Monthly Archives: August 2014

Greystoke Church Stained-Glass

GreystokeThe parish church of St Andrews in Greystoke had seen some difficult times by the seventeenth century.  It was first built in stone in 1255.  Its key feature was a defensible tower where villagers could take shelter when the Scots came raiding.  It’s ironic that the name St Andrew is a reminder that in 1066 this part of Cumbria was in Scotland where it remained until the reign of William Rufus.  A wooden church may have stood upon the site when Ranulph de Meschines gave the land into the hands of Llyulph or Ligulph a local man.  The Barony of Greystoke was confirmed to his son by Henry I.

But back to St Andrews.  It prospered under the care of the Greystokes ultimately becoming a college for the training of priests during the fourteenth century.  It had chantries and could offer sanctuary to those who needed it.  That all changed with the Reformation when the furniture was stripped out and the priests sent away.

Worse was to follow during the English Civil War.  Cumberland, generally speaking, was Royalist by inclination.  By that time Greystoke Castle was in the hands of the Howard family – (the Dukes of Norfolk).

In 1648 the civil war arrived in Greystoke. The castle was besieged and captured – some might say knocked about a bit- by the Parliamentarians under General Lambert. It wasn’t rebuilt until the nineteenth century.

The inhabitants of Greystoke had clearly heard about the iconoclastic tendencies of the Parliamentarians and before the Roundheads arrived, so the story goes, they carefully removed all the medieval stained glass windows and buried them for safekeeping.

The glass was eventually recovered and restored in 1848 at the same time the whole church was rebuilt.  Unfortunately it could not be reset as it was meant to be.  Glass fragments had become lost and confused with the passage of time. This means that some of the images do not quite tell the stories they were meant to tell.  The devil under the foot of the bishop isn’t quite where he should be – he should be whispering in Eve’s ear.

There are plenty of examples of ‘patchwork’ or ‘jigsaw’ stained glass around the countryside.  In Wells, the medieval glass is a reminder that medieval lead and putty might not have been up to the job as well as being a reminder that Parliamentarians armed with pikes were not gentle with old glass.

Much of the stained glass in the City of York survives only because Lord Ferdinando Fairfax gave orders that it should not be destroyed after the Parliamentarians captured the city in 1644.

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The Schlieffen Plan

warmemorialponLord Palmerston managed to secure an international treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality in 1839. Barbara Tuchman makes the point that Palmerston recognised that the neutrality of Belgium was essential for peace in Europe – if the Germans, French or Austro-Hungarian Empire laid hands upon the territory it would always be a source for conflict.

In 1892 France and Russia signed a military alliance.  This meant that if Germany went to war with either of these countries then they would face war on two fronts.  The Germans decided they needed a plan and that the best thing to do would be to neutralise France first because they considered the French to be weaker.  This would then leave the Germans free to concentrate their attention upon the Russians.  It also meant the the French had to be dealt with quickly before any Russian advance could gain the upper hand.

With this in mind Schlieffen, who was Germany’s Chief of General Staff, began to plan what Germany would do in the event of war.  He began work on his plan in 1897 and completed it in 1906.  It dictated the rate of the German advance and the speed at which victory must be achieved.  He allowed six weeks and seven eighths of German forces.  An admirer of Hannibal, Schlieffen’s plan was to outflank France and occupy enemy territory – ignoring the neutrality of any territories who happened to be in the way of the German advance.

The first element of the plan involved a German force attacking the French where they expected to be attacked- in the east – where they had strengthen their borders in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  The French would hurry to defend their border but in the meantime the real strength of the German Army would be elsewhere waiting to pounce.

