The Amorial Bench Ends of Monkleigh

I have occasionally promised to write more about dating bench ends which do not have their date of manufacture carved upon them. There are various ways we can attempt to determine how old a bench end or set of bench ends is, none wholly reliable, and none likely to give us an exact date. However, I recently had the pleasure of being able to date four bench ends at Monkleigh, Devon, fairly precisely by using two of the methods that I will absolutely definitely write more about later: dating by the heraldry, and dating by tying the bench ends into the broader history of the church in which they are located.

Briefly and simply, heraldry (which is a very complex subject in itself, best left to people like Ged of Heraldry of the West Country) works on the principle that each family has a coat of arms which is inherited. However, when members of two armigerous families marry they may combine their coats of arms onto one shield – this is a gross oversimplification, and I can hear students of heraldry grinding their teeth and typing me angry emails, but I want to keep this simple. The point is that when a bench end shows such a conjoined (ok heralds, ‘quartered’) coat of arms we know that it cannot have been made earlier than the date on which those two families were joined by marriage.

Looking at the broader history of a church can only sometimes be useful, but there are lots of ways in which it might tell us about bench ends. For example, if a set of bench ends look like they were made sometime around 1530, and we know from other sources that the church suffered a disastrous fire in 1533, then we might hypothesise that the bench ends were actually made in 1534 or later. If one of those bench ends also bore the heraldry of the local abbey then we might also surmise that they were made before 1536 (when the Dissolution of the Monasteries began), or not much later. We could therefore say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the bench ends in this hypothetical church were made between 1534 and 1536.

There are at least three different sets of bench ends in Monkleigh church, two dating from the first half of the sixteenth century and one dating from the first half of the seventeenth century. Here I am most concerned with one of the sixteenth century sets (I suspect the later one, for reasons I’ll explain another time), which consists of four bench ends, each bearing heraldry associated with local personages. I began by exploring the heraldry (with the assistance of the aforementioned Ged) to see whether any of the coats of arms would help date or identify the bench ends, and this led me on to exploring the broader history of the church. In turn, this enabled me not only to understand and date the bench ends, but contribute to the history of the church a little, and expose a small mystery. Exciting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Let’s start with the heraldry.

Two of the four bench ends are easy. On the left is a bench end bearing the badge and arms of the Butler family, Earls of Ormond. On the right is the coat of arms of the St. Leger family. Monkleigh was dominated for centuries by the manor of Annery which, in the fifteenth century, passed into the hands of Anne Hankford, who married Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond. They had two daughters: Margaret, who married Sir William Bullen and was grandmother to Anne Boleyn; and Anne, who married Sir James St. Leger. Thus within two generations the manor of Annery passed from the Hankford family to the Butler family, and then to the St. Legers. The fact that both of these coats of arms exist on bench ends at Monkleigh does not help us much, only telling us that they date to after the marriage of James St. Leger to Anne Butler, sometime around 1480. Since the bench ends are stylistically unlikely to be as early as 1480 anyway, that doesn’t help us much.

Arms of George St. Leger (1484-1536), Monkleigh, Devon

The third coat of arms is both more complex and more helpful. It is divided into six ‘quarters,’ five of which can be identified (left to right, top to bottom)

  1. St. Leger
  2. Butler
  3. Uncertain, variously identified as Turberville or Rochford
  4. Hankford
  5. Stapledon
  6. Donnet

The Stapledons and the Hankfords had married centuries earlier, and the third quarter is impossible to identify with any certainty, but the remaining four quarters are enough to tell us that this coat of arms originally belonged to Sir George St. Leger, son of Sir James St. Leger. Sir George’s grandparents were St. Leger, Donnet, Butler, and Hankford, that is to say that he was the first member of the family in whom all of these branches were combined.


The fourth of the heraldic bench ends can be identified as the arms of Sir Edmund Knyvett, inherited by his daughter Anne, who married Sir George St. Leger.

Arms of Sir Edmund Knyvett/Anne St. Leger. Monkleigh, Devon.

These bench ends, then, were made for Sir George and Lady Anne St. Leger. Their marriage occurred before 1514, but Sir George did not become master of Annery until 1515. The identification of Anne St. Leger’s coat of arms is fairly secure because above the shield itself can be found the initials A and S.

Initials of Anne St. Leger, Monkleigh, Devon

The fact that of all of the people who might have been responsible for the bench ends Anne St. Leger is the only one whose initials appear on them led me to wonder whether she, rather than her husband, had commissioned them. This possibility was suggested by the fact that in 1537, after Sir George’s death in 1536, she donated a substantial sum for the endowment of a chantry chapel in the south aisle of the church where a priest was employed to say mass for the soul of her late husband. The parclose screen that was erected as part of this chapel still exists in part, which leads me on to one of my favourite topics: punch marks.

Using a patterned metal punch to decorate woodwork was common in the sixteenth century, and numerous bench ends across the West Country are decorated in this manner. The important thing about the punches used to make the marks is that they had to be made by hand, so no two were ever identical. Two pieces of wood decorated with the same punch were, we can be reasonably sure, made by the same craftsman or at least in the same workshop.

All four of the heraldic bench ends at Monkleigh share a punch mark: nine dots in a square with rounded corners, 8.3mm across.

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Punch marks, Monkleigh, Devon.

While I was looking at photographs of the remains of the 1537 parclose screen at Monkleigh, in search of similarities or differences which might tell me whether or not the bench ends were related to the screen, I noticed the most telling evidence of all – shields carved on the screen were decorated with the same punch mark as the bench ends. The same pattern is evident, and a second visit to the church enabled me to measure the punch marks on the screen and confirm that they were indeed made by the same punch as was used on the bench ends.


Without question, the bench ends were part of the new work installed in the chantry chapel by Anne St. Leger following her husband’s death, and can be dated fairly precisely as a result. Not only can we give them a fairly exact date, we also know who commissioned them and why, as well as learning that all of the woodwork for the new chapel was entrusted to one contractor. And when I say ‘all,’ that’s exactly what I mean, because there’s more.

During my second visit to measure the punch marks on the screen the church warden ‘irresponsible do-gooder’ (his words, not mine) who had let me in drew my attention to the roof bosses in the south aisle. Some, decorated with Tudor roses, suggested that the roof was made in the sixteenth century. Others bearing the arms of St. Leger and Butler opened up the probability that it was financed by a member of the St. Leger family, and the appearance of several bearing the initial A made it possible that the roof had also been commissioned by Anne St.Leger. Was it possible that the roof was also part of the same work as the screen and benches?

Only one way to find out. Get a ladder. A very long ladder.

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Risking my life in the pursuit of historical knowledge (like Indiana Jones but beardier) I climbed to the ceiling to examine the roof bosses, one of which shown above bears the arms of St. Leger and the same unmistakable punch mark that appears on the screen and bench ends. So now we know that the marvellous ceiling of the south aisle of Monkleigh church was also made around 1537 at the expense of Anne St. Leger. Nobody knew that before.

So what about this mystery I mentioned?

In 1537 Anne St. Leger endowed a chapel for the soul of her late husband, commissioned a new screen, new bench ends, and even a new roof, all adorned with his arms and those of his antecedents. But there is no tomb with his name on, nor memorial brass, nor slate grave slab. Possibly his mortal remains were left out with the rubbish (unlikely), or he was buried in an unmarked grave (unlikely), his tomb/brass/slab has been lost or destroyed in the last 500 years (much more likely), or just possibly he has an elaborate tomb with someone else’s name on it.

Against the south wall of the church, within the chapel and next to the grave of Sir James St. Leger, George’s father, there stands an ornate chest tomb with a heavily decorated canopy. The brass plaque affixed to the tomb tells us that it is the last resting place of Sir William Hankford, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (d. 1423), but that plaque is a modern replacement.

