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.
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?
9. The Combinteignhead saints.
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.
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.
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?