Sitting Bull

Just a short entry this time, written between putting the beef in and making the Yorkshire puddings…

At East Budleigh, Devon, there is a very fine set of bench ends dating to 1537. There are human figures, a ship, coats of arms, punch marks, a date… all sorts of things to get the seasoned bench-ender excited, but one bench in particular has attracted a great deal of attention.


The church guide identifies this gentleman as a Native-American, and one can see why. The head-dress and the profile are very reminiscent of a Native-American, and over the years a number of articles have made the same identification. Apart from the visual resemblance the identification is supported by the association of the church with Sir Walter Raleigh, the most prominent of the Elizabethan American-adventurers – Raleigh was born within a couple of hundred yards of the church, his father was a church warden there, and one of the other bench ends bears the Raleigh coat of arms.

However, appearances are deceptive. This figure is certainly not the earliest English depiction of a Native-American, for a number of reasons.

  • The punch marks identify this bench end as one of the set which is dated 1537, fifteen years before Sir Walter Raleigh was even born, and 48 years before he attempted to plant a settlement at Roanoke, Virginia
  • The figure has a beard, not usually associated with Native-Americans.
  • The figure’s head-dress is made of leaves, not feathers.
  • In 1537 very few Englishman at all had any idea what a Native-American looked like, few indeed had probably given much thought even to the existence of Native Americans.
  • Early English voyagers to North America would have come into contact with Algonquin Americans, not the plains-dwelling natives that this image resembles.

Who or what this fellow might be is an interesting question, but he’s not a Native-American



Bench End Makers

One of the questions that I am frequently asked about bench ends, and one which has been on my mind a lot recently following a number of conversations, is ‘who made them?’ I was recently told by an authoritative church warden with great conviction that ‘of course, they were made by monks,’ and I got rather excited to know the evidence on which such confidence was based. Alas, it turned out that the historical presence of a priory nearby had led the warden to add 2 to 2 and come up with 9.

A more well-established idea is that bands of itinerant Flemish wood carvers roamed the West Country in the sixteenth century, turning out bench ends and rood screens. This theory has its roots in the Victorian period, but still finds favour. Numerous church guidebooks and leaflets mention Flemish carvers in relation to their bench ends. As early as 1916, however, the venerable bench-ender the Rev. J. Charles Cox found ‘not one atom of evidence extant to support the oft-repeated tales’ of Flemish craftsmen, and argued for a predominantly English, and local, manufacture. In fact, there may be a kernel of truth in the tales of immigrant craftsmen: John Allen has recently and persuasively argued that a significant body of ornamental woodwork in Devon was produced by Breton craftsmen, and points specifically to evidence in the church wardens’ accounts for Bodmin, which mention two ‘Bretouns’ working on the seats there in 1529-30.

Cox was fairly close to the mark though when he attributed the West Country bench ends to English craftsmen. How many local men were employed at one time or another in making bench ends for churches will forever be a mystery, but we know the names of perhaps as many as six of them, and can identify others without being able to name them. Some of them will probably get their own entry in the fullness of time, but since they play such a significant part in the story of the bench ends, I think it’s high time we meet them.

Matthy More.

DSCF6075 (2)
Matthy More bench end? Bodmin, Cornwall.

We have already met Matthy More, maker of the earliest bench ends at Bodmin, in an earlier post. None of his bench ends there can be identified positively as such, but multiple sets of ends are evident there so it is likely that at least some of them, including that shown here, are More’s work. More was contracted to provide seating in Bodmin between 1491 and 1495, and although the indenture requires ‘the sayde Matthy More, Carpynter, [to] make or do to be made, yn the parysh Churge of Seynt Petrok yn Bodmyn, fully newe chayrs and seges [seats]’ it also lists John Glyn of Bodmin, John Coche, Thom[a]s Raulyn, and Thom[a]s Plympton, who may have been his assistants or colleagues.

No man by the name of ‘More’ is listed in the 1522 Military Survey returns for Bodmin. The Survey was compiled thirty years after the indenture was made (give or take) and Matthy More might have died childless in the mean time, but it does open up the possibility that More was not a local man. John Glyn and the ‘heir of John Glyn’ are listed in the Survey return, as are three members of the Coche family and a Bartholomew Rawlyn. Thomas Plympton might be of special interest if his surname reflected his home, as was often the case. More was instructed to make the Bodmin seats of a quality of ‘workmanshyp, accordyng to the chayrs & seges yn the sayde parysh Churge of Plympton.’ It is possible that More and Plympton, if not men local to Bodmin, were chosen to do the work there because they had actually been responsible for the coveted (and now sadly lost) bench ends at Plympton St. Mary.

John Beny.

John Beny bench end (?) Trull, Somerset

The identification of John Beny as a bench end maker is tentative. The marvellous collection of bench ends at Trull, Somerset, bear the hall marks of having been made by at least two different hands, at different times. One set, we know, was made by Simon Werman (see below), but some examples from an earlier set of bench ends also survive. The end depicted here is dated 1510, somewhat too early to really have been made by Werman and, moreover, bears the initials IB. Whose initials these were is not clear, but church wardens’ accounts for Trull record payments to a John Beny in the 1530s for woodwork, including work on the highly decorative screen. If the IB mentioned on this bench end is the same John Beny who later worked on the screen then the woodwork at Trull would represent examples from different phases of Beny’s career.

