I have occasionally promised to write more about dating bench ends which do not have their date of manufacture carved upon them. There are various ways we can attempt to determine how old a bench end or set of bench ends is, none wholly reliable, and none likely to give us an exact date. However, I recently had the pleasure of being able to date four bench ends at Monkleigh, Devon, fairly precisely by using two of the methods that I will absolutely definitely write more about later: dating by the heraldry, and dating by tying the bench ends into the broader history of the church in which they are located.
Briefly and simply, heraldry (which is a very complex subject in itself, best left to people like Ged of Heraldry of the West Country) works on the principle that each family has a coat of arms which is inherited. However, when members of two armigerous families marry they may combine their coats of arms onto one shield – this is a gross oversimplification, and I can hear students of heraldry grinding their teeth and typing me angry emails, but I want to keep this simple. The point is that when a bench end shows such a conjoined (ok heralds, ‘quartered’) coat of arms we know that it cannot have been made earlier than the date on which those two families were joined by marriage.
Looking at the broader history of a church can only sometimes be useful, but there are lots of ways in which it might tell us about bench ends. For example, if a set of bench ends look like they were made sometime around 1530, and we know from other sources that the church suffered a disastrous fire in 1533, then we might hypothesise that the bench ends were actually made in 1534 or later. If one of those bench ends also bore the heraldry of the local abbey then we might also surmise that they were made before 1536 (when the Dissolution of the Monasteries began), or not much later. We could therefore say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the bench ends in this hypothetical church were made between 1534 and 1536.
There are at least three different sets of bench ends in Monkleigh church, two dating from the first half of the sixteenth century and one dating from the first half of the seventeenth century. Here I am most concerned with one of the sixteenth century sets (I suspect the later one, for reasons I’ll explain another time), which consists of four bench ends, each bearing heraldry associated with local personages. I began by exploring the heraldry (with the assistance of the aforementioned Ged) to see whether any of the coats of arms would help date or identify the bench ends, and this led me on to exploring the broader history of the church. In turn, this enabled me not only to understand and date the bench ends, but contribute to the history of the church a little, and expose a small mystery. Exciting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Let’s start with the heraldry.
Two of the four bench ends are easy. On the left is a bench end bearing the badge and arms of the Butler family, Earls of Ormond. On the right is the coat of arms of the St. Leger family. Monkleigh was dominated for centuries by the manor of Annery which, in the fifteenth century, passed into the hands of Anne Hankford, who married Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond. They had two daughters: Margaret, who married Sir William Bullen and was grandmother to Anne Boleyn; and Anne, who married Sir James St. Leger. Thus within two generations the manor of Annery passed from the Hankford family to the Butler family, and then to the St. Legers. The fact that both of these coats of arms exist on bench ends at Monkleigh does not help us much, only telling us that they date to after the marriage of James St. Leger to Anne Butler, sometime around 1480. Since the bench ends are stylistically unlikely to be as early as 1480 anyway, that doesn’t help us much.
The third coat of arms is both more complex and more helpful. It is divided into six ‘quarters,’ five of which can be identified (left to right, top to bottom)
- St. Leger
- Uncertain, variously identified as Turberville or Rochford
The Stapledons and the Hankfords had married centuries earlier, and the third quarter is impossible to identify with any certainty, but the remaining four quarters are enough to tell us that this coat of arms originally belonged to Sir George St. Leger, son of Sir James St. Leger. Sir George’s grandparents were St. Leger, Donnet, Butler, and Hankford, that is to say that he was the first member of the family in whom all of these branches were combined.
The fourth of the heraldic bench ends can be identified as the arms of Sir Edmund Knyvett, inherited by his daughter Anne, who married Sir George St. Leger.
These bench ends, then, were made for Sir George and Lady Anne St. Leger. Their marriage occurred before 1514, but Sir George did not become master of Annery until 1515. The identification of Anne St. Leger’s coat of arms is fairly secure because above the shield itself can be found the initials A and S.
The fact that of all of the people who might have been responsible for the bench ends Anne St. Leger is the only one whose initials appear on them led me to wonder whether she, rather than her husband, had commissioned them. This possibility was suggested by the fact that in 1537, after Sir George’s death in 1536, she donated a substantial sum for the endowment of a chantry chapel in the south aisle of the church where a priest was employed to say mass for the soul of her late husband. The parclose screen that was erected as part of this chapel still exists in part, which leads me on to one of my favourite topics: punch marks.