 

The plan to invade Belgium, east of the Meuse was formulated in 1899.  Moving into France through Switzerland was discounted not because of Swiss neutrality but because moving armies through mountains isn’t terribly easy.  By contrast both Belgium and Holland – although neutral- were nice and flat by comparison.  The Schlieffen Plan required violation of both these territories.  A treaty was after all, “just a piece of paper.”  The General wanted a wide sweep for the German Armies.  Famously he said, “when you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

 

The Kaiser did ask King Leopold II if it would be alright for his army to pop through Belgium when Leopold made a  state visit in 1898.  Leopold who had not had an enjoyable visit to Germany gave the Kaiser a long hard stare and said, “Non!” He made sure that the British Government knew what the Kaiser had asked of him when he returned home.

 

As war drew ever closer the Germans tried to persuade Leopold’s successor, his nephew King Albert, to allow them free passage.  As August 1914 got underway the German Ambassador in Belgium received a note from home.  It contained a message for Albert saying that the French were about to violate his country’s neutrality and in view of this news the Germans demanded the right to cross his territory. On the 6th August (four days after receiving the note) the German Ambassador received instructions to pass the message to King Albert.

At 7 a.m. the Belgians returned their answer to the German demand.  It was an unqualified – ‘Non!‘  They reminded the Germans that not only were they a neutral country but that Germany had signed the treaty which promised to uphold that neutrality…a response which was a tad inconvenient to the Germans and which threatened to involve Britain which had also guaranteed Belgian neutrality.

 

The original plan was that once the bulk of the German Army had traversed Belgium and Holland it would move eastwards in a wheel like motion (think of an anti-clockwise spiral going down the plug hole – or one of those lively looking weather systems that swirl around on the weather forecast to get the general idea of what Schlieffen envisaged – I’m sure that there’s a military term for it that describes it better than out-flanking.)  In any event, once the French Army was outflanked it could be surrounded and neutralised.

Planning is all well and good.  The problem is that people and nations don’t always do what is predicted of them.  The Germans expected the French to violate Belgian neutrality as soon as their own incursion became known.  Furthermore the Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up a fight which given Leopold’s response in 1898 seems a bit optimistic of them.

Changes were also made to the Schlieffen Plan by General von Moltke the Chief of General Staff in 1914.  He reserved 15 percent of Germany’s forces because he thought that the Russians could mobilise more quickly than Schlieffen had given them credit for.  Moltke also believed that while the British would definitely go to war if both Belgium and Holland were invaded that they might not be so aggrieved if just Belgium was invaded.  This meant that the war had to take place on a much narrower front.  It also meant that the Germans had to overcome Liege which was heavily fortified.

In order for the plan to succeed the Germans needed speed.  The Belgians put up stiff resistance to the German invasion resulting in delay for the Germans at Liege where twelve well defended forts halted their advance. It was only on the 10th August that the first of the forts fell to the Germans following a pounding by howitzers under the command of General von Bulow.  On the 16th Liege finally surrendered.  The Germans advanced towards the Meuse but the Belgians destroyed the bridge as they retired.  On the 18th August, King Albert ordered the Belgian Army  to retreat to Antwerp.  They arrived there by the 20th.  This meant that the Germans had to deploy some of their army to keep the Belgians in Antwerp – which wasn’t part of the Schlieffen Plan at all.

As their plan began to unravel the Germans became more determined to cow the Belgian population into behaving itself.  Roughly translated Shrecklichkeit means frightfulness. War is always frightful but on the morning of the 19th August the Germans shot 150 Belgian civilians at Aerschot for no reason other than they were there and because the policy of Shrecklichkeit was to be enforced.

The image of Gallant Little Belgium was embedded in British minds along with the nastiness of the Germans.  Schlieffen’s plan was not so neat on the ground as it had been on paper.

The image in this blog is of a French soldier on the war memorial in Pon.  I am also starting to organise my timeline of history for the twentieth century.

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Medieval mermaids

mermaidcartmelchurchMedieval mermaids are a long way from Ariel in the Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Little Mermaid.  There’s quite a sting in the tail (oh dear – sorry).