Nothing more is yet known about John Beny, but it is worth noting that nearby Spaxton church also has a bench end bearing the initials IB, part of a set dated 1536. However, the rector of Spaxton 1531-1537 was John Bury, so it is usually assumed that the initials are his, and there is no notable similarity in style or workmanship between the Spaxton bench ends and the 1510 Trull bench ends.

Robert Daye.

DSCF3439 (2)
Robert Daye bench end, Altarnun, Cornwall.

Robart Daye, maker of this worke, is probably the best-known bench end maker, entirely because of this bench end and the rest of his set at Altarnun, Cornwall. I have a particular affection for the Altarnun ends and have spent a fair amount of time researching Robert Daye, with little success.

As well as the Altarnun bench ends Daye has been credited with making some of the ends at St. Winnow, but beyond some superficial similarities between a figure at St. Winnow and those at Altarnun there is little real reason to suppose that he was responsible for both sets. Other secular work by Robert Daye is known elsewhere.

The bench ends at Altarnun were probably made between 1521 and 1532, so if Daye was a local man then we would expect his name to be found in the 1522 Military Survey return. In fact, no person called ‘Daye’ or any reasonable variant thereof is listed in the Survey anywhere in Cornwall. Several members of a Day family, including a Robert, appear in Somerset documents in the right period, and there is some similarity between Day’s work at Altarnun and some Somerset bench ends, suggesting the possibility that he may have been brought from Somerset to work at Altarnun.

Master Glosse.

Glosse bench end, Stogursey, Somerset.

Like Matthy More, Master Glosse did not sign any of his bench ends, so it is impossible to identify them certainly. The church wardens’ accounts of Stogursey church, Somerset, list payments to Glosse, and his visiting Bristol and Wales to procure wood for the seating in 1524/5. It is a reasonable interpretation that he was the maker of the bench ends which still survive at Stogursey and are at least roughly contemporary with that date.





Simon Werman.

Simon Werman bench end, Broomfield, Somerset.

Simon Werman’s name is almost synonymous with bench ends in Somerset, and he is the only maker known certainly to have made bench ends for two different churches: Broomfield (left) and Trull. At Broomfield Werman signed his whole name, at Trull he left bench ends with his initials, and both sets share the same punch mark. Bench ends at a number of other Somerset churches have been attributed to Werman on the slenderest of evidence. A single bench end at Stogursey may also be Werman’s work.

Of all the bench end makers Werman has attracted the most academic attention and a number of details about his life have emerged. He was an inhabitant of Bicknoller parish, not far from Broomfield and Trull, but, interestingly, probably did not make the bench ends there. He was married to Joan some time before 1527 and died in 1585. He had two daughters, Agatha and Edith, and a nephew Walter, but apparently no sons. Carving was not Werman’s sole occupation, he also farmed land at Bicknoller, but was carving still at least as late as 1560, when he left his name and the date on some panelling at Trull. Carved stone-work dated 1583 has been unconvincingly attributed to Werman

S. Peyd.

S. Peyd bench end, Dowland, Devon.

This charming bench end at Dowland, Devon, is exactly the kind that bench-enders love. It has a date, 1546, a coat of arms, and a name. The coat of arms represents the families of Stowford and Menwenick: Robert Stowford married Elizabeth Menwenick in 1524. The name, S. Peyd, does not belong to the owner of the arms and is therefore likely to be that of the maker. In a single bench end, then, we know who made it, who paid for it, and when.

As yet, nothing more is known about S. Peyd.



W.B., A., and A.T.



Like Simon Werman at Trull, some makers signed their work only with their initials. With so many initials on bench ends it is impossible to say which might be those of makers and which of parishioners, but three in Devon stand out as probably belonging to makers. At Broadwoodwidger and Northlew the initials A and A.T. respectively are found on bench ends which also bear dates (1527 and 1537), and at Littleham the initials W.B. are surmounted by a pair of dividers, an essential tool for the wood carver. These men have not yet been identified (and in the case of Broadwoodwidger certainly never will be), because of the inherent uncertainty that the makers came from the parish in which their work is found. For example, a Walter Bond is listed in the 1525 Lay Subsidy Roll for Littleham parish, and is therefore a possible candidate for W.B., but he was far from the only man with those initials in Devon. At Northlew one of the most prominent families listed in the Lay Subsidy Roll was named Tekell, and A.T. may well have been a scion of that house. None of the listed Tekells had the initial ‘A,’ but the bench ends were made twelve years after the tax roll, so perhaps an Adam Tekell (or Aaron, Alexander, Abednigo etc) came of age in the intervening years. It is interesting that shortly after the Northlew bench ends were made a wood carver from Northlew by the name of John Parrys was employed on the rood screen at Atherington. Either Northlew was possessed of a glut of skilled carvers, or the parish brought in an outside craftsman in preference to their own man.
DSCF5730(Edit) When I wrote this article I’d quite forgotten about A.A. at Davidstow, Cornwall.

