The brass of Sir Hugh Johnys and his wife Maud in St Mary’s, Swansea
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11A St Mary's Square, Swansea SA1 3LP
11A St Mary's Square, Swansea SA1 3LP
A rare example of a Welsh brass commemorating a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre
To celebrate Easter, April’s Monument of the Month commemorates a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre and has a plaque showing Christ stepping out of his tomb, over the sleeping guards, carrying the banner of the Resurrection.
Sir Hugh died in or soon after 1485 but the brass shows him in armour of the early 16th century. He has a cuirass with a laminated extension to protect his hips, hinged tassets over his thighs and a mail skirt reaching almost to his knees. His legs and arms are completely encased. The pauldrons are bent upwards to protect his neck, and he also has a mail collar. He bears a sword and dagger, and his head rests on a tilting helmet.
Hugh’s second wife Maud had died some years before him. Her brass was damaged by the bombs which fell on the church during the Blitz but we have details of her clothing from a nineteenth-century rubbing. We also have a rough sketch of the brass by Thomas Dineley and some antiquarian descriptions. We can still see Maud’s long plain robe with its elaborate belt and he large fur cuffs. The nineteenth-century rubbing shows that she had a pediment head-dress with long lappets. Both figures originally had speech scrolls reaching up to the figure of the resurrected Christ. Hugh’s was missing by the nineteenth century but hers read ‘Fiat m’ia tua d’ne super nos’ (May thy mercy be upon us, O Lord).
Under her feet we can still see a small panel with four daughters. The corresponding panel under Sir Hugh’s feet was missing by the nineteenth century. Dineley drew it with four sons, but other descriptions say there were five. (Dineley’s drawing has several other inaccuracies: he is not a reliable witness on points of detail.) There were also four shields, but only the indents survived by the time Dineley saw the monument. The monument originally formed the top of a low altar tomb in the chancel, but it was reset in the floor in the nineteenth century. It was badly damaged during the blits of 1941 and the surviving brass panels have been reset in a new slab.
The inscription gives an outline of Hugh’s career. It reads
Pray for the sowle of Hugh Johnys knight and dame Mawde his wife which s[i]r Hugh / was Made knight at the holy sepulcre of oure lord ihū crist in the city of Jerusalem the / xiiii day of August the yere of oure lord gode MCCCCxlj And the said Sir Hugh had / co[n]tynuyd in the werris ther long tyme byfore by the space of fyve yer that is to sey / Ageynst the Turkis and sarsyns in the p[ar]tis of troy grecie and turky under John yt tyme/ Emprowre of Constantyenople and aftir that was knight marchall of ffrawnce under / John duke of som[er]set by the space of ffyve yere And in likewise aftyr that was knight mar / chall of Ingland under the good John duke of Norfolke which John gayve unto hym the / mano[r] of landymo[re] to hym & to his heyr for ev[er]more appon whose soullis ihū have mercy
Hugh was born in about 1415. According to one tradition, he was descended from an illegitimate line of the great Vaughan family of Hergest and Tretower – at least, he sometimes bore their arms of three boys’ heads with snakes round their necks. He seems to have made his name as a career soldier and he was clearly a capable administrator. In 1469 he was appointed one of the Poor Knights of Windsor, a fraternity which provided for the needs of distinguished soldiers in retirement. Poor Knights were supposed to be unmarried, so we assume Maud had died by that date.
The church in Swansea suffered badly during the Blitz. As well as the damage to Hugh and Maud’s brass, the magnificent alabaster tomb which Maud’s cousin Matthew Cradock commissioned for himself and his second wife Lady Katherine Gordon (she was a member of the Scottish royal family and Perkin Warbeck’s widow) was destroyed by a combination of fire, water and a botched attempt at conservation. A third effigy tomb was already battered and is now virtually unidentifiable.
Brass monuments are rare in Wales. In an article in the Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society for 2009, Rhianydd Biebrach identified about twenty, including lost brasses and indents. Of these, only seven survive in their original location. The usual explanation is Wales’s remoteness and poverty, though this cannot be the whole story. Of the lost indents, five were in St David’s Cathedral. One at least was a lavish product with the stone completely covered by a brass plate: Sally Badham has suggested that this could have been a Flemish brass. Good quality stone for carving was readily available in Wales, and the upper gentry seem to have gone for alabaster effigy tombs rather than brasses. As with so much else, the answer may lie (as Rhianydd Biebrach suggests) with the vagaries of fashion.
This post is based on J. M. Lewis, Welsh Monumental Brasses, Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1974. For more on Johnys, his career and family connections, see W. R. B. Robinson, ‘Sir Hugh Johnys: A Fifteenth-century Welsh Knight’ in Morgannwg 14, 1970, 5-34, available online at https://journals.library.wales/view/1169834/1171388/12#?xywh=-1760%2C-610%2C5832%2C3569 . For Rhianydd Bienbrach’s article on medieval Welsh brasses, see https://www.mbs-brasses.co.uk/public/files/2009-transactions-volume-xviii-part-1-1949102959.pdf.