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