‘Master A.’

‘Master A’? bench end, Poughill, Cornwall.

I will certainly write a fuller entry on ‘Master A’ in the near future. Examination of bench ends across the West Country leads me to believe that a single craftsman or workshop may have been responsible for making bench ends for a number of Cornish churches, based on very close similarities of style and subject matter. One feature which stands out in these sets of bench ends is the repeated use of a single letter ‘A’, such as that shown at Poughill, left.

Research into Master A and his work is ongoing, but at this time (29/3/2018) I believe he made the bench ends at Poughill, Launcells, Landulph, and Newlyn East, and may have been responsible for those at Stratton, Whitstone, and St. Austell.

Based on the bench ends at Launcells and Poughill, Master A was active between 1509 and 1536, and more bench ends of his have survived than of any other maker. You read it here first!

Punch marks

Across the West country, predominantly in Devon and to a lesser extent in Cornwall and Somerset, numerous bench ends are decorated with punch marks, or stamps. A simple design was repeatedly struck into the surface of the wood by means of a metal punch, leaving an imprint of the punch on the wood. In some cases the punch marks were used to augment the main design of the panel, in others it was used to create a stippled effect on otherwise bare patches of wood, often the background of the main feature.

Because each punch was hand-made no two were exactly alike, even when they shared a similar design. They are thus a form of signature, unique to a particular maker or workshop. Some sets of bench ends have no punch marks at all, but where punch marks are present in a church they are usually found on several or all of the bench ends. In some churches more than one punch has been used: sometimes this is indicative of different sets of bench ends in a single church, sometimes a single set includes more than one punch mark. Curiously, I have yet to positively identify a single punch which has been used in more than one church.

This page will be updated periodically as new punch marks are added to my collection. When I started cataloguing bench ends I had neither the means nor the inspiration to measure accurately the punch marks I came across, and some of the punch marks here have been sent to me by other people. More recently I have digitally measured punch marks and, where possible, will include measurements in the entries below.

Circular punches.
By far the most common form of punch mark is the circle and dot, which is found on bench ends right across the West Country. A plain circle is also common.

Alwington punch 9.6
Alwington. Devon. Circle and dot. (Unmeasured).


Braunton punch

Braunton. Devon. Circle and dot. (Unmeasured).

Buckland Filleigh punch 8.8
Buckland Filleigh. Devon. Circle and dot. 8.8mm diameter.










Donyatt punch1 5.9
Donyatt. Somerset. Circle. (Unmeasured).
One of five punches in use at Donyatt.


Christow punch
Christow. Devon. Circle. (Unmeasured)
Frithelstock punch 5.7
Frithelstock. Devon. Circle and dot. 5.7mm diameter.
Doddiscombsleigh punch
Doddiscombsleigh. Devon. Circle. (Unmeasured)
One of two punches in use at Doddiscombsleigh



Gorran punch
Gorran. Cornwall, Circle and dot. 6.6mm diameter.





Launcells punch
Launcells. Cornwall, Circle and dot. 7.2mm diameter.






Marwood punch
Marwood. Devon. Circle. (Unmeasured).








Michaelstow punch 5.4 x 6.2
Michaelstow. Cornwall. Circle and dot. 6.6mm diameter.
Some of the Michaelstow bench ends were rescued from neighbouring St. Tudy. The quality of the bench ends remaining at St. Tudy is far superior to the punched ends at Michaelstow, possibly suggesting that this punch was originally used at Michaelstow.
One of two punches used at Michaelstow.




St. Enoder punch 9.4
St. Enoder. Cornwall. Circle and dot. 9.4mm diameter.





St. Teath punch 5.6
St. Teath. Cornwall. Circle and dot. 5.6mm diameter





Lewtrenchard-Staverton punch
(Possibly) Staverton. Devon. Circle and dot. (Unmeasured)
The bench ends of Staverton were scattered in the Victorian period. Some, including this one, may have ended up at Lewtrenchard. A second punch mark was added to the Lewtrenchard-Staverton bench ends in an act of Victorian vandalism.



Sutcombe punch
Sutcombe. Devon. Circle and dot. (Unmeasured)





Northlew punch 2
Northlew. Devon. Circle and dot. 6mm diameter


Trull punch 3
Trull. Somerset. ‘Button’ punch. (unmeasured)
One of four punches at Trull, and appears on ends known to be the work of Simon Werman.






Weare Giffard punch
Weare Giffard. Devon. Circle and dot. 5mm diameter.






























Stars, Flowers and Wheels.

Cadbury punch
Cadbury. Devon. Cinquefoil. (Unmeasured)







Donyatt punch1 5.9
Donyatt. Somerset. 8-spoked punch with central point. 5.9mm.
One of five punches at Donyatt.



Donyatt punch3 6.9
Donyatt. Somerset. 4-petalled flower. 6.8mm
One of five punches at Donyatt.




Lewtrenchard punch
Lewtrenchard. Devon. 8-pointed sun with central point. (unmeasured).
Reproduced as a 7-point star on Victorian copies.




