Lots of bench ends have letters on them, often in pairs, and it’s usually assumed that they are the initials of people associated with that particular bench end or church – in some cases perhaps the person who paid for the bench to be made, or the person for whom that bench was reserved. Sometimes it is possible to tentatively identify the individual in question, as in the case of the I.S. bench end at Sheviock, for example, which may be connected to John Smyth, the rector of the church when the benches were made, or I.B. at Spaxton, Somerset, where John Bury was the rector. (I should add that in the sixteenth century I and J were interchangeable).
(Edit. Subsequent research suggests that the Sheviock bench end pictured below does not in fact relate to John Smyth.)
Mostly, though, it’s impossible to do more than guess at the identity behind the initials.
However, it’s possible that the letters are not always initials. Todd Gray has noted that at Braunton several of the letters on the bench ends are alphabetically consecutive, such as the two below bearing the letters HI on one and ST on the other.
It is possible, of course, that it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps, say, Stephen Taylor and Harold Ingoldsby. A curious thing, but meaningless.
However, at Probus in Cornwall a set of five bench ends bearing the first five letters of the alphabet have been preserved and arranged alphabetically in the tower screen.
Because they have been reused, and because each bench end contains only a single letter, it is impossible to say how they were originally arranged or what their original purpose was, but the survival of five single-letter bench ends which just happen to be the first five letters of the alphabet is another curious coincidence.
I wondered whether there might be some other purpose or meaning to the letters carved on some bench ends in the West Country, but it remained a piece of idle wondering until a recent visit to Westleigh, Devon, where there are a number of double-letter bench ends with alphabetically-consecutive letters. There are, too, some bench ends at Westleigh with non-consecutive letters, and they may well be (probably are) initials of benefactors or patrons, but let’s have a look at some of the consecutive ones.
ST might easily be someone’s initials at Westleigh, just as they might at Braunton.
OP might still be initials, but O would be relatively unusual as a first initial in the sixteenth century.
AB could also be just initials, but it’s becoming a less-believable coincidence.
BC and CD, but we’re still within the realm of possible coincidence. It’s beginning to look more like the letters are deliberately consecutive, but I’m not entirely convinced yet.
Quintus Reed? Quentin Rhombus? Queenie Regina?
Now I’m convinced. Nobody has the initials XY (apologies if you’re reading this Xavier Yetminster).
The bench ends at Westleigh included a set of alphabetically-consecutive letters. AB, BC, CD, OP, QR, ST, and XY have survived, but there are numerous bench ends missing from the church so I think it’s safe to assume that the rest of the alphabet was present when the whole set was originally made. We can only guess at their purpose. Perhaps they were a literacy-teaching tool, made at a time when we know the ability to read (if not write) was becoming more important to the common people, or perhaps they are just a symptom of an unimaginative mind. Who knows?
While looking through my photos of the bench ends at Down St. Mary, Devon, for something else I noticed this one.
It seems like an unlikely pair of initials, so I went back through the rest of the bench ends there and discovered that the set contains ends bearing the pairs of letters AB, CD, and FG, as well as the YZ above.
Kilkhampton church, Cornwall, has numerous bench ends with non-consecutive letters, but the collection also includes bench ends with the consecutive pairs CD, HI, MN, OP, and ST (x2) which may or may not be significant.