Using a patterned metal punch to decorate woodwork was common in the sixteenth century, and numerous bench ends across the West Country are decorated in this manner. The important thing about the punches used to make the marks is that they had to be made by hand, so no two were ever identical. Two pieces of wood decorated with the same punch were, we can be reasonably sure, made by the same craftsman or at least in the same workshop.
All four of the heraldic bench ends at Monkleigh share a punch mark: nine dots in a square with rounded corners, 8.3mm across.
While I was looking at photographs of the remains of the 1537 parclose screen at Monkleigh, in search of similarities or differences which might tell me whether or not the bench ends were related to the screen, I noticed the most telling evidence of all – shields carved on the screen were decorated with the same punch mark as the bench ends. The same pattern is evident, and a second visit to the church enabled me to measure the punch marks on the screen and confirm that they were indeed made by the same punch as was used on the bench ends.
Without question, the bench ends were part of the new work installed in the chantry chapel by Anne St. Leger following her husband’s death, and can be dated fairly precisely as a result. Not only can we give them a fairly exact date, we also know who commissioned them and why, as well as learning that all of the woodwork for the new chapel was entrusted to one contractor. And when I say ‘all,’ that’s exactly what I mean, because there’s more.
During my second visit to measure the punch marks on the screen the
church warden ‘irresponsible do-gooder’ (his words, not mine) who had let me in drew my attention to the roof bosses in the south aisle. Some, decorated with Tudor roses, suggested that the roof was made in the sixteenth century. Others bearing the arms of St. Leger and Butler opened up the probability that it was financed by a member of the St. Leger family, and the appearance of several bearing the initial A made it possible that the roof had also been commissioned by Anne St.Leger. Was it possible that the roof was also part of the same work as the screen and benches?
Only one way to find out. Get a ladder. A very long ladder.
Risking my life in the pursuit of historical knowledge (like Indiana Jones but beardier) I climbed to the ceiling to examine the roof bosses, one of which shown above bears the arms of St. Leger and the same unmistakable punch mark that appears on the screen and bench ends. So now we know that the marvellous ceiling of the south aisle of Monkleigh church was also made around 1537 at the expense of Anne St. Leger. Nobody knew that before.
So what about this mystery I mentioned?
In 1537 Anne St. Leger endowed a chapel for the soul of her late husband, commissioned a new screen, new bench ends, and even a new roof, all adorned with his arms and those of his antecedents. But there is no tomb with his name on, nor memorial brass, nor slate grave slab. Possibly his mortal remains were left out with the rubbish (unlikely), or he was buried in an unmarked grave (unlikely), his tomb/brass/slab has been lost or destroyed in the last 500 years (much more likely), or just possibly he has an elaborate tomb with someone else’s name on it.
Against the south wall of the church, within the chapel and next to the grave of Sir James St. Leger, George’s father, there stands an ornate chest tomb with a heavily decorated canopy. The brass plaque affixed to the tomb tells us that it is the last resting place of Sir William Hankford, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (d. 1423), but that plaque is a modern replacement.
In 1877 William Hamilton-Rogers recorded in his Ancient Sepulchral Effigies and Monumental and Memorial Sculpture of Devon that the indentations carved into the tomb to receive brasses were empty, but that local wisdom held that it was the tomb of the Chief Justice. Hankford was a prominent character in local history, perhaps Monkleigh’s most famous son, and a man whose death was the stuff of folklore, so it would be natural for the inhabitants of the village to assume that the largest tomb in the church was his. However, Hamilton-Rogers expressed the view that the masonry is of a much later style than the early fifteenth century. I am no expert on tombs or ecclesiastical masonry, but the presence of Tudor roses on the tomb leads me to agree with Hamilton Rogers that the tomb cannot have been built before 1485 at the earliest.
If the tomb is not that of Sir William Hankford, whose might it be? Sir Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, died in 1515 but is buried in London in the Hospital of St. Thomas of Acre. James St. Leger has his own tomb next to the ‘Hankford’ tomb. John St. Leger, George’s son, died in poverty so is unlikely to have had such an elaborate tomb, and in any case had sold Annery before his death. Anne St. Leger’s second husband, Richard Coffyn, had his own tomb, the remains of which can still be seen on the north side of Monkleigh church. The only likely candidate unaccounted for is Sir George St. Leger.
Could the tomb which bears the name of Sir William Hankford actually contain the remains of Sir George St. Leger? Perhaps. We’ll never know.