The parish church of St Mary in Croscombe Somerset is rather splendid. It is filled from floor to ceiling with Jacobean carving dating to 1616. The pews are still boxed. There are even two desks for the parish clerks as well as a pulpit complete with its canopy. Amongst St Mary’s pleasures is the scent of wax polish and the diversity of patterning that can be found on the pew doors (I feel a blackwork band sampler coming on.) However, the furniture that dominates the church of St Mary is the rood screen.
A rood screen is the partition between chancel and nave. There is often also a step at this point in the church. Rood is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a cross. In earlier times the rood screen was usually surmounted by a cross.
Rood screens were removed during the Reformation by order of King Edward VI in 1547. After all, they served to separate officiating clerics from the laity. During the reformation altars were replaced with communion tables and the rood screen was removed. Some were returned into position during the reign of Queen Mary only to be removed once more during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Word of God became much more important than the Sacrament under protestant rulers. The idea that the congregation and the act of worship should be separated from one another also became an alien idea along with the concept that a priest or monk was required to intercede on behalf of an individual. These ideas go some way to explaining the rather impressive pulpit in St Mary’s as well as the introduction of pews to listen to the lengthy sermons preached from the pulpit.
During the reign of King James I rood screens made a comeback – not to separate the congregation from all things Holy but to remind them that the monarch was in charge! Laud’s Book of Common Prayer also required communicants to have a separate space to the rest of the congregation. This means that many churches replaced their rood screens. As Jenkins observes the debate between factions regarding the importance of the Word and the Sacrament was ultimately a significant contributor to the English Civil War. In the meantime church interior designers may well have been hedging their bets – rood screens and pulpits to satisfy both contingents.
Leeds, St John contains a similarly ornate testament to the skills of Jacobean woodworkers. John Harrison, a local cloth merchant, built it in the mid 1630s just in time for the English Civil War. Leeds is very fortunate to have St John because it was due to be demolished during the 1860s. The churchwardens described the interior as ‘debased’ (Jenkins 924). Gothic architecture was the pinnacle of church architecture for the Victorians so no matter how fine the carvings the wooden paneling of the seventeenth century was bound to be met with some derision. Fortunately it was preserved – and the rood screen that had been taken out returned.
Both rood screens are fascinating because of the detail they contain from lions to monsters and grotesques to naked ladies and cornucopia. Then of course there are the royal coat of arms. In Leeds the royal arms are on the left hand side of the screen while the right hand side sports the three feather crest of the Prince of Wales.