Pen, Ink, Paper

We are thrilled to host this guest post from Dr Paula Simpson, who works at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, and who is currently writing a book on Tithe Disputes in Early Modern England: Everyday Popular Protest in the Diocese of Canterbury (Boydell and Brewer).

Scribes – often of professional middling status[1] – held a crucial social role in sixteenth-century England. But the writing undertaken by these scribes did not always occur at a desk in the office or home. I’m interested in the movement of pen, ink and paper between agricultural fields and urban courtrooms and in the records stored in parish chests and household ‘archives’. This post explores the scribal activity involved in recording tithe payment in early modern Kent. Tithes were a form of tax paid to members of the clergy or to lay tithe owners on agricultural produce or personal income. Although strictly speaking the amount due was one tenth, the reality was much more complex. Tithing practices tell us about the interplay between written and oral testimony, formal and informal record keeping and the activities of the middling sort in local communities.  

***

In the sixteenth century, literate people regularly undertook a scribal role for their friends, neighbours and kin.[2] One such person was the local clergyman. In Mersham, Kent in 1583 John Whytinge, vicar wrote out the will of his parishioner and kinsman Richard Batchelor. According to a deposition in a subsequent case in the ecclesiastical courts over this will, his ability to do so had been aided by his ‘having penne, ynke and paper about hym’ which ‘he doth usually carry with him at suche tymes.’[3]

A witness in another case described a presentment (a formal statement for the court) which was written out in the house of Henry Snod of Sittingbourne, where the vicar ‘toke pen and ynke and wrote the words’. When he realised, however, that the accusation was levelled at his own curate he ‘put upp his paper into his bosome.’[4]

We might suppose then that literate members of the community including the clerical profession had ready access to the materials needed to record the last wishes of parishioners as well as for writing other types of document. The wealthier may have owned equipment such as a desk box (a sloped writing desk) or a standish (a stand or case for pen and ink) and those with access to the market and the financial means had access to a variety of writing materials as well as a paper supply.[5] Inkhorns and penners (pen cases) are especially interesting in this context as portable items carried slung from the girdle or perhaps around the neck.[6] This equipment could be utilised for both planned record making as well as impromptu note taking.

SBT 1956-1: A seventeenth-century inkhorn or penner, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I am particularly interested in the way in which Kentish tithe collectors (often clerics) may have recorded agreements, receipts and debts owed to them often in the course of their everyday interactions with parishioners. Unlike wills, as ephemera these notes or notebooks rarely survive but there are telling glimpses of their existence or use in the records of the ecclesiastical courts. The people who produced these records did not usually write to make a living but a certain level of skill and expertise was required to make meaningful records of transactions, whether they were formal accounts or hastily-written notes.

Tithe payment punctuated the agricultural year and sums were paid at particular times in the liturgical calendar. Often this was at Easter, linked to the receipt of communion.[7]  In urban parishes those who had paid tithe would be given a token which they would redeem in order to receive the sacraments and receipts would be recorded in ‘Easter Books’.[8]But in other instances deponents also described payments made for acreage for feeding cattle with half paid at the feast of the Annunciation (25th March) and the other half at the feast of St Michael the Archangel (29th September).[9]Payment of tithe in kind could be linked to the birth of animals: another witness named St Georgestide (around 23rd April) as the usual time for delivering tithe lambs[10] or to the seasonal production of particular fruits.[11] Most great tithes were collected at harvest time.[12] The adherence to traditional Quarter Days reminds us that tithe could be an onerous financial burden in addition to other rents that were typically payable at these dates.

Six Preacher and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Henry Wayland kept a ‘booke of his accomptes or reckoninges.’[13]As the pluralist and often absentee rector of the Kent benefices of Hastingleigh, Ivychurch and Lyminge, he clearly had considerable income to keep track of and which made him a frequent plaintiff in the ecclesiastical courts suing for tithe. 

In a long-running dispute Mason versus Paramor (1574-5) which concerned tithing-out (setting aside the tithe owner’s share during harvesting) in the parish of Monkton, the number of sheaves bound together had been carefully overseen and noted down in a book by the plaintiff.[14] Of course, tithe collectors were entirely within their rights to observe and keep such accounts, but we might imagine that on occasion the sight of such noting could have been provocative, especially perhaps to those labouring hard to bring in the harvest. 

Reapers 1785 George Stubbs 1724-1806 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and subscribers 1977 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02257

An ill-tempered encounter took place in the churchyard of Molash in the 1580s. There Ezechias Fogg, vicar of Chilham revealed to his curate Robert Coxon that he would not be renewing his cure at Michaelmas and, showing him a document, confirmed that the small tithes would instead be leased to Christopher Goteley who was also present. Fogg testified that at this point ‘the sayd Coxon offered to snatche the same out of this deponents [Fogg’s] hande and did rent parte of one of the counterpannes and the sayd Coxon did greatly abuse this deponent in speeches.’[15]

These examples suggest that tithe owners used both formal and informal documentation to assert, monitor and defend their right to tithe. Tom Johnson has written about the proliferation of paper flying to and fro between the ecclesiastical courts and the parish in the late medieval period.[16] The situation was no different in the sixteenth century. Apparitors (court officials who delivered summons to court) were often unpopular figures in local communities[17] and the clergy and parish elite acted as intermediaries in this system of ecclesiastical bureaucracy through the system of presentment (though of course they were often the subject of presentments themselves) and by citing recalcitrant tithe payers to court. While it might be argued that these accounting procedures and citations to appear in court were indicative of power relations in a culture where the everyday maintenance of customary practice and tithe payment was still primarily oral, tithe payers were still able to turn these documents to their own symbolic advantage. 