Puddington punch
Puddington. Devon. 8-segment ‘cheese wheel’. 13.3-15.3mm.





West Worlington punch
West Worlington. Devon. 7-segment ‘cheese wheel’. 14.3-15.3mm.












Lattices and Grids.
A simple grid-patterned punch is among the easiest to manufacture and, after circular punches, grid patterns are among the most common punch marks on bench ends.

Broadwoodwidger punch (2)
Broadwoodwidger. Devon.
Small, slight lozenge, 4×4 grid pattern (unmeasured)




Broomfield punch
Broomfield. Somerset. 2×2 grid (unmeasured)
This punch was the property of Simon Werman, maker of bench ends for Broomfield and Trull, where he may have used the same punch (pending detailed measurement).





Donyatt punch2 4.4
Donyatt. Somerset. Circular punch, 2×2 grid. 4.4mm
One of five punches used at Donyatt.





Monkleigh punch 2
Monkleigh. Devon. Irregular 4×5 grid. 4.4mm
C.1508. The earliest of three punches used at Monkleigh.




Monkleigh punch1
Monkleigh. Devon. 3×3 rounded square. 8.3mm
Second of three punches used at Monkleigh. Also used on rood screen and roof bosses.




Monkleigh punch 3
Monkleigh. Devon. 3×5 rectangular grid. 7.1×11.9mm
Early 17th century. Latest of three punches used at Monkleigh.




North Tamerton punch
North Tamerton. Cornwall. 4×5 lozenge grid. 5.1mm (widest dimension)





Northlew punch
Northlew. Devon. 3×3 square. 8.1mmx8.4mm.









Ottery St. Mary. Devon. 3×3 square. 5.5mm.
Similar to punch marks found in other East Devon churches such as East Budleigh and Venn Ottery.






Pancrasweek punch
Pancrasweek. Devon.
Too worn to be positive, but it appears to be a lozenge-shaped grid pattern. Unmeasured.






RAMM 128-1937-D3 punch (Kilkhampton)
RAMM. 3×3 rounded square. 8.8mm
Bench end 128-1937-D3 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum is attributed to Kilkhampton church, but is not similar to any ends remaining there. None of the 103 bench ends at Kilkhampton bear this, or any other, punch mark.



Satterleigh punch
Satterleigh. Devon. 3×2+1 grid. 6.2×6.3mm.





Stoke Canon punch
Stoke Canon. Devon. 3×3 barred grid. (Unmeasured)






Trull punch 1
Trull, Somerset. 2×2 square. (Unmeasured)
This punch is a very curious anomaly. It appears on bench ends at Trull known to be the work of Simon Werman, and is possibly (pending measurement) the same as the punch used on his work at Broomfield (see above), but it also appears on a distinctly separate older set of bench ends at Trull, signed IB.
One of four punches used at Trull.




Trull punch 2
Trull. Somerset. Circular 2×2 grid. (Unmeasured)
This punch is found on bench ends known to be the work of Simon Werman.
One of four punches used at Trull.




Venn Ottery Punch
Venn Ottery. Devon. 3×3 rounded square grid. (Unmeasured)





West Bagborough punch
West Bagborough. Somerset. 3×3 square. (Unmeasured)






















Irregular Shapes.
Irregularly shaped punches are the most complex to manufacture, and accordingly less common than regular geometric shapes. Some irregular punch marks are clearly a representative design, such as that at Sandford; others are more abstract shapes whose meaning, if they had any, is difficult to discern.

Curry Rivel punch
Curry Rivel. Somerset. (Unmeasured)







Doddiscombsleigh punch (2)
Doddiscombsleigh. Devon. (Unmeasured)
One of two punches used at Doddiscombsleigh





Donyatt punch4
Donyatt. Somerset. 10.8mm (w) x 9.6mm (h)
One of five punches used at Donyatt.




Michaelstow punch 2
Michaelstow. Cornwall. (Unmeasured)
One of two punches used at Michaelstow.







Sandford punch
Sandford. Devon. Field maple leaf? (Unmeasured).






Trull punch 4
Trull. Somerset. Zigzag. (Unmeasured)
This punch appears on ends known to be the work of Simon Werman.
One of four punches used at Trull.










Initials or a Sacred Monogram?

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, the question of how to date the bench ends accurately often comes up. Some have dates on, which makes it easy, others can be dated by placing the bench ends within the contextual history of the church they’re in, and some can be date by their carvings. One thing that can potentially help us to date bench ends is a name or initials of an identifiable individual, and at Sheviock, Cornwall, I thought I had found such an example.

Sheviock, Cornwall

The general style of the Sheviock bench ends suggests a mid-16th century date, so John Smyth, appointed to the living of Sheviock in 1554 and remaining there until his death in 1564, seems like a very suitable candidate to have the initials I.S. carved on a bench end, and allows us to date them fairly confidently to that period. Initials of individuals are more usually carved side-by-side on bench ends, rather than in the form of a monogram, but perhaps John Smyth was prone to such affectations. I thought no more about Smyth, Sheviock, or the initials until I happened to read a webpage about East Brent church, Somerset, which suggested that the bench ends there could be dated to the late fifteenth century based on the initials of John Selwood, vicar there 1467-1493, appearing on one of them in the form of a monogram.