In 1877 William Hamilton-Rogers recorded in his Ancient Sepulchral Effigies and Monumental and Memorial Sculpture of Devon that the indentations carved into the tomb to receive brasses were empty, but that local wisdom held that it was the tomb of the Chief Justice. Hankford was a prominent character in local history, perhaps Monkleigh’s most famous son, and a man whose death was the stuff of folklore, so it would be natural for the inhabitants of the village to assume that the largest tomb in the church was his. However, Hamilton-Rogers expressed the view that the masonry is of a much later style than the early fifteenth century. I am no expert on tombs or ecclesiastical masonry, but the presence of Tudor roses on the tomb leads me to agree with Hamilton Rogers that the tomb cannot have been built before 1485 at the earliest.

If the tomb is not that of Sir William Hankford, whose might it be? Sir Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, died in 1515 but is buried in London in the Hospital of St. Thomas of Acre. James St. Leger has his own tomb next to the ‘Hankford’ tomb. John St. Leger, George’s son, died in poverty so is unlikely to have had such an elaborate tomb, and in any case had sold Annery before his death. Anne St. Leger’s second husband, Richard Coffyn, had his own tomb, the remains of which can still be seen on the north side of Monkleigh church. The only likely candidate unaccounted for is Sir George St. Leger.

Could the tomb which bears the name of Sir William Hankford actually contain the remains of Sir George St. Leger? Perhaps. We’ll never know.




The Crowcombe Dragon and the Gurt Wurm of Shervage

Somerset has no shortage of iconic and well-known bench ends. Most notable perhaps are the Reynard the Fox bench ends at Brent Knoll, but only slightly less well-known is the Crowcombe Dragon.


Local pundits will cheerfully tell you, as they did me, that the Crowcombe dragon bench end is a depiction of the local legend of the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood. Like many places, Shervage Wood in the Quantock hills was once, so the legend tells us, home to a dragon, the ‘gurt wurm.’ The details of the legend differ in the telling, but essentially an enormous dragon lived in the wood and preyed on the local livestock and wildlife as gurt wurms are wont to do, much to the dismay of the local peasants. One day an itinerant woodcutter was employed by a wily crone, sent into Shervage Wood to cut firewood, and given a can of Strongbow and a Ginster’s sausage roll for his lunch. Come lunch-time he sat himself down on a large fallen tree to eat his fare, but upon opening up his He-Man lunch box the tree on which he sat gave a lurch and he spilled his Strongbow all over the ground. Angered, he picked up his axe and laid into the misbehaving tree, which started to bleed. It was of course the sleeping gurt wurm which he had cleft in twain, much to the joy of the peasants and the wily old crone. Then there’s some stuff about pies and a fair which isn’t really germane to this article. Or something like that.

So, everyone in and around Crowcombe knows that the bench end shows the legend of the gurt wurm. Local schoolchildren are even taken to the church to see the bench end and told the tale. The problem is that even a cursory comparison of the bench end above with the story of the wurm reveals a few discrepancies. The dragon on the bench end is not sleeping as the worm was, there are two men not one, and they are armed with spears, not axes. And why are the woodcutters naked? In short, the Crowcombe Dragon is not the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood.

The story of the gurt wurm was not widely known until the 1960s, when it appeared in the late Ruth Tongue’s book, Somerset Folklore. Tongue was a fine storyteller, and is rightly lauded as such, but was not above embellishing or even inventing stories where none had previously existed. I searched high and low for earlier references to the gurt wurm without success, and I began to wonder if this was one of the stories that Tongue had invented, perhaps inspired by the Crowcombe Dragon – in short, did the story come from the bench end rather than the other way around. Then a tip off from Mr Rook of Mr Rook’s Speakeasy led me to C.W. Whistler’s article, ‘Local Traditions of the Quantocks’ in the 1908 volume of the journal Folklore. Whistler’s article mentions the story of the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood, albeit in a simpler version than even my summary above, and absolves Tongue of any suspicion that she made it up. However, Whistler mentions three dragons in the Quantocks: the gurt wurm of Shervage Wood, the dragon of Norton Fitzwarren, and the Crowcombe Dragon. This does not prove, of course, that the Crowcombe Dragon and the gurt wurm are separate entities, but it does show that they were considered to be so as late as the early 20th century.

So, if the Crowcombe Dragon is not the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood, where does it come from? The clue is in the dragon itself. You see, no true expert on dragons (yes, such people do exist) would call it a ‘dragon,’ it’s a gastrocephalic wyvern. That is to say, a dragon-like creature with a head in its stomach and only two legs. Gastrocephalic wyverns  are certainly distinctive, but they are not entirely unusual in medieval and Tudor art. In fact, there’s another not too far away on a misericord in Bristol cathedral.

Image courtesy of Dr. Malcom Haydn Jones.

The Bristol misericord shows elements familiar from the Crowcombe Dragon carving: men running about in the altogether, and of course a gastrocephalic wyvern. It is also roughly contemporaneous with the Crowcombe Dragon, having been produced only a few years earlier. Bristol Cathedral was, until the dissolution of the monasteries, an abbey church, and internal evidence on the misericords dates them to the time of Abbot Robert Elyot, 1515-1526. The Crowcombe bench ends are dated 1534, so we can be reasonable certain that the two carvings were made between eight and nineteen years apart, and that the Crowcombe Dragon is the younger of the two.


The men who were running away from the dragon (sorry, gastrocephalic wyvern) at Bristol had turned to fight it by the time they reached Crowcombe. If there was any significance in this fact then it has long been forgotten, but any reasonable observer of the two carvings would be hard-pressed to argue that they did not share a common influence. Conceivably the Crowcombe carving was directly influenced by the Bristol carving, and there is at least a possibility that they were carved by the same person or workshop. The question, then, is from whence came the inspiration for the Bristol misericord.

The Bristol misericord is very similar to yet another roughly contemporaneous carving, showing the same scene, albeit with only one fleeing naturist, on a misericord in Throwley church, Kent. It’s not impossible that both were executed by an itinerant wood carver with a penchant for gastrocephalic wyverns and naked men, but it is far more likely that both were influenced independently by printed engravings by the Paris-based German printer Thielman Kerver (fl. 1497-1522) whose elaborate borders were printed originally in French books of hours, but were borrowed by other early printers to illustrate their own texts. The image below first appeared in a book of hours in Paris around 1500, but was re-used in subsequent publications.


There can be no doubt at all that the Bristol misericord was based on this image. Not only does it also feature the same dragon, but the three naked men are all in the same positions (more or less) in both images. Despite appearing in a religious text it is unlikely that the image is Biblical in nature. It might perhaps represent the Beast of Revelations, but it has too few heads. Alternatively it might be a generic allegory for Satan or the eternal battle between good and evil. More probable, though, is that it is simply a fantastical image of a type commonly found in late-medieval and Renaissance art. Other designs used by Kerver in his borders were definitely secular, involving hunting scenes, music, and fantastical beasts.

I have scoured Kerver’s works for an image showing the men turning on the dragon as they do at Crowcombe, but have been unable to find anything similar, which leads me to the conclusion that while the Bristol misericord was copied from Kerver’s work, the Crowcombe bench end was probably inspired by the Bristol misericord. If C.W. Whistler was correct in saying that a story of a dragon existed at Crowcombe in 1908 then it is just as likely that the story was inspired by the bench end as the other way around, and no trace of a dragon in the area is recorded before 1534. It is possible, of course, that the Crowcombe Dragon is the last remaining record of an older legend, but on the evidence it seems unlikely. Quite apart from the fact that we can trace the inspiration for the Crowcombe Dragon through Bristol to Paris, there are other dragons depicted on bench ends (at Launcells and Chedzoy, for example), and indeed misericords, with no such legend attached to them. Apart from at Zennor, where a bench end is associated with an equally troublesome legend of mermaid, such local folklore does not generally appear in bench end carvings.