Mermaids feature in medieval church decoration, often on capitals and misericords.  Sometimes they have one tail but often they are depicted with two .  They always seem to be wild haired despite the fact they are often depicted with comb and mirror which, if you were a medieval cleric, represented pride and luxury.  I particularly like this misericord depicting a mermaid in Cartmel Priory Church.  Her carver has left her with her hair half done.  If you look to the right of the carving, you can see that one side is carefully plaited.

As for the mermaid herself she represented one of the seven deadly sins – lust.  The mermaid and the siren (and perhaps its no surprise that the french for mermaid is sirene)  both tempt men to risk not only their lives but also their souls.

Mermaids even made their way into the royal family during the reign of King Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville.  Her family claimed descent from Melusine, a two-tailed mermaid, who married Raymond of Poitou.  Consequently, and somewhat bizarrely given a northern european tradition of mermaids being representative of sinful women, the french heraldic tradition includes double tailed mermaids and mermen being used  on the field of the shield to symbolise eloquence.

As the centuries progressed the image of the mermaid continued to be used as an insult and euphemism for a prostitute. The people of Edinburgh depicted Mary Queen of Scots as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few short weeks after Lord Darnley was murdered.

 

Gary Varner’s book entitled Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life and Death explores the folklore and traditions of mermaid.  He speculates on their origins in prehistory as well as some of the symbolism attached to them.

 

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Green Men

greenmanGreen men, sometimes known as Jack-in-the-Green, are strange leafy faces. Sometimes the face depicted is very clearly human sprouting leaves, often oak, from their mouths. Other green men are more foliage than person or can be seen wearing leafy masks that cover most of their features. If not oak leaves then the foliage often looks like hawthorn.  Sometimes the leaves are realistic and on other occasions they are much more stylized. In some carvings the green man is alone, in others his foliage has attracted the attention of birds and strange beasts.  Sometimes, like the capital from York Minster shown at the start of this blog, the green man is triple-faced.  There’s a similar, though less friendly looking, tri-faced green man on a misericord in Cartmel  Abbey the image at the end).  It’s not just men either, beasts including cats sprout leaves from their stone perches in churches and cathedrals across the country.

 

They occur in Norman buildings (Romanesque) and the later Gothic phase of cathedral architecture. Each succeeding epoch since has flirted with foliage figures, not least the Victorians. In fact, closer investigation reveals that green men have made their appearance back into antiquity.

 

No one is quite sure what they symbolise in the context of church, cathedral or abbey architecture. It often seems reasonable to make links with fertility, May Day celebrations and harvests as well as to forest gods.  The triple headed green men may have Celtic connections.  Though quite why so many Romanesque and Gothic masons across Europe took it into their heads to sneak older belief systems into the heart of Christian worship is a matter for some debate.

MacDermott  (Explore Green Men) observes that the images in churches were visual stories to remind the congregation about the dangers of sin and the importance of repentance as well as depicting images symbolising the life of Christ.  Medieval spirituality was a complicated affair.

As is often the case, Christian association may have subsumed earlier pagan beliefs. MacDermott suggests the in the medieval mind the cross on which Christ was crucified was a living tree.  Trees are best symbolized by leaves. Thus leaves are symbolic of redemption. She also looks at the links that might be made with Jesse. Many churches have Jesse windows showing his ancestry to King David and from there to Christ – Isaiah uses tree imagery to talk about the prophecy of the Messiah, “a Branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah11.1-2. There are many other references to trees and leaves in the Bible including Ecclesiasticus. She also discusses the work of medieval theologians who drew on the world around them to explain their beliefs.

 

Some of the best examples, certainly the most prolific, can be found in Southwell Minster. They turn up as the decoration for capitals, bosses, fonts, bench ends and on the misericords as well. (Sadly I had only just started taking photographs when I last visited the minster and when I looked back through my photos discovered that none of them passed muster.)