Thomas Gardener, curate of Seasalter, described the events of the afternoon of one Trinity Sunday when Mr Marshe, the vicar of Hernhill, had preached in the parish church of Seasalter and after the service came to the vicarage house ‘to drynck and to make mery’. After a while, parishioner John Turnor came to the vicarage gate and asked to speak with Mr Marshe who came ‘yncontynentlye’ out of the house to meet him. Turnor had come to pay Marshe for half a year’s agistment (the pasturing of livestock). It was reported that “… the saide Mr Marshe therupon takinge oute of his purse a pece of paper and after he had looked therupon a whyle then sayde that he did there fynde a mentyon of suche a dutye”. [18] Turner offered to pay, but the vicar had no change and so Turner had to obtain some in order to make the exact payment to the tipsy cleric. He remained on horseback at the gate for the whole of the encounter. Far from being intimidated by the cleric’s record-keeping Turnor had engineered payment at a time when the tithe collector was arguably at a significant moral and physical disadvantage.

The use of these documents reveals much about dialogue between literate and oral culture in the maintenance of the tithe payment system. While literate culture may have been gaining ascendancy over oral by the 17th century, the Kentish evidence for tithe suggests that the 16th century was very much a transitional period. Take, for example, the case Chillenden versus Thompson in which events on Lady Day in the parish church of Goodnestone (Faversham) were described. William Chillenden had paid seven shillings for his small tithes for half a year. He asked for an acquittance (a written receipt), but the vicar refused instead asking those assembled in the church to bear witness to the payment.[19]

The meaning of bearing witness is relation to tithe payment was very complex. Often payment involved deliberately-staged encounters which took place, often in churches, before specifically appointed witnesses as well as by others who observed events because they happened to be around. Production, consumption and tithe payment was closely observed by the parish community because everyone had a stake in the tithe payment system. Payment was a matter of community concern because of the defining role of custom and precedent.[20]

In court (literate) people were as likely to cite visual and oral testimony as well as drawing on more formal record-keeping. Henry Butler, a previous town chamberlain of Sandwich, deposed in a case over the disputed site of a mill in 1555, that ‘he hath herd his father now deceased about xiiii yeres now past say and report that the wyndmyll before specified is in the parish of Saint Maryes of Sandwich and so the said wyndemyll is conteyned in the rentalles to be in the parishe of St Maryes’.[21] This period is especially interesting then for the dialogue between the two modes. People may have been able to read even if they could not write. They recognised the value of written records by adding their marks to wills and to witness testimonies and in so doing added veracity to the contents.

While court cases often drew on institutional record-keeping such as urban and monastic archives in support of claims for tithe, there is also evidence that yeomen and small farmers and perhaps clergy were beginning to build small personal archives of their own. Scraps of paper, lists and receipts – some of which might be identified as ‘makeshift texts’ – may gradually have built up into small carefully-preserved personal archives probably kept in people’s homes. [22]Whether scribbled notes or fair copies, these records would have been a resource to draw on in times of dispute. 

In the case Harper versus Asherste (1573) the defendant, yeoman William Asherste referred to a book of ‘incomings and outgoings’ which had belonged to his grandfather, describing it as ‘verry credible old a book of antiquity’.[23] Here he was bringing to bear all of the notions of veracity and credibility usually associated with the oral testimony and memories of older members of the community but this time to personal written records.

Alongside oral testimony local documentation, including that passed from one clergyman to another, was another resource of community memory. These documents assumed an important authority especially in times of crisis or court dispute. Increasingly such documentation was kept in locked parish chests and regulating access to this knowledge was central to social and economic relationships within the parish community.[24]

Credit: Bob Embleton / Parish Chest in St. Mary’s Church, Kempley / CC BY-SA 2.0

It seems then that note-taking and personal archive-building activities were characteristic of the professional middle stratum of society. When created by tithe collectors they reveal the use of these documents as part of the everyday experience of negotiating and maintaining the tithe payment system. These documents were used alongside activities such as perambulation of the parish bounds and obtaining the oral testimonies of older members of the community as the custodians of the knowledge of past practice. 

Tithe also reveals the complexity within the social strata identified as middling. It exposes ongoing tensions within this group. Often tithe disputes occurred between clergy and those who were office-holders, or who were from families long-established in the parish, or over religious tensions. Aspirant parishioners – sometimes those we might consider to be members of the same professional middling stratum as the clergy – often clashed with incumbents over tithe payment.[25] Tithe offers then a unique perspective on what it meant to belong to the professional middle stratum. 

Furthermore, wealth was not always a significant indicator of this middling status. Clearly some clerics enjoyed high incomes, social standing and were well-educated and lay tithe owners, especially those who benefitted from the dispersal of monastic lands, were usually aspirant and again relatively wealthy. Others, usually vicars or curates, were scraping by on a low income from a relatively poor benefice.[26] Disputes over tithe – a time of rupture in local social and economic relationships – might be a meaningful way to tease out the complexities of those among the socio-cultural status of the middling and of those bound to engage with them.

Paula Simpson


Notes

[1] https://middlingculture.com/social-statuses-of-early-modern-england/ (accessed 18/02/2021).

[2] For Kent, for example: Hallam, E. A.,‘Turning the hourglass: gender relations at the deathbed in early modern Canterbury’, Mortality, 1/1 (1996), pp. 61-81; Hallam, E. and Hockey, J., Death, Memory and Material Culture (Oxford, 2006), chapter 7; Richardson, C. (2017) ‘Continuity and Memory: Domestic Space, Gesture and Affection at the Sixteenth-Century Deathbed’ in Buxton, A., Hulin, L, and Anderson, J (eds), InHabit: People, Places and Possessions (Oxford, 2017).

[3] PRC 39/10, f.151v. See also another testamentary case PRC 39/10, f.166: ‘there being redy provided penne, ynke and paper’. Thank you to Catherine Richardson for these references.   

[4] Bunker versus Newland (1556), PRC 39/3, ff. 23v-24.

[5] Hamling, T. and Richardson, C., A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (Yale: New Haven, 2017). A book of rates dated 1552 lists a wide range of commodities for writing, p.159.

