I’m Dr E.T. Fox, historian and Tudor church bench end enthusiast. Throughout Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset hundreds of parish churches have retained their sixteenth century bench ends, many of which feature intricate and beautiful carvings. I’m lucky enough to live in Devon surrounded by these works of art and it is my aim, in the fullness of time, to visit every church in the four counties which contain historic Tudor bench ends and photograph them all. Since the bench ends were first installed many thousands have been lost, destroyed, or removed to private collections. Even in the twentieth century bench ends were removed from their churches and lost, so my work photographing and cataloguing them all is something of an act of preservation. It’s a long process, but every bench end I photograph will be uploaded and made freely available online.
Why bench ends?
Bench ends give us a truly unique insight into the lives of the rural people who lived in the West half a millennium ago. Each church commissioned its own bench ends to be carved and in many places we must assume by their nature that the parishioners themselves had some input on the designs chosen. In many cases there are mere decorative patterns or tracery, but other designs naturally include a lot of religious symbolism and images of saints which can tell us about how they viewed religion, or more secular designs representing local trades, people, and popular stories. As a collection of relics bench ends are the most incredible window into the lives of the commoners of Tudor England.
But we must remember that the bench ends pose as many questions as they answer, and no answer can be applied to all of them. This blog will attempt to find both questions and answers. Despite being an academic, it is not my intention to weigh the entries down with too many sources or too much arcane thinking, and I do not intend to stick to any kind of formula. Some posts will contain (I hope) impressive amounts of history, others will be little more than rambling records of my thoughts as they spill over the keyboard. Whether you’re here for the history, as a matter of religious faith (and you might as well know now that I have none myself), or simply because the bench ends are beautiful works of art, welcome.
I should acknowledge the assistance of several people, and will do so in entries where it is relevant, but foremost among them my father, who is my go-to source for heraldry-related queries. If you’re interested in the heraldry of the West Country, his blog can be found HERE.