It is a pity to dismiss the connection between a bench end and local folkore, especially one so well established, but it is an important lesson that the things everyone ‘knows’ about bench ends are worth dissecting nonetheless. In this case, it is a testament to the importance of bench ends to their local communities that a carving can be the source of folklore rather than a record of it.




Half way around Cornwall

On Saturday I had a very saintly day, visiting St. Teath, St. Kew, St. Endellion, St. Minver, and St. Tudy churches in Cornwall. By the end of the day the number of Cornish bench-endy churches I’ve visited was brought up to 43, which means I’m now more than half way to the total of 83 contained in the list.

I’ve mentioned before that bench ends are not always found on the ends of benches, and I’ve grown rather used to hunting for them in screens, pulpits, panelling, desks, and other places around the church, but even with such experience one could easily be forgiven for not finding the bench ends at St. Tudy. Fortunately, I was forearmed with the knowledge of where to look thanks to Todd Gray’s Gazetteer – they’re on the ceiling. Around 1873 some of the bench ends were destroyed, but eight shield carvings were preserved and re-used as roof bosses.

Former bench end, St. Tudy, Cornwall

However, these roof bosses are not the only survivors of the St. Tudy bench ends, for some were removed to nearby Michaelstow church, where they remain. Michaelstow had its own carved bench ends as well, and I have not yet managed to get into Michaelstow church to see if the sets can be differentiated.

All this got me thinking about the movement of bench ends from one church to another. As I mentioned earlier, I also visited St. Teath where 20 bench ends remain, but others from St. Teath were long ago removed to Tintagel. While I was working at Tintagel a few weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit the church there, and also the churches of Trevalga and Forrabury, both of which contain bench ends originally from the local church of Minster.

This movement of bench ends has occurred outside Cornwall too, of course. In Devon the bench ends of South Huish have been moved to Powderham, and some of the Staverton ends have ended up at Lewtrenchard, for example. Similar occurrences can also be found in Somerset. But in Victorian North Cornwall it must have been difficult to move anywhere without meeting a wagon carrying bench ends from one church to another.

Bench ends from St. Teath (L) and Tintagel (R) showing striking similarities

Gone Bodmin

Down ‘ere in the West Country when someone’s ‘gone Bodmin‘ it means they might be considered eligible for a nice soft room and one of those coats with the long taped sleeves at the County Asylum. One needs to be careful: a former work colleague once told me she was going going to Bodmin at the weekend to visit her brother, and being a jocular fellow I enquired as to whether he was a lunatic. Apparently he is and I wasn’t as funny as I thought. Naturally, I’ve often been described as going Bodmin, but last week I actually had to go to Bodmin, Cornwall, for reasons unconnected to my sanity, so I took the opportunity to visit the Church of St. Petroc in search of bench ends while I was there.

St.  Petroc’s is a large, town-centre, parish church in the middle of what passes for a large town in Cornwall. I’ve wanted to visit for some time because it’s one of the minority of churches where some history of the bench ends is known from documentary sources, including the name of the maker, and they are apparently among the earliest in the region. The indenture relating to the Bodmin seating is so full of information that it’s worth reproducing in full here:

Thys Indenture made atte Bodmyn, the 9th day of Decembr, the 7 yere of the reigne of kynge harry the 7th [1491], betwene John Glyn of Bodmyn, John Coche, Thoms Raulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthy More, Carpynter, of the oon ptye, and John Carmynowe, Esquyer, Rychard Flamank, Johes Lavedwen, Jun. John Pauly, John Broker, Thoms Rothen, Thoms Watts, Willyam Olyver, Rychard Taylour, Robert Bruer, Walter Smyth, harry Sturgen, and David Whytefen, of the other ptye, wytenessyt, that hyt ys accovenutid, agreyd, and intentid, btwne the sayde ptyes, that the sayde Matthy More, Carpynter, shall make or do to be made, yn the parysh Churge of Seynt Petrok yn Bodmyn, fully newe chayrs and seges and iiij Renges, thurgh oute all the body of the sayde Churge, after the furme & makyng of the chayrs & seges yn Seynt Mary churge of Plympton, that ys to say, the 2 mydde Renges 12 fete and halfe yn lenght, and the 2 syde Renges 7 fete yn length, and a convenyent pulpyte yn the sayde Prysh Churge of Bodmyn, after the furme & makyng of the pulpyte yn the parysh Churge of Mourton yn hemstede, that is to say, wt suffycient Tymber wenscote, & workmanshyp, accordyng to the chayrs & seges yn the sayde parysh Churge of Plympton, & the sayde pulpyte accordyng to the sayde pulpyte yn the sayde parysh Churge of Mourton, or better : and also the sayde Matthy shall make or do to be made alle the sayde Chayrs, seges, & pulpyte, in the sayde parysh Churge of Bodmyn, sufficyenly &. workmanshyply, as hyt shalbe avysed by John Carmynowe, Wyllyam Mohoun, Rychard Flamank, Raff Tredenek, John Watts, Wyllyam Trote the ylder, & Willyam Olyver, a thyssyde the fest of myghelmasse that shalbe [1495] and the sayde John Glyn, John Coche, Thoms Roulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthe More shall fynde or do to be founde all maner of Tymber wenscote, and other stuffe that shalbe longyng and pteynyng, requysyte & convenyent for the makyng & pfurmyng of the sayde Chayrs, seges,and pulpyte, & bryng hyt to Wade brygge, wyth yn the parysh of Egloshayle, atte pper cost & charge of the sayd John Glyn, John Coche, Thoms Raulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthy More, for the Wenscote and workemanshyp of the sayde Chayrs, seges, & pulpyte ; the sayd John Carmynowe, Rychard Flamank, (&c.) to be payed to the sayd John Glyn, (&c.) for the makyng & workemanshyp of the sayde chayrs, seges, and pulpyte, 92 li. to be payed atte selyng of this endenture 4 li. of laufull mony of yngelond, and atte goyng fur the Tymber oute of Walys 4 li. of laufull money of yngelond, and 4 li. of laufull mony of yngelond to be payed when the sayde Tymber be brought to the for sayde Wade brygge, and 5 marke atte the fest of the Nativity of Seynt John Baptist, and so quarterly 5 marke, as the worke goyth furth, to be payed by the avyse of the Mayer John Carmynowe, (&c.) and the remayn of the the sayde John Glyn, (&c.) when the sayde chayrs, seges, and pulpyte shall be sette yn the sayde parysh Churge of Bodmyn : be hit pvydyd all way, that the new chayre beyng before our lady and the chayr newe Chapell of Seynt Anyan, be abatys & un alowans of the summe of £92. aboue sayde, accordyng to the rate uppon evy chaire : to the wych covenuts & appoyntements and evy of them well &c. &c. Sealyd and gevyn the day, yere, and plas above sayde. 

From this we know that Matthy More was the carpenter who oversaw the construction of Bodmin’s first church seating, that his timber was brought in from Wales, that he was given four years to finish the job, and that the seating and pulpit cost £92 in 1491. Perhaps most interesting of all, we know that the bench ends of Plympton St. Mary, which sadly no longer exist, were installed before 1491 (but must have been fairly new at that point) and were considered a bench mark for quality standards elsewhere.

