One of the contradictory features of reasoning about same-sex relationships in the past is the circular logic that same-sex romantic relationships could not have been socially approved, therefore evidence showing social approval for conjunctions of two people of the same sex must not represent romantic relationships. And while the careful historian avoids making claims beyond the known evidence, the imagination is sparked by examples such as this one where two women are given a commemoration after death--a commemoration that was within the control, and therefore with the approval of, their families--that represents them with the forms and symbolism normally attributed to married heterosexual couples.
Bennett, Judith. 2008. “Two Women and their Monumental Brass, c. 1480” in Journal of the British Archaeological Association vol. 161:163-184.
An examination of a joint memorial brass for two women.
The parish church in Etchingham (East Sussex) has a memorial brass jointly commemorating two never-married women: Elizabeth Etchingham who died in 1452, and Agnes Oxenbridge who died in 1480. This article considers both the specific life circumstances of these two women and the general context of funeral monuments dedicated to same-sex pairs.
As might be guessed, the church in Etchingham was built by, and served as a resting place for, the Etchinghams and might in some senses be considered a family church. When designed in the late 14th century, the chancel was created to serve as a family mausoleum for generations of Ethchinghams to come, and most of the funeral brasses commemorate the principle heirs of the dynasty. But in 1480 a brass was laid in the church commemorating someone who was not only not a male heir, but an unmarried daughter: Elizabeth Etchingham. Her exact relationship to the main line (and consequently her exact age) are not conclusively determined. But it is clear that she had some significant relationship to the woman she shares the memorial with: Agnes Oxenbridge, a daughter of another prominent east Sussex family.
Bennett notes Alan Bray’s exploration of the social place of intense same-sex friendships in European society (The Friend) and the evidence that the Christian church has accommodated and celebrated those friendships both in life and in death. Examples are given of the joint tomb from 1391 of the English knights William Neville and John Clanvowe in Galata near Istanbul, which depicts their coats of arms displayed impaled in the style normally used for married couples. Most of Bray’s examples are more modern (from the 17th through 19th centuries) and (virtually?) all were male. Bray emphasized that these monuments celebrated emotional intimacy and friendship and cannot be taken as proof of sexual relationships, but they do establish a genre of memorials that treat same-sex couples with the symbolism and dignity similar to that given to married couples.
The Etchingham-Oxenbridge brass survives in complete form and is clearly readable. It shows two women with their hands raised in prayer, turned in semi-profile toward each other. Elizabeth Etchingham is depicted as a smaller figure on the left, with the loose flowing hair down to her hips, a motif associated with a young unmarried woman. Agnes Oxenbridge, on the right, is depicted larger, and her hair is pinned up but not covered, again indicating an unmarried state but not indicating youth. Both wear narrow bands about their hair decorated with a triangular ornament, and they wear identical fashionable gowns.
The text appears in two columns separated by a vertical line, clearly associating each of the two passages with a specific figure. On the left, for Elizabeth, the text identifies her as the first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, died December 3, 1452. For Agnes, the text identifies her as the daughter of Robert Oxenbridge and gives her death date as August 4, 1480, concluding with her request for God’s mercy on both women. While this sort of separated text was not unknown from other memorials, the more usual format for married couples is a single joint text. The lack of any mention of husbands in either woman’s entry is very strong presumptive evidence that they never married, especially in combination with the depicted hairstyles which mark them as unmarried.
Their exact position within the Etchingham and Oxenbridge families is difficult to pin down, as neither is mentioned clearly in family genealogies (which focus more on the lines with descendents), and due to the tendency not only for names to repeat within a family, but in some cases for multiple children to be given the same first name. (As children were typically named after a godparent, there wasn’t always a choice of a unique name available, given the socio-political constraints on godparent choice.) But after much analysis, Bennett concludes that most likely Agnes Oxenbridge was the daughter of the second Robert Oxenbridge listed in the genealogies, and thus was born around 1425. This means that she would have been in her twenties when Elizabeth Etchingham died and in her fifties when she herself died. Elizabeth Etchingham’s exact position is less certain: depending on which generation she was born into, she herself might have been in her twenties when she died (and thus of an age with Agnes) or might have been a child at her death.
Their unmarried status was unusual for the time--less than 10% of women of their social class remained unmarried. But during this time in England a religous life was not generally considered a viable option for unmarried daughters and they remained within the family. The normative life pattern for well-born 15th century English girls was to be raised at home until adolescence and then be placed in another similarly-positioned household to learn adult skills, expand social networks, and enhance their marriage prospects. Depending on the relative status of the families, the girls might be treated as quasi-daughters or might be treated more as servants, but they would generally be part of a group of girls (and boys) of similar age and background who developed social bonds that would have consequences for the rest of their lives.