Quite a coincidence: two vicars, both with the initials J.S. (or I.S. since the alphabet lacked a J until the seventeenth century), who both chose to use a monogram instead of the much more common side-by-side arrangement of their initials.

On the very same day that I noticed the coincidence and started to mull it over I was searching through my collection of photographs for a bench end depicting a mermaid when I found, entirely by chance, another IS monogram at Lapford, Devon.

Lapford, Devon

None of the known vicars of Lapford in the sixteenth century had the initials I.S., and there is no clue to anyone else in the parish with those initials, but in any case it started to look like more than a coincidence that people with the initials I.S. consistently chose to use a monogram rather than separate letters. The more I looked, the more I found other bench end with IS monograms, and I considered writing a blog entry about it. I was stirred into action when my father Ged (of Heraldry of the West Country fame) sent me a photograph of a sixteenth century altar tomb in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Winchester, adorned with IS monograms.


The occupant of the tomb can no longer be identified, so it’s possible his name was John Sausage or something else with the same initials, but on the face of it it seems unlikely now.

Whether the IS monogram is simply a variant of the more familiar IHS monogram, or whether it has a specific meaning (Iesu Salvator?), it does mean that John Smyth at Sheviock and John Selwood at East Brent cannot be identified as being responsible for the bench ends in their respective churches, and we must look elsewhere for dating evidence.

Thornbury, Devon



B is for Bench End

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.)

Sheviock, Cornwall

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.

Westleigh, Devon

ST might easily be someone’s initials at Westleigh, just as they might at Braunton.

Westleigh, Devon

OP might still be initials, but O would be relatively unusual as a first initial in the sixteenth century.

Westleigh, Devon

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.

Westleigh, Devon.

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.

Down St. Mary, Devon

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.

Saints and Sitters

Being a bench end enthusiast not only means one attracts other folk with weird passions, it also means that old friends feel safer revealing their own odd quirks. My mate Geoff has recently come out of the confessional closet as an obscure-saint-fancier and wondered how much our interests might overlap.

Of all the surprising survivals on pre-Reformation bench ends saints are among the most surprising. Reformers of the 16th century really didn’t think people should be worshipping saints and regularly destroyed images which had previously been venerated. A century or so later the puritan revolution saw the removal of many of those the Reformation iconoclasts had overlooked. Even so, a significant number of bench ends still contain depictions of saints. Identifying saints can be a tricky business, so it seems like a good idea to post a handy guide to saintly bench ends. As I find more I’ll update this page.

Usually depictions of saints include some attribute by which they can be identified, such as Peter’s keys or Catherine’s wheel, but often the same device might be used to identify more than one saint: three of the apostles might be depicted holding a builder’s square, for example. Occasionally saints are depicted without any obvious identifying feature at all and we must assume that the parishioners knew which was which as a matter of local knowledge. Some of the identifications below are therefore tentative, and there are a number of bench ends depicting saints which I have not even tried to identify. High Bickington, for example, has a near-complete set of apostles, but I can only identify five of them with any confidence.

Mary and Joseph Davidstow


The Blessed Virgin Mary and Joseph.

The Virgin Mary is frequently alluded to symbolically on bench ends, and much more rarely depicted literally. Here at Davidstow she and Joseph are seen together. She can also be seen alone carrying the infant Christ at Yarcombe.






Of all the angels only Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are considered saints. Raphael is not depicted on any bench ends to my knowledge, but Michael and Gabriel can be seen below.

Gabriel is usually depicted with wings and a scroll, and can be seen at Marwood (below), Brent Knoll, and Othery.

Michael is also usually depicted with wings, and smiting a dragon with lance or sword. He often holds scales with which to weigh souls. He can be seen at Lewtrenchard (below) and Othery.

(Some of them)

Andrew Tywardreath


Saint Andrew, seen here at Tywardreath, is easily recognisable due to his saltire, or ‘St. Andrew’s cross.’

Saint Andrew can also be seen at Golant and High Bickington






Bartholomew High BickingtonSaint Bartholomew is reputed to have carried Christianity to Armenia, where he was martyred at Albanopolis. Tradition has it that he was flayed alive before being crucified upside-down, and he can be recognised by the flaying knife which he carries in most depictions.

This bench end is at High Bickington, others depicting Bartholomew can be seen at Braunton and Golant.




James the Great High Bickington


Saint James the Greater, or James son of Zebedee, is associated with the scallop shell badge, seen here on his hat, and his staff.

According to legend he travelled to Spain to spread the Gospel and is the patron saint of that country. The shrine containing relics of St. James at Compostella was one of the most important pilgrimages of the medieval period.

St. James is depicted at High Bickington (left) and Yarcombe.


James the Less Golant


Saint James the Less, son of Alphaeus, or James the younger. Depicted here at Golant.

