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.)


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