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The Case of the Cowthorpe Brass

19th-century metal theft

The theft of antiquities from churches isn’t a new problem. 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.”

The motivation of the thieves will never be known. Was the brass stolen for its scrap value or to be sold as a decorative ornament? Equally unclear is whether the thieves initially succeeded in removing the complete brass memorial, the fragments surviving today having been recovered at a later date, or whether it was already in a fragmentary condition at the time of the incident in June 1860. About a third of the original medieval memorial survived the crime and is displayed today on the north wall of the chancel in St. Michael’s.

If only partially removed during the incident, the thieves may have been disturbed, satisfied with their loot, namely the brass effigy of a female figure with some extra components consisting of the decorative canopies, heraldic shields and surrounding dedicatory inscription. Alternatively they may have simply picked up sufficient scrap metal to sell on for a sufficient profit. According to the York Herald article, the brass was to other metallic liturgical items from the church.

In any case, very little remains of a once magnificent monument which by the time of the reported theft, had already lain in St. Michael’s for 366 years. What survives shows the heavily worn figure of Sir Bryan Rouclyff, eminent lawyer, Baron of the Exchequer under Henry VI, and most importantly, benefactor and builder of this church, holding up a model the edifice itself, an achievement of which he was rightly proud and for which the parish was grateful. He is shown wearing the judicial robes of his profession. Sadly, that of his wife, Joan Hammerton, has disappeared, never to be recovered, her diminutive right hand all that is left as evidence of the couple’s desire to demonstrate their benevolence on the memorial. A representation of the tomb of Sir John Burgh, Rouclyff’s maternal uncle, who died in 1450, remains at their feet.

Some sixteen years before the reported theft, the brass was documented by Messrs. J.B. and L.A.G. Waller in their Series of Monumental Brasses, published in 1864. Along with a sketch of the monument showing parts missing, Waller described it as being ‘in a disgraceful state of neglect’, adding the following: ‘the canopies much mutilated, many fragments, with escocheons of arms and the whole of the inscription, in the parish chest, liable to constant spoliation ; added to this a large stove was placed upon the figures.’

All this leads to the question, what sort of condition was the memorial in at the time of the theft and to what extent, if any, if was in its original complete state? Waller’s description of the missing components and ‘the whole of the inscription’ being ‘in the parish chest’ suggests they had to reconstruct much of the brass in order to produce their drawing. They go on to say that original stone tablet was, at some point in its history, discarded in the churchyard and this is 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 in Cowthorpe but in the Franciscan Friary in York. 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 very friary church. The friary was dismantled only decades later under the instruction of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, this house being one of the earliest victims of the Dissolution.

Neither the newspaper article nor subsequent scholarly research has explored the possibility that the Rouclyf’s memorial brass, 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 precisely mark the burial place of Rouclyff and his wife. If so, this brass may well constitute one of the only known 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 difficult for readers to digest.

The inscription does, however, continue, ‘fundator et constructor hujus ecclesiae‘ (founder and builder of this church), adding further complications as to its original intended placement.

Rouclyff probably commissioned the memorial a number of years before he made his final will and testament – and probably soon after the new church was complete or even as part of his specification for the building. 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 in subsequent years, changing his mind even while 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. Michael’s, made before his burial, without purpose, resulting in its redundant and dilapidated state as early as the 1800s and might explain its estrangement from its original stone base.

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 and visually encouraging parishioners to pray for their souls, with the aim of minimising their post-mortal 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 life and legacy is codified in the famous 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 Rouclyff’s symbols.

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 local and national communities. 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 anticipate theft and have plans in place 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 ideally, 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

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