[6] For examples see http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/search/museum/strst-sbt-1994-22/view_as/grid/search/everywhere:desk/page/1 (accessed 17/02/2021); http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/search/museum/strst-sbt-1993-31-3/view_as/grid/search/everywhere:standish-117245/page/1 (accessed 17/02/2021); https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/435206.html (accessed 17/02/2021); https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/118933.html (accessed 17/02/2021)

[7] For example CKS PRC 39/8, f.21v; X.10.16, f.69v.

[8] Wright, S. J. ‘A Guide to Easter Books and related parish listings’, Parts 1 and 2, Local Population Studies, 42 (1989), pp. 18-31 and 43 (1989), pp. 13-27. There are no known Easter Books extant for the diocese of Canterbury.

[9] For example Merricke versus White (1586-89), CKS X.11.1, ff. 195v-196r. Also Lane versus Cheeseman (1598), CKS PRC 39/22 f. 58r.

[10] Ducklyng versus Symonds (1573), CKS PRC 39/6, f.229v. 

[11] Hawks versus Hawkins (1572), PRC 39/6 ff. 128-30, 144v-6, 149v-50, 172v-9r.

[12] There are numerous examples of dispute over tithing out. See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict: Disputes over Tithe in the Diocese of Canterbury, 1501-1600’, Phd University of Kent (1997), pp. 99-116.

[13] CKS X.11.6 ff236v.

[14] Mason versus Paramor (1574-5): KCC DCb X.10.16 f. 21v.

[15] Goteley versus Coxon (1588), CKS X.11.1, f. 221v. The ‘counterpanne’ is the copy or counterpart of an indenture.

[16] Johnson, T. L., ‘Legal Ephemera in the Ecclesiastical Courts of Late-Medieval England’ (Open Library of Humanities, 2019) Vol. 5, No. 1. pp. 1-17.

[17] Ingram, M., Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 56-64.

[18] Turnor versus Lakes (1571-2): KCC DCb PRC 39/6 ff. 125v-6. 

[19] Chillenden versus Thompson (1561): X.10.8, ff.11v-12.

[20] See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict’, chapter 3.

[21] Saunders versus Cosby (1555): KCC DCb X.10.6 f. 114r. 

[22] See Waddell, B. ’Writing history from below: chronicling and record-keeping in Early Modern England’, History Workshop Journal 85 1 (2018), pp. 239-264 for the notion of the ‘makeshift’ archive’. See also Walsham, A., ‘The social history of the archive: Record-keeping in early modern Europe.’ Past and Present, 230 Issue suppl_11 (Nov, 2016), pp. 9-48, esp, p.41.

[23] Harper versus Asherste (1573): KCC DCb X.10.14 ff. 122v-4.

[24] Wood, A., The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of The Past In Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2013), especially pp. 256-271. See for example KCC DCb X.3.3 pt. 1 f. 95v which describes documents borrowed from the parish chest for personal perusal.

[25] See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict’, chapter 5.

[26] For example the encounter described above between Ezechias Fogg (graduate of Oxford, gentleman) and curate Robert Coxon. It is worth noting here that the small tithes were instead given to Christopher Goteley who was denounced by Coxon as a ‘papisticall fellowe’ and who had himself been the defendant in a tithe case brought by Fogg.

The Draughtsmanship of Divines in Early Modern England: Some Preliminary Observations

Guest post by Hannah Yip, a Research Assistant for ‘GEMMS – Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons’, an SSHRC-funded project based at the University of Regina, Canada. Her latest article, ‘What was a Homily in Post-Reformation England?’, is published in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

The English Protestant divines discussed in this blog were of ‘professional middling’ status. Although they were highly educated individuals, many of them holding degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, they relied on their livings and patronage from institutions and wealthier individuals to support themselves. While the role of published writings as instruments of patronage for Protestant clergymen in early modern England is widely recognised,[1] the question of whether there were alternative avenues for securing patronage, such as scribal publication, remains largely unaddressed. Moreover, how did Protestant preachers decorate their manuscripts intended for patrons? What evidence do we have that they practised the art of penmanship and drawing in their leisure time? 

Today, the subject of ‘Protestant art’ in post-Reformation England constitutes a thriving area of study. Over the past thirty-five years, historians have continued to challenge Patrick Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis, contributing to a deeper understanding of the manner in which English Protestants generated a visual culture of their own.[2] While such research has included the Protestant clergy’s defence of visual imagery in certain contexts, there has been insufficient research into the practical engagement of these divines with the visual arts. One principal exception is represented in studies of the graphic art of Samuel Ward (1577–1640), town preacher of Ipswich; in particular, his print entitled The Double Deliverance, claimed by the minister to illustrate ‘the two grand blessings of God to this nation’ but ultimately misinterpreted as a personal affront to Catholic Spain.[3] The limnings of Stephan Batman (c. 1542–1584), rector of St Mary’s, Newington, Surrey, have also been explored at some length by M. B. Parkes, who has drawn attention to a treatise on the art of limning written by the cleric which appears to be no longer extant.[4] One of Batman’s commonplace books featuring his drawings survives as Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Eng 1015, and is available to view in its entirety here.

To what extent did Protestant churchmen cultivate their skills in draughtsmanship, and why? This blog examines the devotional artistic endeavours of other Protestant ministers as manifested primarily in manuscript, posing crucial questions regarding their function as gifts for patrons or as forms of record-keeping and private meditation. It begins to enquire whether the pen-and-ink drawings within these manuscripts can be categorised as a genre of Protestant artwork which has not, thus far, been recognised either by palaeographers or by historians of early modern visual culture. 

