Down ‘ere in the West Country when someone’s ‘gone Bodmin‘ it means they might be considered eligible for a nice soft room and one of those coats with the long taped sleeves at the County Asylum. One needs to be careful: a former work colleague once told me she was going going to Bodmin at the weekend to visit her brother, and being a jocular fellow I enquired as to whether he was a lunatic. Apparently he is and I wasn’t as funny as I thought. Naturally, I’ve often been described as going Bodmin, but last week I actually had to go to Bodmin, Cornwall, for reasons unconnected to my sanity, so I took the opportunity to visit the Church of St. Petroc in search of bench ends while I was there.
St. Petroc’s is a large, town-centre, parish church in the middle of what passes for a large town in Cornwall. I’ve wanted to visit for some time because it’s one of the minority of churches where some history of the bench ends is known from documentary sources, including the name of the maker, and they are apparently among the earliest in the region. The indenture relating to the Bodmin seating is so full of information that it’s worth reproducing in full here:
Thys Indenture made atte Bodmyn, the 9th day of Decembr, the 7 yere of the reigne of kynge harry the 7th , betwene John Glyn of Bodmyn, John Coche, Thoms Raulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthy More, Carpynter, of the oon ptye, and John Carmynowe, Esquyer, Rychard Flamank, Johes Lavedwen, Jun. John Pauly, John Broker, Thoms Rothen, Thoms Watts, Willyam Olyver, Rychard Taylour, Robert Bruer, Walter Smyth, harry Sturgen, and David Whytefen, of the other ptye, wytenessyt, that hyt ys accovenutid, agreyd, and intentid, btwne the sayde ptyes, that the sayde Matthy More, Carpynter, shall make or do to be made, yn the parysh Churge of Seynt Petrok yn Bodmyn, fully newe chayrs and seges and iiij Renges, thurgh oute all the body of the sayde Churge, after the furme & makyng of the chayrs & seges yn Seynt Mary churge of Plympton, that ys to say, the 2 mydde Renges 12 fete and halfe yn lenght, and the 2 syde Renges 7 fete yn length, and a convenyent pulpyte yn the sayde Prysh Churge of Bodmyn, after the furme & makyng of the pulpyte yn the parysh Churge of Mourton yn hemstede, that is to say, wt suffycient Tymber wenscote, & workmanshyp, accordyng to the chayrs & seges yn the sayde parysh Churge of Plympton, & the sayde pulpyte accordyng to the sayde pulpyte yn the sayde parysh Churge of Mourton, or better : and also the sayde Matthy shall make or do to be made alle the sayde Chayrs, seges, & pulpyte, in the sayde parysh Churge of Bodmyn, sufficyenly &. workmanshyply, as hyt shalbe avysed by John Carmynowe, Wyllyam Mohoun, Rychard Flamank, Raff Tredenek, John Watts, Wyllyam Trote the ylder, & Willyam Olyver, a thyssyde the fest of myghelmasse that shalbe  and the sayde John Glyn, John Coche, Thoms Roulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthe More shall fynde or do to be founde all maner of Tymber wenscote, and other stuffe that shalbe longyng and pteynyng, requysyte & convenyent for the makyng & pfurmyng of the sayde Chayrs, seges,and pulpyte, & bryng hyt to Wade brygge, wyth yn the parysh of Egloshayle, atte pper cost & charge of the sayd John Glyn, John Coche, Thoms Raulyn, Thoms Plympton, & Matthy More, for the Wenscote and workemanshyp of the sayde Chayrs, seges, & pulpyte ; the sayd John Carmynowe, Rychard Flamank, (&c.) to be payed to the sayd John Glyn, (&c.) for the makyng & workemanshyp of the sayde chayrs, seges, and pulpyte, 92 li. to be payed atte selyng of this endenture 4 li. of laufull mony of yngelond, and atte goyng fur the Tymber oute of Walys 4 li. of laufull money of yngelond, and 4 li. of laufull mony of yngelond to be payed when the sayde Tymber be brought to the for sayde Wade brygge, and 5 marke atte the fest of the Nativity of Seynt John Baptist, and so quarterly 5 marke, as the worke goyth furth, to be payed by the avyse of the Mayer John Carmynowe, (&c.) and the remayn of the the sayde John Glyn, (&c.) when the sayde chayrs, seges, and pulpyte shall be sette yn the sayde parysh Churge of Bodmyn : be hit pvydyd all way, that the new chayre beyng before our lady and the chayr newe Chapell of Seynt Anyan, be abatys & un alowans of the summe of £92. aboue sayde, accordyng to the rate uppon evy chaire : to the wych covenuts & appoyntements and evy of them well &c. &c. Sealyd and gevyn the day, yere, and plas above sayde.