If any of Matthy More’s bench ends have survived at Bodmin, they might also give us some insight into the appearance of the now vanished Plympton medieval bench ends. Todd Gray describes the collection of bench ends at Bodmin as ‘important but… difficult to assess,’ and he certainly has a point. In the first place, a visitor entering St. Petroc’s might be forgiven for at first assuming the bench ends have all been removed, for none are immediately apparent on the seating. However, towards the east end of the church they begin to appear, first reused in the rood screen, then around the base of the pulpit, in screens around the servers’ room, and a few in the north chapel reused in more modern seating. Finding them all is a challenge, and it’s not at all clear how many there are. Dr Gray mentions 46 in his gazetteer, but (very wisely) does not say that this is the total number. I counted perhaps as many as 70, but of these I suspect at least 16 may be reused panels from bench fronts rather than bench ends, bringing the total down to 54.

While I was wandering round the church my phone rang. Normally I wouldn’t answer my phone under such circumstances, but in the case it was my children’s school so I broke my habit and while I was gazing around listening to the voice on the other end I spotted half a bench end fixed to the back of a wooden sedilia, only just visible because the sedilia had been pushed up against a screen around the vestry. If my phone hadn’t rung, or if it had been anyone else calling me, I would probably have missed it. Fortunately, there was a meeting of Church Wardens (fine people, on the whole) going on in the vestry, so I interrupted them and asked if I might move the sedilia for a better look. They kindly came and gave me a hand, and we were all pleasantly surprised to find six bench ends reused as panelling on the back – even the Church Wardens didn’t know they were there, so when I say that finding all the bench ends in St. Petroc’s is a challenge, I really mean it (except it’s not now, I’ve told you where they are).

The question is, are any of them Matthy More’s?

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Possible Matthy More bench end, 1491-1495, Bodmin

As Dr Gray says, the collection is difficult to assess, but it appears to include at least two (and possibly three) separate sets of bench ends. This is not unusual, lots of churches have more than one set of bench ends installed at different times, such as Spaxton, where the two sets of bench ends are dated 1536 and 1561. At Bodmin there is a mix of Gothic and renaissance design: by itself this is not a clear indication of the bench ends being made at two different times, but there is also a difference in the style and quality of workmanship that suggests more than one maker working at more than one time. It is quite likely that some of the older bench ends at Bodmin are, therefore, from Matthy More’s 1491-1495 set.

It is impossible to identify with any certainty which of the Bodmin bench ends might have been made by Matthy More, but the likely contenders all have Gothic tracery designs with the arches mostly filled with overtly religious symbols, such as crucifixes, sacred monograms, and symbols of the passion including the spear and hyssop, pillar and scourges, three nails. A few have initials in the arches, but none of the initials match the names of anyone mentioned in the indenture. It is reasonable to assume that the lost bench ends of Plympton St. Mary were similar, since More was instructed to make the Bodmin seats ‘after the form & making of the chairs & seats in St. Mary church of Plympton.’ Plympton’s seats must have been among the earliest in this style in the West Country, and it is worth noting that the style seen in the early seats at Bodmin is common across Devon and Cornwall, leading to the possibility that other churches copied Bodmin’s lead and used the seating at Plympton St. Mary as the example on which to base their own.

Finally, the pulpit at Moretonhampstead was replaced in the 18th century, and again in 1904, but we might get a glimpse of it by looking at the pulpit in St. Petroc’s. The base of the Bodmin pulpit is made of reused carvings from the seating, but it is possible that the magnificent pulpit itself is the work of Matthy More, based on the one from which the vicar of ‘Mourton yn hemstede’ once preached to his flock.


Difficult to assess? It’s enough to make you go Bodmin.



The following books and articles have all been used in the writing of this blog and may be useful to other bench end hunters. It should not be considered a complete bibliography on the subject. Links in the titles direct either to free online copies if they are available or to online shops where a hard copy can be purchased.

Books on Bench Ends and other Church Carvings.

Challis, Margaret G. Life in Medieval England as Portrayed on Church Misericords and Bench Ends (Henley-on-Thames, 1998)
Cooper, Trevor, and Brown, Sarah (eds). Pews, Benches, and Chairs (London, 2011)
Cox, J. Charles. Bench Ends in English Churches (London, 1916)
–       English Church Furniture (London, 1907)
Gray, Todd. Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends (Exeter, 2012)
–       A Gazetteer of Ancient Bench Ends in Cornwall’s Parish Churches (Exeter 2016)
Hayman, Richard. Church Misericords and Bench Ends (London, 2009)
Osborn, Bob. The Carved Medieval Bench Ends of South Somerset (Yeovil, 2003) eBook
Poyntz-Wright, Peter. Rural Bench Ends of Somerset (Amersham, 1983)
Smith, J.C.D. Church Woodcarvings, A West Country Study (Newton Abbot, 1969)
–       Guide to Church Woodcarvings: Misericords and Bench Ends (Newton Abbot, 1974)

Books Tangentially Related to Bench Ends.

Cescinsky, Herbert and Gribble, Ernest R., Early English Furniture and Woodwork, vol. 2 (London, 1912) [Link directs to chapter on chairs, including benches.]
Champion, Matthew. Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (London, 2015)
Post. W. Ellwood. Saints, Signs, and Symbols: a Concise Dictionary (London, 1975)
Wilks, Diane. A Cloud of Witnesses: Medieval Panel Painting of Saints in Devon Churches (Exeter, 2011)
–       Showing the Path to Heaven: A Celebration of Painted Panels in Devon Churches (Exeter, 2014)

Books on the Reformation and Church History.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale, 2005)
–       Voices of Morebath, Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2003)
–       Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition:Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations (London, 2014)
Wood, Andy. The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2007)


Arnold, Alison, and Robert Howard, ‘Church of St. Ildierna, Lansallos, Cornwall. Tree Ring Analysis of Timbers From the Roofs and Pews,’ English Heritage Research Department Report Series, 49 (2006)
–       ‘Church of St. Nectan, Stoke, Hartland, Devon. Tree Ring Analysis of Timbers,’ English Heritage Research Department Report Series, 47 (2013)
–       ‘Church of St. Tetha, St. Teath, Cornwall. Tree Ring Analysis of Timbers From the Roofs and Pews,’ English Heritage Research Department Report Series, 58 (2007)
Gordon, Alex. ‘Somerset Bench Ends,’ The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist, 10 (1904), 83-98
Malan, A.H. ‘Altarnon Church,’ Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 10 (1891), 263-274
Mattingly, Joanna. ‘The Dating of Bench-Ends in Cornish Churches’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, New Series, 1 (1991), 58-72
–       ‘The Origins of Devon Bench Ends,’ Devon Buildings Group Newsletter, 25 (2007), 8-11
McDermott, Mark. ‘Early Bench Ends in All Saints’ Church, Trull,’ Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, 138 (1994), 117-130
–       ‘Supplementary Notes on the Bench Ends in All Saints’ Church, Trull, and the Wood-Carver Simon Warman‘ Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, 142 (1998), 329-334
Parker, John Henry. ‘The Carved Bench Ends in All Saints’ Church, Trull, Somerset,’ Archaeologia, 48 (1885), 340-346
Preston, Robert J. ‘Notes on Some Cornish Bench Ends,’ The Antiquary, 25 (1892), 61-65
Rylands, J. Paul. ‘An Armorial Bench End in Hawarden Church,’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 65 (1913), 171-176
Tyers, Ian. ‘Tree-ring Analysis of Oak Timbers from St. Brannock Church, Braunton, Devon,’ Centre for Archaeology Report, 81 (2004)

Bench Ends Outside the West Country

Historic bench ends do not occur only in the Western counties. There are many fine and elaborate collections in East Anglia, as well as others scattered across the country. It is not the purpose of this blog to list every church in England with historic bench ends, but on this page I will add those that come to my attention by various means for the benefit of the interested reader. It must not be considered a complete list by any means.