Most cathedrals have a greenman lurking somewhere and sometimes remains hidden for a very long time. There is a green man in Cleeve Abbey but no one spotted it until the wooden timbers were preserved and restored at the beginning of the twenty-first century! I couldn’t see it even though there was a sign pointing out where it was hidden.

greenmanmisericordcartmel

 

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Charles I in York

 

stwilliamscollegeyorkKing Charles I stayed in the King’s Manor, York in 1633 and again in 1639.  The building which had formerly been part of St Mary’s Abbey was in the aftermath of the Reformation turned into the residence of the President of the Council of the North. Charles’ father stayed there on his journey from Edinburgh to London.

The 1633 visit that Charles made followed his journey to Edinburgh to be crowned King Charles I of Scotland.  Six years later Charles arrived in York on his way to make war with the Scots because they refused to accept Archbishop Laud’s Prayer Book.  The resulting war, known as The Bishop’s War was ultimately a disaster for Charles.

The King’s Manor where he stayed on both these occasions  is now part of the University of York  but Charles’ coat of arms can still be seen above the door  near to the art gallery– but not seen in this blog because I focused on the bricks around it rather than the heraldry when I took my photograph (not once but thrice): don’t ask me why!

In any event York was to become the stage on which King Charles I played once more in March 1642.

Charles attempted to arrest five MPs  at the beginning of January 1642.  The unrest that followed disturbed him so much that the king fled with his family first to Hampton Court and from there to Windsor on the 10th January.

The Royal family split up soon afterwards.  Queen Henrietta Maria escorted her eldest daughter Princess Mary to Holland. Mary had married William of Orange the previous year. Charles accompanied his wife and daughter to Dover. It is said that the king was in tears when he said his farewells to Mary whom he never saw again. The queen, in addition to ensuring her daughter was settled into her new home also had other business in Holland.  She had a selection of the crown jewels in her luggage which she intended to sell in order to pay for men, munitions and weaponry as civil war looked inevitable.

 

Charles meanwhile travelled north to York with his court.  He remained there for the next six months.  What this effectively meant, given that Charles I governed by personal rule, was that if anyone wanted anything done that required the king’s attention then they had to travel to York.

York became England’s capital city if not in fact then in practice. A procession of officers of state, petitioners, foreign ambassadors and even a parliamentary committee arrived in the city to keep an eye on the king, although officially they were there to keep the channel of communications open. Unfortunately the king’s supporters were also gathering so occasionally the communications involved fisticuffs  as well as hard words.

 

A printing-press was set up in St. William’s College (more recently it featured in the recent adaptation of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly as the location for the trial scenes). The press enabled Charles to issue declarations and to send messages around the country in a bid to increase his support. The country was not at war yet but the war of words was well under way. Propaganda was an essential part of the war effort for both king and parliament.

 

As winter turned into spring  and then into summer more and more men arrived in York to offer their swords to their king. Other men came to the city in a bid to persuade Charles that negotiation with Parliament was the only way forward.

 

Charles held two important meetings in York; one in the castle on 12 May 1642 and the other on Heworth Moor on the 3rd June. Charles summoned over 70,000 lords and gentry of Yorkshire. Not everyone attending the meting was sympathetic to the Charles. Lord Ferdinando Fairfax petitioned the king to stop raising troops against Parliament and was virtually ridden over for his pains when the king refused to accept the petition.

Events took yet another turn for the worse when Hotham (who was Governor of Hull) refused Charles entry to the city.

Fortunately for York although Charles talked about raising his standard which would in effect be a declaration of war on his own parliament he didn’t do so until August by which time he was in Nottingham.

 

The image in this blog depicts the gateway to St William’s College.

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Roof Bosses

roof bossAs medieval builders became more confident they built their buildings higher and airier as though they were soaring heavenwards. This was a tricky thing to do architecturally speaking – the last thing that the average medieval bishop wanted was to be haranguing his congregation only to have the roof come crashing down round his ears.

The outcome was Gothic stonework called fan vaulting that reminds me of an avenue of elegant stone trees spreading out their branches to make a canopy.