Women of this class and era might marry young and therefore not be sent away in this fashion, but more often would marry in their twenties or later, either while serving in another household or after returning to their household of birth for a time. Unmarried daughters were generally provided for in some fashion, sometimes sufficiently to establish an independent household, and there was an acknowledgement that a woman might “be not disposed to marry.” But generally they remained living with their families and contributed to the household administration and duties.
Given this context, it is a strong likelihood that Elizabeth and Agnes were friends from childhood, given the proximity of the two families and their relative status. They might have met while both serving in a third household, or it’s possible that Elizabeth remained at home and Agnes was placed with the more established and prestigious Etchinghams. Beyond that, several possible scenarios can be proposed. If Elizabeth fell in the younger generation (and thus died young), Agnes may have served as her nurse--which would have to have been an unusual bond to have been commemorated in this fashion thirty years later. In the scenario where Elizabeth was older, they most likely would have met and began their friendship during the adolescent outplacement of either both of them or of Agnes with the Etchinghams.
How did they end up both buried at Etchingham church? This would be the natural location for Elizabeth Etchingham’s grave. But the expected place for an unmarried Oxenbridge daughter to be married would be their family church at Brede, where her parents and siblings were buried. One possibility would be that Agnes lived at Etchingham after Elizabeth’s death and was therefore buried locally, though the two churches are not so far separated (12 miles) to make that a requirement. But almost certainly the burial location was due to a strongly expressed preference on the part of Agnes--not only to be buried in Etchingham but to be buried specifically next to Elizabeth. And the commissioning and placement of their joint memorial brass almost certainly would have been specified by Agnes in her will (which doesn’t survive) as no other explanation would make sense of this unusual event. It was extremely common for wills at this time to specify not only the church of burial but the specific placement of the grave next to other named individuals. Again, it is not unusual to wills to specify the imagery and text for an individual’s memorial, particularly in regard to soliciting prayers for God’s mercy. While this is the only currently known funeral brass commemorating two women, there are several other known medieval English joint burials of “unrelated” women or records of wills specifying such joint burial.
Bennett gives the background on the London workshop that produced this brass (and many others), including shifts in stylistic features that provide context for interpreting the image, as well as the general dynamics of memorial brasses. Much of the imagery was conventional, but within that there was a range of symbolism in the placement and nature of the figures. At this time there was a shift from showing the human figures face-on (in imitation of sculptural effigies), to turning them in profile, and especially showing couples facing each other, or with the wife turned more toward the husband. Elizabeth and Agnes are shown in complete profile, not only facing each other, but with their gaze meeting. Among various possible positions for the figures, this choice aligns with depictions of familial intimacy and physical closeness. Other possible design options at the time included the older front-facing style, or showing a lower status figure turned more toward a higher-status front-facing one, or with a devotional object placed between them to be the focus of a profile gaze. (There is a great deal of discussion of the specific nuances of this composition from among the range of known examples.)
For married couples, typically the man was placed at the viewer’s left in the higher-status location. Elizabeth Etchingham occupies this position in the joint memorial, possibly due to the higher status of her family and the location of the tomb on their property? The relative size of the figures also needs interpretation. Age is one factor represented by relative size, and the smaller figure of Elizabeth may represent her younger age at death, rather than specifically a difference in ages when they were both living.
Even given the presumption that Agnes may have specifically requested the joint memorial brass in her will, the approval and execution of the design would have fallen to her surviving relatives and the brass workshop. This means that the idea of commemorating the women’s close relationship was something considered unremarkable and desirable by their family circle. Interestingly, generations of historians describing the piece have gone to some lengths to avoid recognizing it as a commemoration of a relationship between two adult women, either describing it as depicting “two children” or mistakenly claiming that it was two separate brasses, positioned coincidentally, or even going so far as to claim that one of the figures was male! (An example is given of a different 14th century brass that clearly shows two men in calf-length garments and both wearing swords that a historian has labeled “civilian and wife”.) None of these earlier interpretations stands up to scrutiny. That said, while the memorial clearly commemorates a strong emotional and social bond between the two women, we can’t know for certain what the nature of that bond was beyond that. But the surface form of the memorial indicates that their families honored that relationship as being worthy of equivalent respect as that given to marriage.