It was undoubtedly the case that the wide range of confessional allegiances, theological positions and religio-social groups could dictate Protestant divines’ appreciation for art and their own artistic pursuits. In their fascinating article about the scheme of imagery for a Wiltshire parish church designed by Christopher Wren (1589–1658), dean of Windsor and father of the famous architect, Louise Durning and Clare Tilbury emphasised the ways in which his designs negotiated the boundaries between the Laudian ‘beauty of holiness’ and a word-centred piety.[5] Jasper Mayne (1604–1672), a prolific poet and playwright as well as a Royalist Oxfordshire vicar, not only expressed his disdain for ‘the vanity of some of our Modern Prophets, who can see Idolatry in a Church-window’ in a typically moderate Protestant defence of ‘the Ornamentall use of Images’, but also revealed his dedication to art in a poem extolling the qualities of the ‘table-book’ of Anne King (b. c. 1621), sister of Bishop Henry King (1592–1669).[6] Detailed analysis into the attitudes of preachers hailing from multiple branches of Protestantism towards the visual and decorative arts richly merits further investigation.

Notwithstanding specific religious allegiances, it was certainly the case that an individual preacher’s skills in draughtsmanship could be used to his advantage when seeking or maintaining gentry patronage. With their bespoke woodcuts, engravings and accompanying verses, printed funeral sermons could serve as Protestant memorial keepsakes for a grieving patron’s family. Lucy Russell (c. 1581–1627), Countess of Bedford may have financed in part the production of a handsome octavo volume containing various visual and textual tributes to her brother, Sir John Harington, Second Baron Harington of Exton (c. 1592–1614).[7] A considerable number of presentation copies of manuscript sermons intended for patrons, written in the hand of the preachers themselves, survive in archives and libraries today. However, arguably few are as exquisite as a sermon dedicated to Lady Thomasine North of Mildenhall, Suffolk (c. 1586–1655), dated 27 August 1626 and preached locally by Nicholas Searle (1592–1678).[8] Searle was clearly an accomplished penman, exhibiting a variety of calligraphic hands in a manuscript which imitated a printed sermon in its layout and appearance, complete with decorated drop-cap initials. Bound in gold-tooled vellum, this was designed to pay tribute to an important patron in rural Suffolk.

The drawings of divines could also be rendered at the service of record-keeping. The commonplace book of the Cambridgeshire vicar Edward Beaver (c. 1649–c. 1705), an octavo volume comprising notes of sermons which he had attended in addition to memoranda and accounts, also contains several diagrams which connect his interests in astronomy with his faith (see Figure 1). ‘The Constellations as they stand in ye North Hemespheer of Heaven’ are spread out over twelve pages (ff. 9v–15r). While clearly not as sophisticated as the efforts of his contemporary, the astronomer Reverend John Flamsteed (1646–1719), Beaver’s sketches reveal a personal engagement with scientific study. This was an aspect of a cleric’s interests which could often find its way into his sermons.[9] Choosing Revelation 2:1 as his text (‘Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks’), the royal chaplain Thomas Bradley (1599/1600–1673) muses upon whether the ‘seven stars’ refer to ‘that famous Constellation clearly visible in our Horizon, in dorso Tauri, called by Astronomers, the Pleyades’.[10] A yet more erudite marriage of astronomical knowledge with biblical exegesis appears throughout a sermon delivered by Robert Gell (1595–1665), rector of the affluent St Mary Aldermary, London. Preaching to the Society of Astrologers, Gell’s final exhortation argues that ‘a living and powerfull faith […] hath the vertues not onely of some one Star, or some one Asterisme, or Constellation, but even of all the Stars, all the Constellations of the heavens’. Citing Daniel 12:3 (‘And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever’), Gell expresses his hopes that the members of his congregation ‘shall become true Magi’ who will subsequently ‘shine as the Firmament’.[11] 

Figure 1. Edward Beaver’s commonplace book. British Library, Harley MS 2314, ff. 12v–13r.

Finally, churchmen could also decorate their manuscripts ‘for art’s sake’. British Library, Harley MS 663 is an autograph folio volume containing notes relating to the private accounts and sermons of William Hull (d. 1626), lecturer at St Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire and dating from the first quarter of the seventeenth century.[12] At the end of the volume, there are several decorative tracings and drawings in pencil, evidently pricked from an original printed source (see Figure 2). There is little evidence to suggest that the volume was owned by anybody other than Hull before it passed into the Harleian Library. It is therefore likely that, in a spare moment, Hull traced these designs for his own pleasure. Such practices would not have been lost on the likes of an even more illustrious churchman, Bishop John Cosin (1595–1672). As Adrian Green has shown, the designs for Cosin’s ecclesiastical woodwork were inspired by Netherlandish and German pattern books.[13]

Figures 2a & 2b. Private accounts and sermons by William Hull. British Library, Harley MS 663, ff. 70r, 71r.

Deriving from devotional pursuits, but also undertaken at their leisure, these diagrams, drawings and instances of ornamental penmanship blur the boundaries between ‘recreation’ and ‘work’ in the service of God. Whereas the art of drawing and calligraphy may have been considered as secular pursuits which were at odds with clerical vocation, it was the case that these talents could, in fact, be utilised at the service of patronage, or to ally external interests in natural phenomena with the Protestant faith.[14] This blog challenges older assertions that the practice of drawing and limning was the principal preserve of royalty, courtiers and the landed gentry in the seventeenth century.[15] Such assumptions mean that it is of no surprise that preacher-painters exist on the margins of art-historical research. For example, Robert Tittler’s invaluable ‘Early Modern British Painters’ resource does not mention Francis Potter (1594–1678), rector of Kilmington, Somerset, whose portrait of Sir Thomas Pope (c. 1507–1559) hangs in Trinity College, Oxford, which Pope founded (see Figure 3).[16] The painting is an accomplished work, showing Potter’s sensitivity to the intricacies of his sitter’s jewellery and ermine. 

Figure 3. Francis Potter, Sir Thomas Pope (c. 1637). Oil on panel. 119.4 × 81.3 cm. Trinity College, Oxford.