Many of the churches listed here are those mentioned either by J. Charles Cox in Bench Ends in English Churches, or in the appendix of J.C.D. Smith’s Church Woodcarvings, A West Country Study. All of the churches mentioned in this list have been checked against the Statutory List, churches marked with an asterisk (*) are mentioned by Cox or Smith, but do not have any historic bench ends mentioned in their entry in the Statutory List.

Carlton (Jacobean)
Chellington* (Now a youth centre)
Houghton Conquest
Odell (17th century)

Reading (St. Laurence)

Eaton Socon*

Ampney Crucis (Jacobean?)
Eastleach Martin
Gloucester (St. Mary de Lode)
Iron Acton
Lemington (13th century?)
Notgrove (17th century)
Sapperton (bench ends moved from Sapperton Hall c.1730)
Stanway (Didbrook)
Stoke Orchard (Cox suggests Elizabethan, Statutory List suggests C18)
Tredington (Cox suggests Elizabethan, Statutory List suggests C18)

Chilbolton* (No historic seating. Possibly some historic linenfold panels used as bench fronts)
Empshott (Hawkley)
Monk Sherborne (17th century)
Odiham (17th century)
Sherborne St. John, the Vyne chapel
Tichborne (17th century)
Winchester Cathedral
Winchester, St. Cross*

Packington (14th century?)

Letcombe Regis*
Long Wittenham (17th century)
Lyford (17th century)
West Challow*
West Hendred

Sussex (The Statutory List entries for many Sussex churches are disappointingly brief, so this list is taken from Cox without much further research)
Coldwaltham (seating modern)
East Preston
Rogate (seating modern)
Sedlescombe (Seating Victorian.)
Singleton (seating modern
Sutton (seating modern)

Minety (17th century)
Stanton Fitzwarren*
Steeple Langford (All Saints)

A Celebration – 20 Favourite Bench Ends

Last week I visited my fiftieth bench-endy church in Devon, and on the same day uploaded the 100th album of bench ends to the catalogue. So, in honour of the occasion, here’s a completely un-academic post showcasing (in no particular order) twenty of my favourite bench ends so far.

1. The Altarnun fiddle player.


I’ve mentioned him before. It was a visit to Altarnun to see this bench end in particular that started my interest in bench ends generally, and several thousand bench ends later he’s still a favourite.

2. The Landulph fox and geese.


Landulph is one of my favourite bench-endy churches so it was inevitable that at least one bench end from its collection would be included here. Foxes appear on a number of bench ends across the West Country, most famously at Brent Knoll where the fox ends up on the end of a rope. Being a Fox myself, I prefer the depictions in which the fox wins, like this one. I’m also amused in a puerile way by the wise rabbit’s bum poking out from the hole as he hides from the passing fox.

3. The Bishop’s Lydeard hare and hounds.


On the subject of animals, I live with a pair of lurchers, the archetypal historic hunting hound, so I also really love finding images of hounds on bench ends. The long-necked, stupid-eared, pointy-nosed hound on the right of this bench end reminds me of my dog Molly. The vibrant paint on the Bishop’s Lydeard bench ends was probably added long after they were first installed in the church.

4. The Honeychurch hexfoil.

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The tiny church at Honeychurch is well worth a visit. Overshadowed by the much larger church at Sampford Courtenay less than a mile away, Honeychurch has mostly escaped unfortunate ‘improvement’ and ‘restoration,’ and while it has been modified over the years it still gives a really good feel for what a church might have been like at the time of the Reformation. For an interesting analysis of the designs on this bench end I recommend Matthew Champion’s Medieval Graffiti: the Lost Voices of Britain’s Churches.

5. The Crediton “old” bench ends.



These two bench ends, now converted into a chest, are probably the oldest I’ve seen in Devon, though they are hard to date accurately. The first time I visited Crediton church hunting for bench ends I had no idea whether any were there, and I missed these. Then I read in Dr Gray’s book that there were indeed bench ends at Crediton, so I went back and still couldn’t find them. Recently I happened to be passing Crediton so I went in for the third time, and there they were. Third time lucky!

6. The Cothelstone Tudor Rose.


I’ve always quite liked the Tudor rose, for no particular reason except perhaps that I find its geometry aesthetically pleasing. There are numerous Tudor roses to be found on West Country bench ends, but the one at Cothelstone, Somerset, is a particularly good example.

7. The Lyng lovers.


We don’t know, of course, who the couple carved on the end of a bench in Lyng were, if indeed it’s a representation of actual people rather than just a generic image, but it’s quite possible that the design was chosen in commemoration of the betrothal or marriage of two villagers. I like the idea that their love could last down through the centuries so that, nearly 500 years later, we might look upon the bench end and wonder about their lives.

8. The Crowcombe dragon.


At some point the Crowcombe dragon will get a blog post of its own, and fascinating it will be too! For now, it’s a picture of two naked guys attacking a two-headed dragon with spears, what’s not to like?

(EDIT: the promised blog post on the Crowcombe Dragon can now be found HERE.)

9. The Combinteignhead saints.

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The bench ends at Combeinteignhead have been described as the finest in Devon, and while Devon has a large number of really very fine carved bench ends, those at Combeinteignhead are certainly among the best. This one shows, clockwise from top-left, St. George, St. Agnes, St. Hubert, and St. Genest

10. The Thornbury ogler.


It’s difficult to tell exactly what this bench end is all about, but it is the only one so far that has made me laugh out loud as soon as I saw it. The chap on the left seems to be enjoying the view, and the lady on the right doesn’t seem to mind one bit.

11. The Altarnun clerk.

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It has been suggested that many of the human figures found on historic bench ends are portraits of real people, the parishioners who commissioned the carvings, the occupants of the benches they adorn, or local notables and worthies. The idea is not without merit, but of course it’s virtually impossible after nearly five centuries to identify the people depicted. At Altarnun, however, there is one bench end which may depict an identifiable person. This carving has been identified, with good cause, as a parish clerk, and on another bench end, nearly opposite, the clerk at the time the bench ends were carved is identified as John Hodge. (See Dating the Altarnun Bench Ends for more information).

12. The Golant not-fylfot.


I like this bench end because it is a complete mystery to me. Lots of bench ends have a symbolic meaning, and usually that meaning is clear, or at least can be guessed at. This one, however, has so far defied even the most tentative identification. It is repeated several times on the surviving bench ends at Golant, and may well have been repeated on other bench ends which have not survived, as well as being carved in the stone fabric of the church, but it is not, to my knowledge, found anywhere else. It is both significant, and specific, to Golant. The church guide identifies it as either an astrolabe (it’s not an astrolabe) or a device called a fylfot – similar to a swastika, which it’s also not. It might be a local merchant’s mark or the device of a guild who sponsored work in the church, but so far it’s a real mystery.

13. The Zennor mermaid.


The mermaid at Zennor is probably the single most famous bench end in the West Country, and in fact many people have probably heard of the Zennor mermaid without being aware that she lives on a bench end.

14. The Spaxton fuller.


Numerous bench ends across the West Country depict the local trades and industry which helped to finance the embellishment of churches, including the funding of the bench ends themselves. Many of them relate to the wool trade which dominated this part of the country, including this fuller at Spaxton. Like many bench ends this may be a portrait of a local man, though of course we’ll never know, but to a social historian like me the depiction of a local worker, surrounded by his tools,  is fascinating.

15. The Thornfalcon date.


The date 1542 appears on two bench ends at Thornfalcon, but on one of them the 4 is upside down. Presumably the second was made (correctly) to replace the first. However, both were installed in the church, allowing us a glimpse into the life of the carver. Firstly, we can assume that the carver was unable to read or write himself, and this tells us that he was probably working from a design that was drawn out for him to copy. The fact that the bench end was installed despite the mistake can perhaps tell us something too about the value of bench ends and the parish’s unwillingness to pay for a bench end that wasn’t going to be used, or the carver’s unwillingness to replace or alter it on his own time. Thus, from a simple mistake we have learned a great deal about the making of bench ends.

16. The Hatherleigh restoration.


It’s a long established museum practice when restoring a damaged or incomplete item to visibly differentiate the new from the old. Lots of bench ends have undergone some level of restoration and usually the restorers have gone to lengths to make the repairs blend in with the original material. In some ways it makes a lot of sense to do that: the benches are not in a museum, they are functional seating in their original environment and there is a natural desire to make repairs blend in to maintain aesthetic harmony. At Hatherleigh, however, a number of the bench ends have undergone restoration and the restorers have followed a more museum-style practice and made their work visually obvious. I’m not sure that it’s better than making the repair blend in, but I rather like it.

17. George and Joan at Rewe.


Lots of bench ends have initials carved on them, presumably belonging to the people who funded the work or to mark ownership of the seats, but in most cases it is impossible to tell who those initials represent. Where the relevant parish records are still extant we might make a guess, but even then we could never be sure. This bench, however, we know belonged to George Col and his wife Jone. Interestingly, ‘George C’ had his name on another bench in the same church.

18. The St. Winnow drunk.


Churches, of course, are primarily places of worship, but it must be remembered that until comparatively recently, and especially in the days before the Reformation, they also served as the social hub of the parish and the church or church lands were the scene of secular activities as well as religious. Like the musicians and morris dancers at Altarnun, this drunk at St. Winnow reminds us that at least some of the money for the bench ends was probably raised by holding a church ‘ale’ in what was, after all, usually the only building in the parish large enough to hold such an event. Ironically, it was the installation of seating in the churches that brought such gatherings to an end, and caused the building of many church-houses in the early years of the sixteenth century.

19. The Bridford chisels.

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I have already mentioned the appearance of local tradesmen and their tools on bench ends. At Bridford in Devon, in a small panel taking up less than a quarter of the bench end, the carver left a mark of his own trade in the form of four chisels or gouges

20. The St. Columb Major musical monkey.


Long before Darwin, historic wood carvers often gave human attributes to apes. To finish up this selection, who could object to an ape playing a shawm?





Dating the Altarnun Bench Ends

In my earlier entry, Dating the Bench Ends, part 1, I introduced the simplest method of dating bench ends (looking for the ones with dates carved on them) and promised a follow up article about the more tricky methods. This isn’t the follow up that I intended (and will still write, at some point), but for a variety of reasons I have been trying to date the bench ends at Altarnun, Cornwall, for some years now, and I thought it would make an interesting case study. The Altarnun bench ends are probably the best known and least understood bench ends West of Brent Knoll, and are rightly believed to be among the finest in the West Country. Altarnun is also, as I’ve said before, where my interest in bench ends began.

In the earlier article I touched on some of the reasons that I think the accurate dating of bench ends is important. They represent the largest collection of art commissioned mostly by commoners in early-modern England, or possibly anywhere ever, and we ought to seek to know as much about them as possible. Many of the West Country bench ends, probably the majority, were made in the first half of the sixteenth century, during the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation which brought about some of the greatest religious and social upheavals in English history, and the designs on many bench ends may reflect that, but only if they can be dated accurately. In the case of the Altarnun bench ends, I recently posited the possibility that they include the earliest known English depictions of morris dancers: there’s no real doubt that they predate the other examples, but a reasonably precise date would be nice.

When bench ends don’t have dates carved on them there are a number of clues which might help to assign a date to them. I’ll go into some of them in more depth in the promised follow-up article, but they include looking at the general style, heraldry, any names or initials which might give a clue when compared to documentary evidence, and other dateable content. The Altarnun bench ends will make a good case study because we can use several of these methods in conjunction with a partially-decayed date. Since it’s the simplest starting point, let’s begin with the bench end with the date.

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Altarnun, Cornwall

There’s a lot of information on this panel which we’ll come back to later, but sadly the bottom section with the date has been badly eroded. However, the first figures, MD, are clear, and in the right light the ghost of an X is apparent.


Given the size of the numerals and the amount of space available on the shield we know that some dates couldn’t fit: 1538, for example, would be rendered as MDXXXVIII, and there clearly isn’t room to squeeze that in. For the moment, though, we can be positive that the carving dates to after 1500 from the remaining MD, and the ghostly X suggests a date between 1510 and 1549, or a date in the 1590s. For reasons which I will explain later, in their proper place, we can discount the 1590s as a possible period for the construction of the bench ends, and concentrate our effort on the 1510-1549 period.

We can perhaps narrow it down a little by looking at the style of the carvings for clues. In a very general sense, architects and art-historians tell us that the ‘gothic’ period of design, typified on bench ends by perpendicular tracery, came before the ‘renaissance’ period of design. If, therefore, a set of bench ends is dominated by gothic design we might conclude that they are older than a set dominated by renaissance design. There is something in that, perhaps, but most of the surviving bench ends were made in such a short period of time (relatively speaking), and at exactly that time that the one gave way to the other, that it’s a very inexact and unreliable means of dating them. There are some fairly late examples of gothic work on bench ends at Morwenstow, for example, and early renaissance imagery at Trull and other churches. The problem is compounded by the fact that Altarnun, like a good many churches in the region, has a healthy mix of both gothic and renaissance design in its bench ends.

Lots of bench ends across the West Country contain heraldic designs, usually those of prominent local families or patrons of the church. It is possible that some of them might yield dating evidence: if, for example, a shield bears the arms of two families reflecting a marriage that occurred in, say, 1520, then the bench ends can be dated later than 1520 with a fair degree of certainty. Poughill church, not too many miles from Altarnun, contains a bench end bearing the arms of Launceston Priory, and since the priory was dissolved in 1536 we can reasonably assume that the bench ends at Poughill were made before that date.At Altarnun there is only one shield with a recognisable coat of arms, shown below.

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Arms of the Diocese of Exeter, Altarnun, Cornwall

An angel at Altarnun carries a shield bearing the arms of the Diocese of Exeter, within whose jurisdiction the church fell in the sixteenth century. Rev. J.H. Malan, writing in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1891 and quoting, presumably, the notes of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who surveyed the church in 1865, noted that the arms of the diocese in their present form were not used until after the death of Bishop Hugh Oldham in 1519. (Writing in the age before academic footnoting became usual, Malan did not make clear from whence his quotation came, but earlier quotes in his article came from the Commissioners’ notes, which mistakenly said Oldham died in 1523). I have so far been unable to either verify or disprove Malan’s point, so if we accept that it is accurate then we can reduce the possible date-range of the Altarnun bench ends by nine years, to 1519-1549.

The final and most significant clue to the age of the bench ends is the three names on the shield above the obliterated date: Robart Daye, the maker, Willyam Bokkingham the curate, and John Hodge the clerk.

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Altarnun, Cornwall

Robert Daye, the man who actually carved the beautiful bench ends was, like many specialist craftsmen, probably an itinerant worker. No parish really had need of a full-time wood carver, and nobody called Day or any obvious variant thereon is listed in the two principal documents which tell us about the men living in Cornwall in the first half of the sixteenth century, the Military Survey of 1522 and the Tinners’ Muster Roll of 1539, which suggests that Day was not a member of a local family.

John Hodge, the clerk, is also hard to identify with any certainty. The function of a clerk in a parish church at the time of the Reformation was to assist the vicar or curate, both ceremonially in church, and in the general business of the parish. The parish clerk was usually a local person and although the position was a paid one it was not generally a lifetime career so clerks often had another job or trade. One of the duties of the clerk was the distribution of holy water, so it may be that the Altarnun bench end showing a man in a gown with a cauldron is in fact a life portrait of John Hodge. Where Robert Daye is hard to identify because his name does not appear in the records, John Hodge is hard to identify because his name appears too often. In the 1522 Military Survey for the Hundred of Lesnewth, wherein lies Altarnun, ‘John Hoge’ was assessed as worth over £5. That was no small sum for rural Cornwall at the time, and John Hoge may have been the head of a large local family, for in the Tinners’ Muster seventeen years later there are listed ‘John Hoyge senior’ and ‘John Hoyge junior’ together, as well as ‘John Hoygge’ separately. It is impossible to tell whether any of those three were also John Hodge the parish clerk or whether he was yet a fourth member of the clan, but the fact that at least two generations of Johns were alive in the Hodge family in the 1530s means that the clerk’s name does not help us narrow down the date of the bench ends.

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John Hodge? Altarnun, Cornwall

Which leaves us only William Buckingham, the curate or vicar of Altarnun. In many churches can be found a list of all the incumbents of the church and the dates of their tenure, but alas no such list appears ever to have been compiled for Altarnun. In recent years a great deal of information about the clergy has been compiled in the Clergy of the Church of England Database which, though by no means perfect, is an absolute boon for the ecclesiastical historian. The database shows that from 1571-1600 William Beard held the living of Altarnun, allowing us to discount any possible date in the 1590s for the construction of the bench ends, but it also shows that from at least 1540 (the earliest date in the database, sadly) John Dun was the curate, and so we can narrow the possible date of the bench ends by a further nine years, to 1519-1540. Also from the database we can learn that Buckingham was appointed to the church at Antony, Cornwall, in 1554 and remained there until his death in 1569.

In 1521 Cardinal Wolsey ordered a visitation of churches and it was recorded at that time that the curate’s name was Hatton. Until more evidence comes to light, 1521 or 1522 is the earliest possible date for the bench ends that can be proven through documentary records, for it has recently been brought to my attention that records in the Henderson manuscripts of the Royal Institution of Cornwall indicate that William Buckingham was curate at Altarnun in 1534 and 1537, but possibly also outside those dates. We can be sure, then, that the Altarnun bench ends were made between 1521 and 1540.

However, we can narrow it down a little more than that by returning to the beginning and the damaged date. We have the first three figures, MDX, and we can now infer the fourth figure must also be X.


In this photo I have used my virtually non-existent MS Paint skills to add the missing figures back into the carving in red. the X on the left follows the ghost of the X visible in the earlier photo; the second X, on the right, is drawn slightly narrower for the sake of erring on the side of caution, but also following what may be an even fainter ghost outline only just visible in the photographs. What is clear is that if the missing figures were of a comparable size to those which remain (and we must assume they were) there is room only for one or two more figures on the shield, perhaps three if they were all ‘I,’ and this reduces the possible dates to just a few years. I showed earlier that 1538, MDXXXVIII, would not fit, and realistically it is doubtful that  1533, 1534, 1536, or 1537 would either. 1532, MDXXXIII, would be a very tight fit, but might just be possible. Any date between 1522 and 1526 could be crammed in if the figures were placed close together and right up to the edge of the shield, but 1527 or 1528 would be difficult if not impossible to fit into the available space. Given the generally high quality of the craftsmanship on this bench end and the others at Altarnun, it would be very surprising if the figures of the date were so crammed.

The bench ends at Altarnun were therefore made certainly between the years 1521 and 1540, provable with documentary evidence, and probably in either 1521-1526, 1529-1532, or 1535.

(EDIT: it struck me in the shower this morning that the year 1540, MDXL, would also fit on the dated bench end. John Dun was already appointed to Altarnun by November 1540, but there is nothing in the documentary evidence so far to preclude the possibility that the bench ends were made under Buckingham’s tenure earlier in that year.)

The Chedzoy Curiosity

Once in a while one comes across a bench end which demands explanation. I have recently been sent a number of images of bench ends in Somerset by a correspondent, including this one from Chedzoy.

Chedzoy, Somerset. Image courtesy of Andrew Buxton

The carving consists of a number of elements: a crowned M, a Tudor rose, a pomegranate, a belt or girdle, some curious lettering, and a date. Taken individually each of these elements might be interesting, but hardly surprising. Taken together they are just plain wrong.

The Pomegranate and Rose suggest a reference to the 1509 marriage of Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII.

The Crowned M is a common device on bench ends right across the West Country and is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Belt or girdle is unusual. At first glance it resembles the garter of the order of that name, but without the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense the resemblance is superficial.

Unexplained Letters and Initials are common on surviving bench ends. The Date is what makes everything else so confusing.

Peter Poyntz Wright, in The Rural Benchends of Somerset, argued that the crowned M in conjunction with the pomegranate and rose suggests a reference to Mary Tudor, but that queen died in 1558 and was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth. Poyntz Wright suggests that the bench end may have been made while Mary Tudor still reigned but not installed until 1559, at which time the date was added. That idea is not without merit, but I’m not convinced by it.

The bottom point of the M is shaped like an upside-down fleur de lys, which was an emblem often used to represent the Blessed Virgin Mary. If that indicates that the crowned M is for the Virgin Mary (and I think it most likely is) then it is unrelated to the rose and pomegranate. The rose and pomegranate, without the association with the crowned M, are almost certainly significant of Catherine of Aragon or her marriage to Henry VIII. Queen Catherine first entered English history in 1501 with her marriage to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, married Henry in 1509, was banished from court in 1531, and died in 1536 – all much earlier than the 1559 date on the bench end.

There existed, in the years following the Reformation, a ‘Cult of Catherine’ which was especially strong in the West Country and which I’ll explore more deeply in another article. It is possible that belated references to Catherine of Aragon persisted into the early reign of Elizabeth, but it is somewhat unlikely.

The text on the girdle is also odd. At first glance the lettering immediately to the left of the crown looks like IHS, a Christogram common on bench ends, but in an unusual form. However, it might also be interpreted as the initials I and S either side of a crucifix, which Poyntz Wright identified as the initials of John Saunders, vicar of Chedzoy in 1559. That might be quite a convincing interpretation, but unfortunately John Saunders was not appointed to the living at Chedzoy until 1582: in 1559 the incumbent was William Geffrey. In fact, I think it most likely that it is an IHS Christogram. The girdle itself is not, I think, significant, but is merely an artistic embellishment which is also seen on another bench end at Chedzoy.

All in all a most curious bench end. It’s undoubtedly ‘real,’ but it’s all ‘wrong’. I considered the possibility that the date may have been added long after the rest of the carving was executed and the bench installed. It’s possible that that is the case, but I don’t really believe it because in that case the girdle must originally have been left bare, which would not suit the general style of this bench end in particular or others in the church in general. The other girdle on a Chedzoy bench end, for example, is also lettered with the initials T I S Y W interspersed with symbols. Even if the date was added years after the initial design, it would still be an odd bench end with its juxtaposition of the religious and the secular in one motif. The carver must have had their reasons for the jumble, but I suspect it will remain to us an inexplicable oddity.

Chedzoy, Somerset. Photo courtesy of Andrew Buxton


Hey, They Look Like Morris Dancers!

I’ve mentioned my odd quirky interests before. As well as being a bench-end enthusiast I am also a fiddle-scraper and deputy squire of a border morris side (calm yourselves, ladies, and wait your turn!) Some morris dancers will try to defend their ludicrous hobby and tell you that it’s not quirky. Don’t believe them.

