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.
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.