Very little research has been undertaken thus far on how preachers acquired these creative skills. By beginning to examine the artistic recreational activities of Protestant divines, this blog has highlighted that more research is required regarding the relative social status of the clergy, the ‘largest profession of the early modern period’, and the leisure time that they could afford to take.[17] Endowments attached to certain livings varied enormously, as did the backgrounds and early upbringings of clergymen.[18] It is possible that certain churchmen were able to build a rapport with the middling sorts ensconced within their parish by taking up recreations which they could identify with. Jill Francis has shown how the published garden designs of William Lawson (1553/4–1635), vicar of Ormesby in the North Riding of Yorkshire, were ‘simplified and accessible’, aimed towards the emerging class of rising gentry in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.[19] Considerations of space have precluded discussion of wealthier clergymen’s activities as art collectors, including the intriguing career of the Cumbrian rector William Petty (c. 1585–1639), who was both chaplain to Thomas Howard (1585–1646), Earl of Arundel and his principal agent, purchasing collections on his behalf.[20] Investigating the artistic recreations of clergymen in early modern England leads to the potential for discovering the origins of the characteristics of the Hanoverian squarson, whose lifestyle bore strong similarities to those of the landed gentry.[21] The recognition of certain preachers’ abilities to interpret art is also crucial for enhancing scholarly understanding of their engagement with the religio-political controversies of their day. In a published defence of a painting censured as showing King Charles I’s submission to the Pope, the Royalist divine Daniel Featley (1582–1645) demonstrated that the work was a representation of a story from the Golden Legend, analysing with considerable detail its religious symbolism which was incompatible with the accusations against the painting put forward at the Star Chamber.[22]

Moreover, whereas Durning and Tilbury previously argued that Dean Christopher Wren’s visual skill was ‘hardly a typical attribute of the early modern cleric’, this blog argues that, on the contrary, a wider awareness of certain clergymen’s capabilities as visual thinkers would advance scholarly knowledge of the external influences that informed the composition of their sermons.[23] The admirable work of Jean-Louis Quantin, Katrin Ettenhuber and Noam Reisner, amongst others, has revealed how preachers drew upon classical literature in addition to theological texts, ancient and modern.[24] But what about the godly inspiration which could be gained from studying artistic treatises? According to William A. Dyrness, The Mysteryes of Natvre and Art (London, 1634), a treatise by John Bate (fl. 1626–1635) which covered the art of drawing and painting, was owned by the staunchly godly Mather family in New England.[25] While I have argued elsewhere for the enthusiasm of the ‘hotter sort’ of Protestant ministers for other types of visual devices such as anagrams, more meticulous study may disclose further evidence of the appreciation of, and active engagement with, visual culture by clergymen across the wide spectrum of Protestant belief in post-Reformation England.[26] 

Hannah Yip

Notes

[1] Paul Seaver, ‘Puritan Preachers and their Patrons’, in Religious Politics in Post-Reformation England: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Tyacke, ed. by Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006), pp. 128–42.

[2] Among a large literature, see, in particular, Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis, ‘After Iconophobia? An Online Symposium’, <https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/after-iconophobia/> [accessed 12 November 2020].

[3] Alexandra Walsham, ‘Impolitic pictures: providence, history, and the iconography of Protestant nationhood in early Stuart England’, Studies in Church History, 33 (1997), 307–28; Helen Pierce, Unseemly Pictures: Graphic Satire and Politics in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 35–47; Ema Vyroubalová, ‘Catholic and Puritan Conspiracies in Samuel Ward’s The Double Deliverance (1621)’, in Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600–1800, ed. by Crawford Gribben and Scott Spurlock (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 47–65.

[4] M. B. Parkes, ‘Stephan Batman’s Manuscripts’, in Medieval Heritage: Essays in Honour of Tadahiro Ikegami, ed. by Masahiko Kanno and others (Tokyo: Yushodo Press, 1997), pp. 125–56 (p. 128). 

[5] Louise Durning and Clare Tilbury, ‘‘Looking unto Jesus’[:] Image and Belief in a Seventeenth-Century English Chancel’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 60.3 (2009), 490–513. 

[6] Jasper Mayne, A late Printed Sermon Against False Prophets, &c. ([London], 1647), p. 15; British Library, Harley MS 6931, ff. 59r–60v.

[7] Richard Stock, The Chvrches Lamentation for the losse of the Godly, &c. (London, 1614); Ted-Larry Pebworth, ‘“Let Me Here Use That Freedome”: Subversive Representation in John Donne’s “Obsequies to the Lord Harington”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 91.1 (1992), 17–42 (p. 40). 

[8] Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich, HD607/1. For presentation copies of sermons in manuscript which follow print conventions, see Mary Morrissey, ‘Sermon-Notes and Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Communities’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 80.2 (2017), 293–307 (p. 300). 

[9] For Flamsteed, see Frances Willmoth, ‘Flamsteed, John (1646–1719)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (2008), <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9669> [accessed 13 November 2020].

[10] Thomas Bradley, A Sermon Ad Clerum, &c. (York, 1663), p. 4.

[11] Robert Gell, Stella Nova, A New Starre, Leading wisemen unto Christ (London, 1649), pp. 30–1.

[12] For this manuscript, see Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 276–81.

[13] Adrian Green, Building for England: John Cosin’s Architecture in Renaissance Durham and Cambridge (Durham: Durham University, 2016), p. 16.

[14] Mordechai Feingold, ‘Parallel Lives: The Mathematical Careers of John Pell and John Wallis’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 69.3 (2006), 451–68 (p. 457).

[15] Kim Sloan, ‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters c. 1600–1800 (London: British Museum, 2000), p. 11.

[16] Robert Tittler, ‘Early Modern British Painters, c. 1500–1640’ (September 2019), <https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/980096/> [accessed 12 November 2020].

[17] Arthur Burns, Kenneth Fincham and Stephen Taylor, ‘Reconstructing Clerical Careers: The Experience of the Clergy of the Church of England Database’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 55.4 (2004), 726–37 (p. 737). 

[18] Rosemary O’Day, ‘The Anatomy of a Profession: the Clergy of the Church of England’, in The Professions in Early Modern England, ed. by Wilfrid Prest (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 25–63; Fiona McCall, ‘Children of Baal: Clergy Families and Their Memories of Sequestration during the English Civil War’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 76.4 (2013), 617–38 (p. 618).

