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West Country Late Medieval Bench Ends

Dr Todd Gray MBE directs the West Country Late Medieval Bench Ends project which aims to reduce the unnecessary destruction of this ancient woodwork.

This project is the first in-depth study of this collection of carvings on the ends of seats. The region has, with its more than 5,000 Bench Ends, one of the two great national collections of such woodwork. The outcome will take the form of a gazetteer of all ancient 'Ends’ in the six counties of the South West (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Each of the more than 300 churches has a description which provides a historical summary as well as a physical description of the Ends. At least one visit has been made to each church and the descriptions are written from printed and documentary searches in archives and libraries across the region. Parish entries will be sent in electronic form to every churchwarden and it is planned that the gazetteer will be published as six distinct county volumes. Comparative carvings in Yorkshire, the Midlands and East Anglia have also been examined.

The project will alert churchwardens to their guardianship of medieval Ends. Although many are in churches where it is readily apparent that they are medieval, in many other instances churches have only a handful of early carving which is disguised amongst much later woodwork. There is an urgent need for this project because of the current vogue for re-ordering, that is re-seating, in our ancient churches. Woodwork has been lost through the lack of appreciation for what it is. It is hoped that the project will provide information which will allow informed decisions to take place on the future of any such Bench End.

The project has revealed local distinctions, not only within counties but across the region, in carving in both Gothic and Renaissance styles. It has also demonstrated how the West Country compares to similar carving across England. It has shown how only in the West Country were benches carved with elaborate borders and how many carvings were, again nearly uniquely within England, designed on raised shields. The project also has revealed that the South West is the national centre for Renaissance carving on Ends and that it is the only part of England where symbols of the crucifixion were commonly carved on seats.

Many carvings have what are probably unexpectedly vigorous and exuberant carving and take the form of hybrid creatures, sacred subjects, initials and heraldry, and village art. Their importance to our understanding of the social and cultural history of England from the late 1400s to the early 1600s lies partly in the importance of seating to local communities. At this time every man, woman or child sat in a designated seat (which reflected their hierarchial status) and, under threat of a fine, was obliged to weekly attend their local parish church.

The project follows on from Dr Gray’s Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends which was published, with the support of English Heritage, in 2013.

The project is funded by The Pilgrim Trust and has worked closely with English Heritage.