From this we know that Matthy More was the carpenter who oversaw the construction of Bodmin’s first church seating, that his timber was brought in from Wales, that he was given four years to finish the job, and that the seating and pulpit cost £92 in 1491. Perhaps most interesting of all, we know that the bench ends of Plympton St. Mary, which sadly no longer exist, were installed before 1491 (but must have been fairly new at that point) and were considered a bench mark for quality standards elsewhere.
If any of Matthy More’s bench ends have survived at Bodmin, they might also give us some insight into the appearance of the now vanished Plympton medieval bench ends. Todd Gray describes the collection of bench ends at Bodmin as ‘important but… difficult to assess,’ and he certainly has a point. In the first place, a visitor entering St. Petroc’s might be forgiven for at first assuming the bench ends have all been removed, for none are immediately apparent on the seating. However, towards the east end of the church they begin to appear, first reused in the rood screen, then around the base of the pulpit, in screens around the servers’ room, and a few in the north chapel reused in more modern seating. Finding them all is a challenge, and it’s not at all clear how many there are. Dr Gray mentions 46 in his gazetteer, but (very wisely) does not say that this is the total number. I counted perhaps as many as 70, but of these I suspect at least 16 may be reused panels from bench fronts rather than bench ends, bringing the total down to 54.
While I was wandering round the church my phone rang. Normally I wouldn’t answer my phone under such circumstances, but in the case it was my children’s school so I broke my habit and while I was gazing around listening to the voice on the other end I spotted half a bench end fixed to the back of a wooden sedilia, only just visible because the sedilia had been pushed up against a screen around the vestry. If my phone hadn’t rung, or if it had been anyone else calling me, I would probably have missed it. Fortunately, there was a meeting of Church Wardens (fine people, on the whole) going on in the vestry, so I interrupted them and asked if I might move the sedilia for a better look. They kindly came and gave me a hand, and we were all pleasantly surprised to find six bench ends reused as panelling on the back – even the Church Wardens didn’t know they were there, so when I say that finding all the bench ends in St. Petroc’s is a challenge, I really mean it (except it’s not now, I’ve told you where they are).
The question is, are any of them Matthy More’s?
As Dr Gray says, the collection is difficult to assess, but it appears to include at least two (and possibly three) separate sets of bench ends. This is not unusual, lots of churches have more than one set of bench ends installed at different times, such as Spaxton, where the two sets of bench ends are dated 1536 and 1561. At Bodmin there is a mix of Gothic and renaissance design: by itself this is not a clear indication of the bench ends being made at two different times, but there is also a difference in the style and quality of workmanship that suggests more than one maker working at more than one time. It is quite likely that some of the older bench ends at Bodmin are, therefore, from Matthy More’s 1491-1495 set.
It is impossible to identify with any certainty which of the Bodmin bench ends might have been made by Matthy More, but the likely contenders all have Gothic tracery designs with the arches mostly filled with overtly religious symbols, such as crucifixes, sacred monograms, and symbols of the passion including the spear and hyssop, pillar and scourges, three nails. A few have initials in the arches, but none of the initials match the names of anyone mentioned in the indenture. It is reasonable to assume that the lost bench ends of Plympton St. Mary were similar, since More was instructed to make the Bodmin seats ‘after the form & making of the chairs & seats in St. Mary church of Plympton.’ Plympton’s seats must have been among the earliest in this style in the West Country, and it is worth noting that the style seen in the early seats at Bodmin is common across Devon and Cornwall, leading to the possibility that other churches copied Bodmin’s lead and used the seating at Plympton St. Mary as the example on which to base their own.
Finally, the pulpit at Moretonhampstead was replaced in the 18th century, and again in 1904, but we might get a glimpse of it by looking at the pulpit in St. Petroc’s. The base of the Bodmin pulpit is made of reused carvings from the seating, but it is possible that the magnificent pulpit itself is the work of Matthy More, based on the one from which the vicar of ‘Mourton yn hemstede’ once preached to his flock.
Difficult to assess? It’s enough to make you go Bodmin.