[19] Jill Francis, ‘Order and Disorder in the Early Modern Garden, 1558–c. 1630’, Garden History, 36.1 (2008), 22–35 (pp. 29–30).

[20] For clergymen’s art collecting, see Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 138, 153. For William Petty, see David Howarth, ‘Petty, Rev. William’, Grove Art Online, <https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T066833> [accessed 13 November 2020].

[21] Wilfrid Prest, ‘Introduction: The Professions and Society in Early Modern England’, in The Professions in Early Modern England, ed. by Wilfrid Prest (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 1–24 (p. 18).

[22] Daniel Featley, The Sea-Gull, &c. ([London], 1644); Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity from Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 38–40. 

[23] Durning and Tilbury, ‘‘Looking unto Jesus’’, p. 513.

[24] Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ch. 1; Katrin Ettenhuber, Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Noam Reisner, ‘The Preacher and Profane Learning’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 72–86.

[25] William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 223–24.

[26] Hannah Yip, ‘‘Speaking now to our eyes’: Visual Elements of the Printed Sermon in Early Modern England’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2020), ch. 3.

Pass Ye Remote: A Quest for Early Modern Entertainment Through Online Learning Resources — Before Shakespeare

Welcome to Elizabethan England via the digital world! We’re lucky to have a range of exciting and innovative online resources at our disposal that make it possible to explore the entertainment and cultural activities of early modern England through our computer screens. This post (in collaboration with Middling Culture) takes the form of “remote quest(ions)” […]

Pass Ye Remote: A Quest for Early Modern Entertainment Through Online Learning Resources — Before Shakespeare

The Furniture of the Middling Sort

Many thanks to Chris Pickvance for this guest post on the furniture of the middling sort. You can hear Chris talk the team through a “middling” style chair in the video at the end of this post… You can also read more about furniture of this and other periods at the Regional Furniture Society.

In an ideal world (for researchers) there would be a close correspondence between household social status and domestic furniture. Higher status households would have greater incomes or wealth and be living in larger houses with more specialized rooms. They would thus have furniture of higher quality and of more varied types. In practice, life styles are not only influenced by means. Large houses can mean more ‘old’ furniture is preserved, for example because inherited ‘family’ furniture is valued, or because old pieces are relegated to servants’ quarters or outbuildings. Moreover, norms can differ among households in the same economic position. 

Wood

In the 1560-1660 period, furniture was mainly made of solid oak; veneer arrived later. Imported and exotic woods became available in small quantities or through chance purchases as trade routes extended to Asia and the Americas. Cypress and juniper chests were also imported and survive in considerable numbers. Decoration took the form of work on the surface: primarily various forms of carving, to a small extent stain or paint, and the introduction of inlay. 

1627 chest with a variety of carved motifs (Bonhams)

Middling Furniture?

Applying this approach to the ‘middling sort’ is not straightforward. As Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson write in A Day at Home in Early Modern England, this group is defined more by its social status (they ‘held social positions that bestowed a certain superiority within their local contexts’) than by a shared economic position (‘they might be moderately to exceptionally wealthy’) (p.9). It follows that their furniture preferences were shaped by local as well as national influences rather than being invariant across localities. 

This is consistent with the evidence of diversity. On the one hand, the furniture that survives from the 1560-1660 period is likely to over-represent the furniture of the middling sort and  upper classes; lower quality and less durable furniture is intrinsically less likely to survive, and in so far as furniture enters the market, pieces that are less appealing to later users, including collectors, are less likely to survive. One can thus conclude that the furniture of the middling sort constitutes a major part of what survives today from this period. 

Motifs, Techniques and Region

On the other hand, while renaissance motifs such as fluting, guilloche, scrolling and gadrooning were taken up nationally, in most regions they were combined with local favorites, e.g. the ‘worm’ and Celtic interlace in the Lake District, dragons in Cheshire, Wales and the Borders, the ‘domino’ in Wiltshire and the ‘eye’ in Wiltshire and Dorset. Dates, initials and, occasionally, couples’ names were popular features on carved press cupboards, chests and armchairs in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria. East Anglia was particularly open to Flemish renaissance influence, and Scotland and the South West to French renaissance influence.  

Dorset or Devon box with eye motif and colour, late 17th c. (Bonhams)

Carved work covered a range of techniques. The simplest was incising produced by a V-tool, which led to ‘outline’ designs which left most of the surface intact, as in Dorset and Devon, where it was combined with paint or stain on boarded pieces. The most common type of carving dug deeper into the surface of the oak to produce recurrent patterns such as guilloche, and needed greater skill. Indeed, combinations of these stock patterns were the main feature of English carved furniture. Relief carving was rare and limited to adornments such as sculptural terminal figures, whereas on the Continent furniture with sculpted scenes could be found.

1648 chest with heavy carving and relief figures (Semley www.semleyauctioneers.com/)
Box c 1600 with rectilinear inlay, nulling, punchwork and mastic initials (Bulstrode www.bulstrodes.co.uk/)

As well as carving, fine rectilinear inlay using contrasting woods arrived in the middle to late Elizabethan period, brought by German and Flemish migrant craftsmen, initially in the most costly furniture. Floral inlay followed soon after and remained popular in Yorkshire armchairs, press cupboards and chests till late in the 17th century. 

1682 Lake District chair with Celtic interlace and ‘worms’ (Bonhams)

On the other hand, punched work was used as a background to a main design, as a decorative element in it, or to fill secondary spaces. 

1626 armchair with carving, punchwork and mastic

Other techniques included the use of mastic to add contrast to incised designs, as on this armchair.     

1626 date in mastic

It cannot, however, be concluded that those frame and panelled chests and panel back armchairs which lack carving on their panels were therefore made for lower status social groups. Such groups sat on stools, not panel back armchairs of any type, and their chests are most likely to have been of the simple ‘six plank’ boarded type which could also serve as benches. Rather, plain panels indicate the range of variation within the furniture of the middling sort.  Finally, the century in question saw a great expansion in furniture ownership and all aspects of domestic comfort, so statements about furniture need to be qualified by reference to time and place as well as social status.    