This is where the identification of saints gets confusing. There is a tendency for a saint depicted with a square to be identified as James the Less, but the square is also associated with the apostles Jude and Thomas. Where all of the apostles are depicted they can be identified by process of elimination, but where some are missing it’s a matter of speculation and guesswork.





Saint John the Apostle is depicted at Braunton and can be identified by his chalice containing a serpent, relating to a popular but apocryphal tale in which John miraculously turned poison which had been placed in his drink into a serpent, allowing him to drink the wine safely.

Saint John was the brother of Saint James the Greater and in the sixteenth century was believed to be the writer of the Gospel of John and Revelations. He was the last surviving apostle and the only one to die a natural death.


Judas Iscariot Newlyn E


Judas Iscariot is not a saint, and as the personification of treachery is an unlikely subject for bench ends, yet he is depicted more often than several other disciples, either literally or symbolically. At Newlyn East (right) and St. Breward his disembodied head is shown with the bag of coins around his neck.

Although not a saint (though in some traditions he is revered as God’s instrument in bringing about Man’s salvation) I have included him here for the sake of completeness because I don’t anticipate doing another entry on apostles.

Peter and Paul High Bickington



Saint Peter is the apostle most often depicted on bench ends and is easily distinguished by the key he holds.

Peter is often alluded to symbolically on bench ends in the form of the keys of Heaven, but is also depicted literally at High Bickington (left), Braddock, Combeinteignhead, Stockleigh Pomeroy, and Yarcombe.



Matthew Golant


Saint Thomas is another ambiguous apostle in the matter of identification. The spear he holds at Golant (right) is a symbol of his martyrdom, but might also be interpreted as the lance sometimes associated with St. Matthew the Apostle. However, in the sixteenth century Matthew the Apostle was believed to be the same person as the evangelist of that name, so is usually depicted with a book in iconography of the period. Thomas might also be depicted with a square, leading him to be confused with James the Less or Jude.



Agnes Combeinteignhead


Saint Agnes, a young Roman noblewoman martyred for her faith, is usually depicted with a lamb – a symbol of her innocence and a play on her name (Agnus = lamb in Latin).

She is depicted here at Combeinteignhead.








Saint Barbara was an early Greek Christian martyr who spent her early years locked in a tower by her pagan father. She is therefore usually depicted, as at Moreton, right, with a tower. She is also depicted at Braunton.

For his part in her torture and execution Barbara’s father was struck by lightning and consumed with flames, as a result of which she is the patron saint of artillerymen, among other things.



Brannoc Braunton


The West Country is home to a large number of saints who are virtually unknown outside the region, including Saint Brannoc of Braunton. Saint Brannoc was a sixth-century Welsh missionary who founded an abbey at Braunton.

Below the depiction of Brannoc at Braunton (left) there is depicted a cow, relating to a miracle story in which a neighbour stole and cooked one of Brannoc’s herd. When Brannoc called for the cow it came back to life and returned to him.


Catherine Combeinteignhead


Saint Catherine of Alexandria is most famous now for the wheel which bears her name, and with which she is depicted on a bench end in Combeinteignhead.







Genest Combeinteignhead


Saint Genest, or Genesius was a Roman comic actor who performed in plays written to mock the rites of the early Christian church. During a mock baptism Genest experienced a vision of angels and converted to Christianity, for which he was tortured and martyred.

Genest is usually dressed as a fool, so it is difficult to differentiate depictions of the saint from depictions of secular fools. However, at Combeinteignhead the fool is surrounded by other saints so it is reasonable to suppose Genest is depicted.


George Hatch Beauchamp



Saint George, the patron saint of England, is surprisingly uncommon on bench ends. He is depicted at Hatch Beauchamp (right) and Combeinteignhead. George is usually depicted as an armoured man slaying a dragon.





Hubert Combeinteignhead


Saint Hubert was out hunting a stag when he saw a vision of a crucifix between the stag’s antlers and subsequently converted to Christianity and eventually became Bishop of Maastricht.

He is usually depicted as a hunter, though the same attributes might also be used to signify Saint Eustace.




John the Baptist Hatch Beauchamp


Saint John the Baptist is most commonly depicted as a disembodied head on a platter, and can be seen in that form at Braunton, Coldridge, Mortehoe, and Weare Giffard.

When depicted pre-mortem John the Baptist can often be distinguished by his holding and pointing at a lamb and his camel-skin coat, as at Hatch Beauchamp (right) and Yarcombe.





Mary M Combeinteignhead


Saint Mary Magdalene, seen at Combeinteignhead, is one of the most enigmatic figures of the New Testament. She is mentioned more often in the Gospels than most of the Apostles, and yet Biblical scholars and armchair enthusiasts are deeply divided over her role in Christ’s life.

She can be identified by the pot of ointment she carries with which to anoint Christ’s feet.



Paul Braddock


Saint Paul, like Saint Peter, is often depicted symbolically and the two are often depicted together.

Literal depictions of Saint Paul usually show him holding a sword and often a book. He is depicted at Braddock (right), Combeinteignhead, and Stockleigh Pomeroy.





Sidwell Braddock


Saint Sidwell, or Sativola, of Exeter was one of the most widely revered local saints in the West Country before the Reformation. She was the sister of Saint Juthwara (who has a brilliant story involving cheeses – look it up) and was beheaded by a reaper. Where her head fell a well sprang from the ground and its waters were said to have healing properties.

She is depicted here at Braddock and, rather oddly, has two heads.



Tugual North Cadbury


Saint Tudwal was a Breton prince, son of King Hoel, who travelled to Ireland to learn Christianity and eventually returned to Brittany by way of a sojourn in Wales to become on of the seven principle Breton saints. Close association between Brittany and the West Country has led to a number of Breton saints being commemorated in the region, including this depiction of Tudwal at North Cadbury.

Saint Tudwal is depicted as a bishop (though with an odd hat) with a dragon.








The Amorial Bench Ends of Monkleigh

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.

Arms of George St. Leger (1484-1536), Monkleigh, Devon

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)

  1. St. Leger
  2. Butler
  3. Uncertain, variously identified as Turberville or Rochford
  4. Hankford
  5. Stapledon
  6. Donnet

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.

Arms of Sir Edmund Knyvett/Anne St. Leger. Monkleigh, Devon.

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.

Initials of Anne St. Leger, Monkleigh, Devon

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.

DSCF7762 (2)
Punch marks, Monkleigh, Devon.

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.

DSCN0164 (2)

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.



The Crowcombe Dragon and the Gurt Wurm of Shervage

Somerset has no shortage of iconic and well-known bench ends. Most notable perhaps are the Reynard the Fox bench ends at Brent Knoll, but only slightly less well-known is the Crowcombe Dragon.


Local pundits will cheerfully tell you, as they did me, that the Crowcombe dragon bench end is a depiction of the local legend of the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood. Like many places, Shervage Wood in the Quantock hills was once, so the legend tells us, home to a dragon, the ‘gurt wurm.’ The details of the legend differ in the telling, but essentially an enormous dragon lived in the wood and preyed on the local livestock and wildlife as gurt wurms are wont to do, much to the dismay of the local peasants. One day an itinerant woodcutter was employed by a wily crone, sent into Shervage Wood to cut firewood, and given a can of Strongbow and a Ginster’s sausage roll for his lunch. Come lunch-time he sat himself down on a large fallen tree to eat his fare, but upon opening up his He-Man lunch box the tree on which he sat gave a lurch and he spilled his Strongbow all over the ground. Angered, he picked up his axe and laid into the misbehaving tree, which started to bleed. It was of course the sleeping gurt wurm which he had cleft in twain, much to the joy of the peasants and the wily old crone. Then there’s some stuff about pies and a fair which isn’t really germane to this article. Or something like that.

So, everyone in and around Crowcombe knows that the bench end shows the legend of the gurt wurm. Local schoolchildren are even taken to the church to see the bench end and told the tale. The problem is that even a cursory comparison of the bench end above with the story of the wurm reveals a few discrepancies. The dragon on the bench end is not sleeping as the worm was, there are two men not one, and they are armed with spears, not axes. And why are the woodcutters naked? In short, the Crowcombe Dragon is not the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood.

The story of the gurt wurm was not widely known until the 1960s, when it appeared in the late Ruth Tongue’s book, Somerset Folklore. Tongue was a fine storyteller, and is rightly lauded as such, but was not above embellishing or even inventing stories where none had previously existed. I searched high and low for earlier references to the gurt wurm without success, and I began to wonder if this was one of the stories that Tongue had invented, perhaps inspired by the Crowcombe Dragon – in short, did the story come from the bench end rather than the other way around. Then a tip off from Mr Rook of Mr Rook’s Speakeasy led me to C.W. Whistler’s article, ‘Local Traditions of the Quantocks’ in the 1908 volume of the journal Folklore. Whistler’s article mentions the story of the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood, albeit in a simpler version than even my summary above, and absolves Tongue of any suspicion that she made it up. However, Whistler mentions three dragons in the Quantocks: the gurt wurm of Shervage Wood, the dragon of Norton Fitzwarren, and the Crowcombe Dragon. This does not prove, of course, that the Crowcombe Dragon and the gurt wurm are separate entities, but it does show that they were considered to be so as late as the early 20th century.

So, if the Crowcombe Dragon is not the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood, where does it come from? The clue is in the dragon itself. You see, no true expert on dragons (yes, such people do exist) would call it a ‘dragon,’ it’s a gastrocephalic wyvern. That is to say, a dragon-like creature with a head in its stomach and only two legs. Gastrocephalic wyverns  are certainly distinctive, but they are not entirely unusual in medieval and Tudor art. In fact, there’s another not too far away on a misericord in Bristol cathedral.

Image courtesy of Dr. Malcom Haydn Jones.

The Bristol misericord shows elements familiar from the Crowcombe Dragon carving: men running about in the altogether, and of course a gastrocephalic wyvern. It is also roughly contemporaneous with the Crowcombe Dragon, having been produced only a few years earlier. Bristol Cathedral was, until the dissolution of the monasteries, an abbey church, and internal evidence on the misericords dates them to the time of Abbot Robert Elyot, 1515-1526. The Crowcombe bench ends are dated 1534, so we can be reasonable certain that the two carvings were made between eight and nineteen years apart, and that the Crowcombe Dragon is the younger of the two.


The men who were running away from the dragon (sorry, gastrocephalic wyvern) at Bristol had turned to fight it by the time they reached Crowcombe. If there was any significance in this fact then it has long been forgotten, but any reasonable observer of the two carvings would be hard-pressed to argue that they did not share a common influence. Conceivably the Crowcombe carving was directly influenced by the Bristol carving, and there is at least a possibility that they were carved by the same person or workshop. The question, then, is from whence came the inspiration for the Bristol misericord.

The Bristol misericord is very similar to yet another roughly contemporaneous carving, showing the same scene, albeit with only one fleeing naturist, on a misericord in Throwley church, Kent. It’s not impossible that both were executed by an itinerant wood carver with a penchant for gastrocephalic wyverns and naked men, but it is far more likely that both were influenced independently by printed engravings by the Paris-based German printer Thielman Kerver (fl. 1497-1522) whose elaborate borders were printed originally in French books of hours, but were borrowed by other early printers to illustrate their own texts. The image below first appeared in a book of hours in Paris around 1500, but was re-used in subsequent publications.


There can be no doubt at all that the Bristol misericord was based on this image. Not only does it also feature the same dragon, but the three naked men are all in the same positions (more or less) in both images. Despite appearing in a religious text it is unlikely that the image is Biblical in nature. It might perhaps represent the Beast of Revelations, but it has too few heads. Alternatively it might be a generic allegory for Satan or the eternal battle between good and evil. More probable, though, is that it is simply a fantastical image of a type commonly found in late-medieval and Renaissance art. Other designs used by Kerver in his borders were definitely secular, involving hunting scenes, music, and fantastical beasts.

I have scoured Kerver’s works for an image showing the men turning on the dragon as they do at Crowcombe, but have been unable to find anything similar, which leads me to the conclusion that while the Bristol misericord was copied from Kerver’s work, the Crowcombe bench end was probably inspired by the Bristol misericord. If C.W. Whistler was correct in saying that a story of a dragon existed at Crowcombe in 1908 then it is just as likely that the story was inspired by the bench end as the other way around, and no trace of a dragon in the area is recorded before 1534. It is possible, of course, that the Crowcombe Dragon is the last remaining record of an older legend, but on the evidence it seems unlikely. Quite apart from the fact that we can trace the inspiration for the Crowcombe Dragon through Bristol to Paris, there are other dragons depicted on bench ends (at Launcells and Chedzoy, for example), and indeed misericords, with no such legend attached to them. Apart from at Zennor, where a bench end is associated with an equally troublesome legend of mermaid, such local folklore does not generally appear in bench end carvings.

It is a pity to dismiss the connection between a bench end and local folkore, especially one so well established, but it is an important lesson that the things everyone ‘knows’ about bench ends are worth dissecting nonetheless. In this case, it is a testament to the importance of bench ends to their local communities that a carving can be the source of folklore rather than a record of it.




Half way around Cornwall

On Saturday I had a very saintly day, visiting St. Teath, St. Kew, St. Endellion, St. Minver, and St. Tudy churches in Cornwall. By the end of the day the number of Cornish bench-endy churches I’ve visited was brought up to 43, which means I’m now more than half way to the total of 83 contained in the list.

I’ve mentioned before that bench ends are not always found on the ends of benches, and I’ve grown rather used to hunting for them in screens, pulpits, panelling, desks, and other places around the church, but even with such experience one could easily be forgiven for not finding the bench ends at St. Tudy. Fortunately, I was forearmed with the knowledge of where to look thanks to Todd Gray’s Gazetteer – they’re on the ceiling. Around 1873 some of the bench ends were destroyed, but eight shield carvings were preserved and re-used as roof bosses.

Former bench end, St. Tudy, Cornwall

However, these roof bosses are not the only survivors of the St. Tudy bench ends, for some were removed to nearby Michaelstow church, where they remain. Michaelstow had its own carved bench ends as well, and I have not yet managed to get into Michaelstow church to see if the sets can be differentiated.

All this got me thinking about the movement of bench ends from one church to another. As I mentioned earlier, I also visited St. Teath where 20 bench ends remain, but others from St. Teath were long ago removed to Tintagel. While I was working at Tintagel a few weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit the church there, and also the churches of Trevalga and Forrabury, both of which contain bench ends originally from the local church of Minster.

This movement of bench ends has occurred outside Cornwall too, of course. In Devon the bench ends of South Huish have been moved to Powderham, and some of the Staverton ends have ended up at Lewtrenchard, for example. Similar occurrences can also be found in Somerset. But in Victorian North Cornwall it must have been difficult to move anywhere without meeting a wagon carrying bench ends from one church to another.

Bench ends from St. Teath (L) and Tintagel (R) showing striking similarities

Gone Bodmin

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 [1491], 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 [1495] 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?

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Possible Matthy More bench end, 1491-1495, Bodmin

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.