 

My technical adviser (yes – that’s you Adam if you’re reading this) explained to me that you can create large spans that open up the space with fan vaulting.  Each rib acts like an arch, meaning that the weight which might otherwise be disastrous effectively adds strength to the structure.  Therefore you require fewer columns and can achieve taller buildings.  You could compare fan vaulting to an egg-shell, in the sense that it gains its strength in its unity, it is form-active, so therefore less bulk is required for it to be structurally stable. The first fan vault that is still standing in the world can be found in Gloucester Cathedral.

 

A boss, which is after all what this particular blog is about, is a block of stone or wood, found on ceilings, at the intersections of the ribs of a vault. The more ribs that there are in a ceiling, both structural and aesthetic, the more opportunity there was for medieval masons to produce intricately carved roof bosses.

In Tewkesbury Abbey there are approximately 250 roof bosses many of them telling the life of Christ. The cathedral boasting most bosses is Norwich. Tewkesbury Abbey

Bosses may be foliage filled, depict green men with their mouths sprouting foliage, have birds, beasts and fabulous creatures as well as depicting scenes from the Bible – in fact the images on roof bosses depend on the imagination of the men who carved them.   In the aftermath of York Minster’s terrible fire in 1984, the viewers of Blue Peter were asked to design some new roof bosses so one of them depicts Man landing on the moon.

 

Originally the bosses would have been painted but in the aftermath of the Reformation roof bosses often returned to the natural colours of wood and stone – some within reach of iconoclasts have lost their heads and hands. However, the majority of roof bosses are so high that the carvings remain in tact and there are often hints of the original paint as well.

 

Of course the downside of roof bosses is that you end up with a crick in the neck and lots of blurred photographs where your hands have shaken too much while you’ve been holding the camera at arm’s length – more photographic aerobic exercise.   However, some cathedrals provide a tilted mirror on wheels so that visitors don’t need to do themselves a mischief to see the ceiling in all its glory. Provided that there aren’t lots of grubby paw prints on the mirror (and I have been known to clean them off) it is much easier to take a picture of the reflection of the ceiling than of the ceiling itself.

 

This blog contains three images. The first shows a roof boss depicting an angel playing a musical instrument that has been removed from the ceiling of Tewkesbury Abbey – there are several dotted around the building.  The second image shows the ceiling of the nave in Tewkesbury. The ceiling has been restored to the way it would have looked before the Reformation.  Medieval congregations must have been filled with awe when they entered vast colour filled spaces like this one – I certainly was.  The final image – thanks to ‘he who is occasionally obeyed’- shows a boss in close-up in situ.

Tewkesbury angel

 

 

 

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The Lion and the Unicorn

stcuthbert'scoatofarmsThe lion and the unicorn are the heraldic supporters of the royal coat of arms.  The lion represents England, while the unicorn stands for Scotland.  This current combination of supporters dates back to 1603 and the accession of James I of England or James VI of Scotland depending upon your viewpoint.  There is a fine example of James’ coat of arms in the church of St John the Evangelist, Leeds.

Earlier kings used different supporters.  Tudor kings used a Welsh dragon and sometimes a greyhound.  Richard II used a white hart.  In addition, the arms  have changed over the centuries as Ireland, Scotland and Wales were added.

The royal coat of arms in its various guises, usually supported by a lion and a unicorn, began to appear in English churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the English Reformation – a reminder to congregations that the monarchy was in charge of matters spiritual as well as temporal. There was never a law, although the “great council” issued an “injunction” in 1660 (Records of Buckinghamshire, p386) to say that churches required coats of arms, they tended to be put on display during times when it was sensible to demonstrate loyalty to the crown– after the restoration of Charles II; in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings and upon the accession of a new monarch for example.

This means that the coats of arms on display are not always the same. The arms on display in Halifax date from the reign of Queen Ann, while in Woodkirk near Morley the arms are those of King George I.