— Chris Pickvance

The Bridgwater Corporation Pew c.1620

We thank Susan Orlik for this guest post on the Bridgwater Corporation Pew:

If you had been sitting in the congregation on a Sunday in the early seventeenth century in St Mary’s church, in the centre of Bridgwater, Somerset, your line of sight facing east would have been radically changed by a new construction. Around 1620 the Corporation had built for itself a space between your seat as a parishioner and the communion table at the east end.[1] In front of you, they had erected a highly-decorated wooden chancel screen, which stood before the chancel arch on a north-south axis. Behind that you would have seen the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses sitting in their seats. Behind them you would just about have been able to perceive the old fifteenth-century rood screen, which itself stood in front of the communion table. The Corporation had created a discrete enclosure for themselves, positioning the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses in primary position at the front of the church, visually dominant, and separated from the rest of the congregation. Together, today, the Corporation’s seats and the screen are known as the Corporation Pew.

The parish church was not only the place for religious worship in this period, but also a social space where status was expressed and negotiated. The surviving material evidence for investment in these buildings by parishioners is crucial for understanding ‘middling culture’. 

Christopher Marsh and Amanda Flather have established some important principles on church seating: congregational seating was ordered by the Churchwardens hierarchically by gender, age, moral reputation, and by ‘degrees and estates’.[2] Robert Tittler has suggested that in the context of public civic seating, in the face of discontinuity with the Reformation, patterns of symbolic usage became more important than ever.[3] This view has resonance with the material evidence at Bridgwater, which provides an insight into how middling elites constructed and displayed their special status within their local community.

John Chubb’s pre-1818 lithograph, church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, showing the original position of the Corporation Pew, with the rood screen behind it: A. H. Powell, The Ancient Borough of Bridgwater (Bridgwater: Page and Son, 1907), facing page 216. It is also in Somerset Heritage Centre: SHC: A\DQO/54/4.

Since 1857 the line of sight from the nave has been changed as the Corporation Pew has been moved to the south aisle, where it stands on a west-east axis. Slightly reduced in size, now 9.3 metres long, its magnificence and decoration still stand as evidence of the Corporation’s pride, wealth and cultural investment. With rich material evidence, but thin extant archival sources, what does this rare construction tell of the middling elite in this prosperous West Country Borough?

The screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, early seventeenth century, known to be constructed before 1620. 

While the original screen had a double central opening, as the early nineteenth-century lithograph by the amateur local artist, John Chubb, shows, the repositioned screen has two openings. There were, and now are, four parts to the screen. The front of the screen has an inscription, and two rows of superimposed arches with a frieze of grotesque masks and beasts with fish tails above the arches. The bays are separated by carved columns. 

Detail of the arches and frieze of grotesque masks and bests with fish tails, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620.
Detail of the reverse side of carved columns separating the bays, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620. The brackets for the mace may not be of that date.

Second, above the bays is an arcade with pierced spandrels. The third part is a cornice which sits above the arcade with carvings of hybrid creatures on the front and stylised patterns on the back.

Detail from the reverse of the pierced spandrels, the cornice and the crest with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620. 

Fourthly, the screen is crested with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks. These obelisks were common symbols on funeral monuments representing wisdom and eternity. On the front of the screen is the text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’.[4]

Detail of the inscription, ‘Feare God. Honour the King’, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620.

Behind the screen, on either side of the openings, are three rows of seats for the Mayor, Aldermen and Corporation. Some of these are the original seventeenth-century while others date from the nineteenth-century; the Mayor’s seat is differentiated from the others by a higher back rest and arm rests. 

The seats of the Mayor and Corporation the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset. Some seats are nineteenth century while others date from the Pew’s construction c. 1620.

Although expressions of civic identity in parish churches can be found in other boroughs, the specific discrete enclosure of the seating of Bridgwater’s elite public officials in the chancel appears rare, if not unique. At Axbridge in the same county the Corporation sat in the nave in their own pew. At St Saviour’s in Dartmouth, Devon, the town council in 1614 placed themselves along the east wall with a specially carved and cushioned seat for the Mayor. The screen and pews at Bridgwater took the placing of the Corporation to a new level of visual dominance in its display of power and wealth, by its size, its position, and by its decoration. 

The fine carvings of the pierced spandrels and the crest with strapwork and thin obelisks would indicate that part, if not all of the screen was carved by skilled artisans from an urban centre with more sophisticated workshops than a town like Bridgwater could provide. Tantalisingly there are no Corporation minutes or church records to help us. We can only speculate that, as the premier port of Somerset, sitting on the River Parrett with easy access to the Bristol Channel, Bridgwater’s corporate investors identified that Bristol may have been where such skilled carvers and joiners were to be found. We know that the less wealthy town of Axbridge had dealings with Bristol when they were planning their decorated plaster ceiling in 1636: the churchwardens’ accounts noted, ‘Item spent at Bristoll when we went to take a pattern of the fret work 1s’.[5] The entry is ambiguous: either they, the Churchwardens, or the craftsmen were purchasing a print from Bristol or they were taking a pattern to Bristol. At Bridgwater, we have no such archival guidance. What we do know is that the whole scheme, which included fish-tailed creatures and troll-like creatures on the screen, belonged to the grotesque tradition, a fashionable Renaissance import, of which wealthy merchants would have been aware of during their business travels to Bristol, London and other significant urban centres. The Corporation had decided to erect new, contemporary-styled woodwork, which would have appeared startling in its modernity to the viewing parishioners. The taste of an upper middling elite that was well networked to Bristol and London appears to have been influenced by continental fashions. Their import into England has been well documented; in particular, the effect of continental prints on all media has been explored by Anthony Well-Cole. He highlighted the principal contribution of Netherlandish prints to the ‘highly distinctive combination of grotesques and strapwork’, both manifest in the Bridgwater screen.[6]