A fiddle-playing weirdo.

The important part of that is that I’m a fiddle player, because it was playing the fiddle that led me to bench ends in the first place. I read that a carved bench end at Altarnun, Cornwall, featured a Tudor fiddle player, so I went in search of him and was amazed to discover a church full of awe-inspiring bench ends. I was so intrigued by them that I started looking for other churches with similar bench ends, and that was how I ended up here.

This chap’s friends probably thought he was a weirdo too. Altarnun.

Along with the fiddler, there are several other human figures at Altarnun, perhaps most famously, a bagpiper with his dog.

Bagpiper and dog, Altarnun.

There is a curious figure with a cauldron. He is identified in the church guide as a sexton asperging holy water, and while I see no reason to dispute that attribution there are probably other possibilities. Nearby there is a more easily identified fool, with his pointed hood, ass’s ears, and the remains of a bladder on a stick.

There are several angels dotted throughout the church, but the really mysterious figures are two men in outlandish clothing waving swords around.


Who these figures are supposed to represent is something of a mystery. In the church guide they have been identified as St. Michael, a dragon slayer, principally because the surface beneath the feet of the first figure above looks somewhat like a dragon’s scaly skin, but I have three objections to that identification.

Firstly, in every other image that I’ve seen from this period of a dragon slayer, be it St. Michael or St. George, the dragon is depicted in its entirety, with head, tail, wings and all. Moreover, in one of the other bench ends at Altarnun depicting sheep the same surface can be seen representing the ground. So, unless the sheep are wandering over an enormous dragon, which seems unlikely, we can say that the surface under the figure’s feet represents nothing more exciting than grass and rocks.

Sheep at Altarnun

Secondly, there are two of them. Whether on bench ends, rood screens, in statuary, or anything else, saints depicted in churches tend to be singular. If you’re going to carve two saints to go in a church you’re more likely to carve two different saints.

Thirdly, apart from the ‘dragon’ and the swords, there’s really nothing to suggest that they are St. Michael. Compare, for example, the depiction of St. Michael in a bench end at Lewtrenchard, Devon: there is a superficial resemblance to the Altarnun figures, but really only inasmuch as he is holding a sword aloft. Otherwise the archangel’s wings, scales, and complete dragon are missing from the Altarnun figures.

St. Michael, Lewtrenchard

Not all of these features are always seen on depictions of St. Michael, but without any of them it’s just a man with a sword.

I also quite like rood screens, so here’s a late-medieval painting of St. Michael from the rood screen of Ashton church, Devon, to prove the point. Note the lance instead of a sword, so in fact we can see that the sword is not an integral part of pre-Reformation depictions of St. Michael.

St. Michael, from the rood screen at Ashton, Devon

So, if the Altarnun bench ends are not depictions of St. Michael, what are they? Could they be soldiers, as the swords suggest? Possibly, but we would expect military figures to be dressed in armour. Actually, of course, I know the answer. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t.

They are morris dancers.

It might be surprising to find images of dancers in a church, but in fact the history of morris in the sixteenth century is very much tied to the church. Until the Reformation the church played not only a central part in community affairs, but a vibrant one.  Church ‘ales’ and church-organised fairs were highlights of the social calendar, and money was raised for the church by hosting these occasions of festive merriment. The church house was the usual venue for any village event, and much of what we know about morris in the sixteenth century comes from records in various surviving Church Wardens accounts, recording payments to local morris sides for their performance at these festivities.

Morris dancing first appears in the records in England in the fifteenth century and was starting to become widespread by the early sixteenth century. Exactly what form this early morris took is unclear, but one of the staple characters was the fool, so the presence of the fool among the figures at Altarnun is the first clue to their being morris dancers. The second clue is the musicians. Traditionally the early morris is usually thought to have been accompanied by a pipe and tabor player, but there is no reason to suppose that that was universal or that the Altarnun morris dancers should not have been accompanied by fiddle and bagpipes. Indeed, a little later than the carving of the Altarnun bench ends, Robert Weilkes wrote in 1600,

Harke, harke, I hear the dancing
And a nimble morris prancing;
The bagpipe and the morris bells

The next clue, obvious once you know what you’re looking at, is the fact that both of the men with swords and the fool have bells around their knees.


There are two well-known early English depictions of morris dancers, a small carved wooden panel originally in Lancaster Castle and now in Lancaster Museum, and a painted window from Betley Court, Staffs, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Panel from Lancaster Castle

Both the Lancaster Castle panel and the Betley window are believed to be derived from a late fifteenth-century engraving by German Israhel van Meckenem. None of the figures in either depiction are dancing with swords, but there are enough similarities between the Meckenem-Lancaster-Betley figures and the Altarnun figures to confirm that the Altarnun figures are indeed morris dancers. The Betley window dancers are the clearest of the depictions, and in them we can clearly see the bells and the ribbons that adorn the Altarnun figures’ clothing, as well as some similarity in the positioning of the arms. Bells are also visible below the knee on the Lancaster dancer, third from right.

The ages of the Betley Court window and the Lancaster Castle panel are both uncertain, but well worth considering. The Betley Court window was originally dated to around 1500, based primarily on the clothing worn by the dancers. However, as the window is known to have been derived from an earlier engraving that is a very unreliable method of dating. Analysis of the paint pigments by the V&A suggests a date no earlier than about 1550, and Betley Court is known to have been remodelled in 1621, at which time it is quite likely that the window was installed. The Lancaster Castle panel is somewhat harder to date. Anne Gilchrist submitted a photograph of the panel to the V&A for her 1933 article in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, but the venerable experts at that museum could do no more than  offer a ‘speculative’ date of some time in the sixteenth century. It is certainly no older than the sixteenth century since the Meckenem engraving from which most of it is derived was executed around 1490, but the style of the lady’s dress suggests a significantly later date. We know that Queen Elizabeth I had remodelling work carried out at Lancaster Castle around 1580, but even that date seems too early based on the lady’s fashion which would be much more typical of a hundred years later. However, the photograph shows significant gouging in the wood around the lady which is not evident around the other figures, so there is a definite possibility that the lady was reworked at some point after the original carving was made, which in turn makes any attempt to date the carving more precisely quite futile.


It has been claimed that the Betley window is the oldest surviving English depiction of morris dancers, but the revelation that it dates to after 1550 at the very earliest, and the uncertainty surrounding the age of the Lancaster panel, make that claim somewhat shaky. Moreover, since both the window and the panel are derived from a German engraving, they can barely be considered ‘English’ depictions of morris dancers, despite being made (presumably) in England. However, the Altarnun dancers do not appear to have been derived from any known earlier source, and can reasonably be dated to earlier than 1550.

One of the other bench ends at Altarnun bears a date. It is much worn, but the first two numerals, MD can clearly be seen, followed by the remains of an X. There is room for perhaps two more numerals in the remaining space, but no clear indication of what they might have been if they ever existed. However, a Roman numeral date of MDX?? must date the bench ends to some time between 1510 and 1545, or some time in the 1590s. However, the vicar of Altarnun is also named on the bench end as Willyam Bokkingham , and from 1571 until his death in 1600 William Beard held the living of the church, so we can discount a possible date in the 1590s with some certainty. Furthermore, by 1540 John Dun was the vicar or Altarnun, so the bench ends must be of an earlier date.

Dated bench end, Altarnun, Cornwall

This means, in fact, that the figures on the Altarnun bench ends are the oldest surviving depiction of English morris dancers.


With thanks to Edmund Simons for pointing out the gouge marks on the Lancaster panel and the possibility that the figure had been altered.