Not every church and cathedral has a royal coat of arms. The Victorians got rid of many of them or consigned them to less prominent positions. Apparently there are even one or two arms where thrifty churchwardens turned the board around and painted ones on the back.

The Churches Conservation Trust provides an interesting summary of the way in which the royal arms changed over the centuries with examples. Double click on the image of the fairly rare King Charles I coat of arms that was added to St Cuthbert’s in Wells in 1631 to open the page.

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Cleeve Abbey

Cleeve Abbey TileCleeve Abbey was a Cistercian foundation.  Cistercians were initially an order of Benedictine monks who felt that the rule of St Benedict had slackened over time. A group of these reformers founded the abbey at Citeaux in 1098. They placed emphasis upon prayer, manual labour, austerity and poverty.

 

The Cistercians or White Monks, named after their undyed rough woolen habits came to England in 1132. They arrived from Clairvaux in order to establish a ‘daughter house’ to the abbey in Clairvaux.  The abbot and his twelve companions (the usual number for a new daughter house) journeyed north until they arrived at the River Rye.

Rievaulx Abbey would become one of the greatest abbeys in the country founding daughter houses of its own in England and Scotland.  Patrons of Rievaulx included kings of England and Scotland. Little wonder that they began with twelve choir monks but exceeded one hundred and fifty less than a century later. Much of this expansion was due to the influence one of Rievaulx’s abbots – a monk called Aelred who later became a saint.

 

Rievaulx’s own daughter houses can be found north and south of the border between England and Scotland. Melrose Abbey in Scotland was a daughter house, as were Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Revesby in Lincolnshire and Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. A second abbey was founded in Scotland – Dundrennan.

 

Each of these abbeys in their own turn founded daughter houses; grand-daughter houses to Rievaulx. For example Melrose Abbey is the mother house of Hulm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria. In England, Revesby Abbey created a daughter house in Somerset – Cleeve Abbey to be precise – so you can take a blogger out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the blog for very long as I discovered this morning.

 

Having listened to the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha pass overhead in the night in the form of a heavy downpour and a thunderstorm we ventured coastwards to Cleeve Abbey in Washford with our fingers firmly crossed that we would avoid any rain.

 

The information that follows comes from the very informative display at the beginning of the tour and the ever helpful Victoria County History.

 

The 3rd Earl of Lincoln, William de Roumare,  was the founder of the monastery in the late twelfth century when abbey building was at its peak. His own grandfather had been one of the patrons who founded Revesby.

The abbey was known as Vallis Florida meaning ‘flowering valley’ – it still does have plenty of flowers.

 

The first abbot was called Ralph. He and twelve monks arrived from Revesby to found the only Cistercian abbey in Somerset. It was never wealthy but by 1300 there were twenty-eight monks. In the years that followed monks from this picturesque community toiled on the land, studied (rather than the usual cupboard of books, the brothers at Cleeve had an entire room of them) and a couple were even raised to the rank of papal chaplain.

And so things might have continued but Henry VIII was a man in need of a son. In Autumn 1535 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners came knocking on the gatehouse door. The man of the moment was Dr John Tregonwell. He liked what he saw –even if it was only worth in the region of £155 a year- in fact he liked it so much that he wrote a politely worded note to Cromwell asking if he could rent it as he had a wife and children to support. Given that the monastery hadn’t even been dissolved his request seems to be ‘a bit previous’ as my step-son would say.

 

The plot thickened as there’s also a letter in existence dated 1537 written by Sir Thomas Arundell, the king’s receiver who was writing to ask what Cromwell intended with Cleeve as it was still operational and rumour said that King Henry VIII had ‘pardoned it.” He went on to ask for clarification and to comment that Cleeve contained “seventeen priests of honest life.”

It was to no avail. The abbey was required to submit. The abbot received a pension of 40 marks a year (about £9000 these days apparently). One of the monks – John Hooper- went on to become Bishop of Gloucester. He managed to irritate Queen Mary in 1555 and was burned as a heretic.

 

Tregonwell was not successful in his suit. Still, there were plenty of other abbeys for him to lay hands upon. He acquired Milton Abbas in 1540 and numerous other Dorset properties. According to his parliamentary biography there appears to have been some irregularity about the number of leases he handed over for the nunnery of St Giles at Flamstead which must have been resolved and not to his credit. He went on to become Chancellor of Wells Cathedral and later,  during the reign of Queen Mary, the MP for Scarborough.

As for Cleeve Abbey itself, it was granted in January 1538 to Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex by way of a thank you present.

Radcliffe was a loyal servant to the Tudors. He was the privy councilor who suggested that Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with Bessie Blount, should be named heir to the crown ahead of the legitimate but female Mary. He was an active agent in promoting Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and later after the suppression of the minor monasteries he helped to put down the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) in Lancashire.

 

The church of Cleeve Abbey was swiftly demolished but the cloister remains as do many lovely, if cracked thirteenth century floor tiles, which lay hidden beneath the soil for many centuries. The display in the abbey buildings includes tiles showing Richard the Lionheart and Saladin on horseback. The display also explains how the tiles were made.  Other tiles are heraldic and reflect the names of the abbey’s patrons including Richard of Cornwall who was the brother of  Henry III.  His tiles are the ones with the lion rampant on them.

Henry III was also a patron.  He gave the monks of Cleeve Abbey the right to any wrecks that arrived on Cleeve’s stretch of shoreline.

 

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Muchelney Abbey

Tiles from Muchelney AbbeyMuchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex.  Unfortunately it is impossible to be precise about which one, as some of the charters granting land to Muchelney are medieval forgeries.  Evidence does suggest that King Ine of Wessex founded the abbey and then King Athelstan refounded it when he gave gifts to the abbey – in thanks for his victory over the Vikings at Brunanburgh or possibly as an ‘oops I’ve been a bit of a naughty boy’ offering in relation to his involvement in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933. The confusion about the abbey’s foundation may be because the area suffered under the Vikings.  After all, Muchelney is in the vicinity of the hovel where Alfred the Great burnt the cakes. Wedmore, where there was once a royal palace and where Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum is just up the road.

 

The ruins that remain today date from the twelfth century and reflect the Norman desire to found or support existing monastic houses.  There is also a very smart sixteenth century staircase in the abbot’s residence that must have looked a bit out of place when it became a farm house after the dissolution as well as some wonderful recumbent lions over the fireplace which date from a century earlier.

 

Muchelney is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  It turns up again some five hundred years later in Thomas Cromwell’s Valor Ecclesiasticus as being worth £447 with eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. It had never been a large monastery – Glastonbury was too close for that to happen.

 

There were earlier visitations. The Victoria County History for Somerset mentions a visit in 1335 when the Bishop of Shrewsbury found the Benedictine monks sleeping in richly covered beds and going off for their meals on horseback rather than eating in the monastery itself. In addition the cloisters were being polluted with the presence of the laity – and not just men either. The Bishop also noted that the church was in a bad state of repair. The monastery was swiftly reformed by a new abbot but it didn’t spare the monks from a visit by the Black Death.

 

Cromwell’s commissioners also sent many letters about Muchelney.  The commissioner who arrived in January 1538 was Thomas Leigh (he made himself deeply unpopular during the first phase of the dissolution in Yorkshire.)   By 1538 Leigh had a handy assortment of damning phrases with which to write to his master. He described the abbot as being of “doubtful character” and the monks “unlernyd.” Unlearned or not the brethren at Muchelney could see which way the wind was blowing and swiftly surrendered the abbey into Leigh’s hands.

Henry VIII granted the abbey to his brother-in-law the Earl of Hertford.  The Earl, Edward Seymour whose sister Jane Seymour married the king two years earlier, went on to become Protector of England during his nephew Edward VI’s minority.

Seymour kept the abbot’s lodging turning it into a farm house which he let out to tenants. He used the rest of the monastery as a quarry.

When Seymour was executed for treason Muchelney returned to the Crown where it remained until 1614 when it was sold off by James I.

The church of Muchelney which stood next door to the abbey was not part of the abbey itself – so Seymour couldn’t strip the lead from the roof or take away its dressed stone!  However, the abbey had the living for the church. This meant that they could appoint the priest. An informative display also mentions the fact that the abbey was responsible for providing the vicar with bread and ale every day, meat twice a week, and eggs and fish on the other five days.

 

Victorian excavation of Mucheleny Abbey revealed medieval floor tiles belonging to the Lady Chapel. These were placed inside the church where they remain today as a reminder of how beautiful English abbeys must have once been.

 

 

 

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Corbels, corbel tables and label stops

 

Wells lizard

Every profession and specialism has its own jargon.  It makes life a lot easier than referring to the ‘thingy’ or having to keep pointing and saying “that one over there.”  Communication becomes precise and efficient.  While an assortment of words (largely nouns if we’re going to be accurate)  may be helpful for people in the know, for those of us who are just getting to grips with these things, jargon can also be plain confusing – not to mention intimidating.

The other problem with jargon is that you may think that you know something but then a new word comes along to sling the proverbial spanner in the works.  Such was the case for this blog.  Half an hour ago I knew what a corbel was; ten minutes after that I read a guide on a local church website and discovered a new word which threw my poor brain cell  (yes  one – the other one seems to have gone on holiday) into confusion.

A corbel to quote Scotland’s Churches Trust is “a stone which projects from a wall-face, to support a floor or roof, or some other structure. A row of corbels, with spaces in between, at a wallhead, is known as a corbel table. A continuous row of such projecting stones is known as corballing.”  http://www.scotlandschurchestrust.org.uk/maintain-your-church/glossary/?term=73

Corbels can be seen both inside and outside buildings from parish churches to royal castles.  A corbel isn’t always decorated – sometimes it just looks like a neatly cut lump of stone holding something else up.  So far so good.   A  corbel is different from a gargoyle in that a corbel is just one end of a load bearing lump of masonry whereas a gargoyle is a waterspout jettisoning water from the roof after it rains.

Now for the new terminology that had me confused. A label stop, again to quote the excellent Scotland Churches Trust is “the name given to the lower end of a drip mould. Usually a short horizontal section of the same form as the drip mould, but sometimes a carving of a human head, a grotesque animal, or a bunch of leaves.” http://www.scotlandschurchestrust.org.uk/maintain-your-church/glossary/?letter=l

So why was I confused?  I began writing this blog thinking that the delightful little salamander munching his way through a selection of fruit just off the north transept of Wells Cathedral was a corbel – then I did my research for this blog using the Internet to see if I could find out any thing else about him. I landed on the aforementioned local church website.  The words corbel and label stop occurred in close proximity to one another without clarifying the difference between them.  The result was that my brain cell had a minor panic.  Was the lizard a corbel or a label stop?

Further research ensued.  I then found the Scotland’s Churches Trust website with its lovely clear glossary of architectural terms – the brain cell heaved a huge sigh of relief and added another term to the long list of useless information stored in the dim recesses of my skull.

To summarise my convoluted meanderings – the Wells lizard sits at the end of a shaft that shoots off to form an arch – so he is load bearing.  This means that  he is very definitely a corbel.  Look at it and pause to wonder at the engineering capacity of medieval builders as well as their creative genius.  Photographically he is delightful to behold and required me to stand only on tip toes with my arms extended (who’d have thought that a visit to a cathedral could also be an aerobic work out?)

A  label stop, on the other hand, is a dinky piece of sculpture (no that’s not a technical term)  found at the end of a length of decorative moulding so not holding up anything but pretty to look at- but still pause and marvel at the skill it took to create something so very small in so much detail.

If you’d like to browse a glossary of church related architectural terms double-click on the picture to open up the Scotland’s Church Trust glossary.

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