Bridgwater, described as ‘rich and sturdily independent’, the premier port of the county, was generally prosperous, despite the vicissitudes of trade.[7] As an administratively strategic Borough, it shared the Quarter Sessions with Wells, Ilchester and Taunton, and enjoyed its own Justices of the Peace. Bridgwater’s elite, the leading townsmen, were mercers who led the wool manufacturing businesses of the town. Important for cloth production and its export, the town was well known for the ‘Bridgwater cloth’, a good quality serge. Among the middling elite would have been merchants who traded the agricultural produce and minerals from the hinterland particularly to and from Ireland and South Wales, as well as the coastal trade and the trade with France, Spain and Portugal. Among the goods that Bridgwater, ‘the busiest port in Somerset’, exported were peas, beans, coal, salt, iron and finished cloth, while it imported hides, wool, timber, and wine. The mercers and the merchants, the middling elite, drove the town’s prosperous economy, which had recovered from depression in the 1590s to improve significantly in the early seventeenth century. They also led the civic authorities. It is likely that the expensive investment in the Corporation Pew c.1620 is linked to this renewed prosperity in the Borough. 

The Corporation drew its membership from the mercers and merchants; and it is the relationship between the Corporation and the Parish which is at the heart of the story of the Corporation Pew. The rectorial rights of the parish were granted to the Corporation by Elizabeth in 1571.[8] Part of the terms of the 1571 grant charged the Corporation with stipends of £20 for a man ‘to preach and teach in town and neighbourhood’, £13 6s 8d for a curate and another sum for a schoolmaster.[9] Exercising its rights as rector, the Corporation was taking one-tenth of the agricultural produce of the parish, which realised significant sums; for example the Rectory Accounts of 1579 show receipts of £124 13s 5d, payments £81 13s 3d and the balance of £43 0s 2d. The number of Burgesses allowed rose from 18 to 24 in 1628, an indication of the Corporation’s growing power and influence. The Corporation held the rectorial rights, paid the stipends of the clergy and was receiving substantial income, all of which enhanced its position of power in the town and in the parish.

On the front of the screen was a reminder of tripartite authority: the biblical text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’. The congregation were urged to fear God, and honour the King who took his royal and religious headship from God. By obvious implication authority was triangulated, as through the screen the local civic authority was on view to the congregation throughout the service, who should also be obeyed in this hierarchy of authority. Found in other churches, the inscription was also common in domestic contexts. Not only had the Burgesses of Bridgwater built an expensive screen, highly decorated in a modern, fashionable manner, to sit behind, and to be seen differentiated from the rest of the worshippers, they had also boldly displayed their authority, linked to the King and to God. The metaphorical and the literal display conjoined. 

The evidence suggests that this parish in the first decades of the seventeenth century was committed to a stricter form of Protestantism (often referred to as ‘godly’), which rejected what it perceived as unnecessary religious ceremony. While such rich adornment of this seating may seem inconsistent with such ‘godly’ attitudes, the Corporation Pew reflects a much wider wave of material investment in parish churches in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century which gave the wealthier and more influential middling sort opportunity to express their status and taste.

The dominant position of the seating for the wealthy Corporation at Bridgwater appears rare. The Corporation’s power and status were displayed through their investment in decorated woodwork, located in an unusual, exclusive, primary position at the east end of the nave, which emphasised their leadership of this godly community. At present, no other configuration has been found of a Mayor and Corporation sitting in what was essentially an enclosed pew either with their backs to the chancel, facing west to the congregation in the nave, or facing inwards towards each other. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest which way they faced.

In any case, as you sat in the congregation you could not have failed to have been impressed by the burgesses’ investment. The sheer size and magnificence made the screen visually dominant. The exclusive nature of the space for the burgesses was clearly demarcated. The modernity of the fashionable imagery, combined with the skill of the workmanship, demonstrated the wealth, power and networked connections of the town’s leading figures. They had enhanced through decorated wood their civic status and also their church, over which they held the rectorial rights. You could not have ignored the elegant linking of the authority of God and the King to their own, materialised through the magnificence of the woodwork, the fashionable imagery and the inscription. This was investment driven by civic pride and aldermanic status on a bold scale. 

Susan Orlik is an associate member of the department of History, University of Birmingham. This case study draws on research for her PhD thesis, ‘The ‘beauty of holiness’ revisited: an analysis of investment in parish church interiors in Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire, 1560-1640’ (University of Birmingham, 2018).


[1]We can be confident in dating the construction through three pieces of evidence: a mayoral will; a brass plate to a deceased Mayor; and a pew dispute which locates and dates the ‘new ile’. SHC: D\D\cd/71; SHC: DD\X\SR/5/c403.

[2]See especially Christopher Marsh, ‘Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew’, The Journal of British Studies vol44, no. 1 (January 2005): 3-26; and Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007).  

[3]Robert Tittler, ‘Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 205-223, 214.  

[4]KJB I Peter 2: 17, ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King’.

[5]SHC: D\P\ax/4/1/1 Cwa Axbridge, 1636.  

[6]Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints 1558–1625(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997) passimand 47.  

[7]Baggs and Siraut, “Bridgwater: Economic history,” VCH, Somerset, vol. 6, 213-223;J. F. Lawrence, revised and completed by J.C. Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (Stroud: Phillimore, 2005), 78-9.

[8]Lawrence, History of Bridgwater, 76-7; SHC: D\B\bw/2433/1 Church Records, other than accounts.

[9]Baggs and Siraut, “Bridgwater: Churches,” VCH, Somerset, vol. 6, 230-235.

Dress Hooks of the Middling Sort

We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”

Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record. 

A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.     

To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples. 

It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).

BH-C23A16

An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.   

It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.

BERK-93DC8A

The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.

BH-B4EDCA

This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.

YORYM-5281A5

Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).

Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).

SUR-3488DA

It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view. 

Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…

Michael Lewis

Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum