I am often asked ‘how do we know how old the bench ends are?’ With most sets of bench ends dating is a matter of making a rough estimate based on stylistic differences, but with some sets it’s possible to date them more or less accurately by one of two methods. The more difficult and less precise method is to date them by their content, such as coats of arms or the names of local personages that appear on them and which can be dated to a particular time. I’ll do another blog entry later (possibly several) on the difficulties of dating using this method. In this entry I want to address the easier and more reliable method: some of them have dates on.
At Northlew in Devon, for example, this bench end is dated 1537. The initials A.T. may be those of the wood-carver who made the bench ends. In some cases single sets of initials like this refer to the curate who oversaw the commissioning of the bench ends, but in 1537 the curate of Northlew was Nicholas Bonde, so it is most likely that they are the maker’s initials. Who A.T. was is now impossible for us to tell.
Even so, caution must be exercised with dating. At Lyng, Somerset, one of the bench ends bears the date 1614, but it is so unlike any of the other bench ends in the church that it was probably added, on its own, at a much later date to the rest.
Often there is more than one set of bench ends in a single church. Sometimes this is because a number of bench ends have been rescued from another local church when the wardens of that church decided to replace the seating, but often the reseating of a church was carried out over a period of time, in two or more distinct phases. Usually it is possible to identify which bench ends belong to which set, and at Spaxton in Somerset it is even possible to date both sets because, unusually, there are two dated bench ends of 1536 and 1561.
Another Somerset church with two dated bench ends is at Thornfalcon, and there the two bench ends tell a much more interesting, and much more human story. The bench ends at Thornfalcon were made in 1542, and the carver was commissioned to add the date to one of them. However, he appears to have got it wrong and carved the ‘4’ upside-down on his first attempt. Unwilling to waste the work that had gone into the bench end (or unwilling to pay for a replacement) it was nevertheless installed in the church. The error was realised and a second bench end, this time with the correct date, was also made.
Knowing accurately when one set of bench ends was made can help us to make reasonable estimates about when other bench ends were made, and this is perhaps most clear in Devon, where a bench end at Broadwoodwidger bears the date 1529.
The bench ends of Broadwoodwidger are a matching set, so this date enables us to date the whole set. One of the Broadwoodwidger ends bears enough of a similarity to one of the surviving bench ends in the neighbouring parish of Lewtrenchard for us to draw the reasonable conclusion that they were made at approximately the same time, and perhaps even by the same craftsman. Thus, from the date at Broadwoodwidger we can infer an approximate, but reasonably reliable, date for other bench ends in the area.
All of this begs the question of whether it really matters when a set of bench ends was made, and I believe it does. In many church guides and even some of the listings in the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, sixteenth-century bench ends have been identified as of fifteenth-century manufacture. Quite apart from the intrinsic value of accurately dating antiquities where possible, this mis-dating obscures an historical trend. Across the West Country there was a spate of building, improvement, and expansion work carried out on churches in the fifteenth century as a result of increased revenue from the wool trade at that time, and it is for this reason that there has been a widespread assumption that the bench ends also date from that period. However, the fact that the majority of the bench ends date to the sixteenth century indicates that investment in the fabric of churches by local communities continued long after the end of the fifteenth century.
The other reason that dating the bench ends accurately is of historical importance is related to the bench ends themselves, and the designs found upon them. The majority of bench ends are decorated with floral, tracery, abstract, or other relatively meaningless designs, but a very large number have carvings of religious or social significance executed upon them. Without a reasonable understanding of when they were made it is impossible to place them in their proper historical context. On the one hand, understanding the context may help us to date the bench ends, but on the other hand, knowing more or less the date at which the bench ends were made can help us to understand a little how rural provincial communities viewed the enormous religious and social changes which characterised the upheaval of the Tudor period. The thousands of surviving bench ends across the Western counties are the largest collection of art from the sixteenth century, and probably the largest collection of art that was largely commissioned by and for commoners from any historical period anywhere, and like all art collections, a proper understanding of what it can tell us requires a proper understanding of the context in which it was made.
Bench end dated 1534 from Crowcombe, Somerset