that time fully intending St. Michael’s church to be Rouclyff’s final resting place. But these plans might have been scuppered by differing fortunes later in life, changing his mind as late as when he was making his final testament on his deathbed. A man of Rouclyff’s status – a wealthy court official and landowner would be expected to establish a chantry in the later fifteenth century and the ‘rook’ heraldry shown in Waller’s sketch above the south door of the model of the church (no longer visible today), strongly indicates his original intention for his new church to function as his private chapel. The much grander surroundings of the friary and the benefit of having greater space for masses and prayers for their souls far outweighed the more restricted environment within a small parish church with room for perhaps five or ten priests and this may have influenced a change of mind. This eventuality would have left the brass and the empty tomb in St. Martin’s, made before his burial, without purpose, resulting in its redundant and dilapidated state as early as the 1800s and would explain its estrangement from its original tomb slab.

The memorial is just one of numerous treasures in this church reflecting the patronage of its wealthy benefactors, displaying conspicuous consumption in their quest to promote good works, encouraging parishioners to pray for their souls, thereby limiting their time in Purgatory. The four faces of the rectangular font display Rouclyff’s heraldry along with that of Hammerton, his wife’s family, Plumpton (the family whose whose legacy is famous the Plumpton letters and into which Rouclyff’s son married) and Ros (Roos), a powerful Yorkshire landholding family since the Norman Conquest. Fragmentary stained glass showing the same series of heraldry survives in the upper lights in this church’s windows. There is also a decorative wooden canopied chest from the same period which would probably have functioned as an Easter sepulchre, also displaying Roucylff’s motif.

In 1886 the fragmentary remains of Rouclyff and Hammerton’s brass, the once spectacular monument now just a ghost of its former self, were installed into a new marble slab and in more recent times mounted into an attractive pitch-pine base and installed on the north wall of the chancel, to be admired by today’s visitors.

The loss of historical and cultural artefacts from churches will continue to shock society in the future at local and national level. Despite all the benefits provided by alarms, CCTV cameras and property marking, even the most expensive preventative schemes can provide little protection against determined criminals. Parishes and heritage organisations must prepare for the worst and be ready to respond when incidents do occur. As has been proved by the Cowthorpe case in the 1860s, detailed photographic documentation of invaluable, irreplaceable and uninsurable artefacts, fixtures and fittings is paramount for the prevention, investigation and hopeful recovery of stolen artefacts.

St. Michael’s church, Cowthorpe, was declared redundant in 1977 and has since been under the guardianship of The Churches Conservation Trust

The image-slider below shows Waller’s sketch of the Cowthorpe brass, superimposed with the fragmentary remains which can be seen today. Move the slider left to right for comparison.

A List of Monumental Brasses in the British Isles (1926) and Appendix (1958), Mill StephensonLondon, 1964
Butler, L.A.S., St. Michael’s Church Cowthorpe, The Churches Conservation Trust, Leeds, 1999
Dodsworth, R. Yorkshire Church Notes 1619-1631, ed. J.W. Clay, Leeds, 1904