St Edmund’s, Southwold. Revisiting Rood Screens – Suffolk II

St-Edmunds-Southwold1

At heart I am a visual culture purist. I say this to forewarn you about my comments regarding the rood screen and pulpit of St Edmund’s Church in Southwold.

St Edmund’s is a beautiful medieval church built in the Perpendicular style. It’s full name is ‘The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr’. The building we see today (suggested date 1413 in the church’s guide, but circa 1430 in both Pevsner and Mortlock accounts) was built on the site of an earlier thirteen-century church, a smaller building that had been destroyed by fire. According to the church guide during 1758 the foundations of that original building were located underneath part of the present church.

St-Edmunds-Southwold-porch

The straight lines of the Perpendicular style have been emphasised at St Edmund’s by the luxury flushwork of flint and stone. The linear quality of the building is doubly emphasised by the striking effect of an inlaid chessboard decoration on the west tower that is repeated on the exterior walls of the south porch.

From the appearance of the grand, ornate exterior it is evident that St Edmund’s was built at a time when the parish of Southwold and its environs had generous wealthy donors. This is confirmed by the quality of the surviving medieval interior furnishings that include the rood screen, the pulpit and the font.

St-Edmunds-view-to-chancel

Of course, the splendid, painted and gilded rood screen alone is worth a visit to the church, but there is also a fine pre-Reformation pulpit and a beautifully decorated and adorned hammerbeam ceiling together with the original, though defaced font.

St-Edmunds-Victorian-ceiling

Now here is the issue. Between its glorious fifteenth-century heyday and today, St Edmund’s, along with many East Anglian medieval churches, has had some turbulent, destructive times, and equally, some impoverished, neglected and generally detrimental times. The visit of William Dowsing and the iconoclasts in 1643 brought the first and substantial destructive episode which included the defacing of the font.

SOUTHWOLD, APRIL the 8th. We break 
down 130 superstitious Pictures ; St. Andrew ; and 4 
Crosses on the four corners of the Vestry ; and gave 
order to take down 13 Cherubims; and take down 20 
Angels ; and to take down the Cover of the Font. 

Quote from 'The journal of William Dowsing of Stratford,
parliamentary visitor, appointed under a warrant from the
Earl of Manchester, for demolishing the superstitious 
pictures and ornaments of churches.' Journal commenced
1643, Sudbury, Suffolk.

Defaced-font-St-Edmunds

After this deliberate, seventeenth-century image smashing came the long period of straightened times for Church of England buildings as the eighteenth century saw the rise of the Nonconformists and the subsequent fall in C of E congregation numbers. A neglected St Edmund’s functioned with a series of temporary curates as the chancel roof and wood of the east window slowly rotted away.

However, with the rise of the Evangelical movement across the course of the nineteenth century it was all change again. A widening interest in re-examining the medieval past combined with the Victorian’s obsession for progress, resulted in large funds being provided for extensive renovation schemes at St Edmund’s.

The attractively painted ceiling of the hammerbeam roof adorned with painted angels we see today is one such renovation scheme. The replacement ceiling is a fine example of nineteenth-century carpentry and decorative painting skills as well as an insight into how a previous generation reinterpreted our shared medieval past. The Victorians aimed for reconstructing a perfectly finished past whilst our twenty-first-century sensibility is all about the delicately preserved, authentic original however dilapidated and tatty it looks.

St-Edmunds-Angels
Painted roof angels – a Victorian interpretation of the medieval aesthetic.

Apparently, the colourful blue and painted details are very near to sketched records of the original medieval ceiling, but how fair a facsimile it is difficult to judge. That situation is brought acutely into focus when we turn to consider the ‘restoration’ of the medieval pulpit during the 1920s.

Medieval-pulpit-over-restored
Original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit. Disappointingly over restored in 1928 under the guidance of F E Howard.

Along with providing designs for the reredos, the lectern and the font cover, an ‘inspired young church architect from Oxford’, F E Howard (1888-1934), oversaw the restoration and painting of the pulpit. Sadly, the once elegant original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit is almost obliterated beneath thick layers of overdone paintwork and gilding.

Part-of-rood-screen
Part of the rood screen depicting the twelve Apostles. From the left St Matthew, St James the Less and St Thomas. Disappointingly a heavy piece of church furniture and a large floral display were obstructing a clear view of the north side of the rood screen.  Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

Curiously, the writer of the church’s own guidebook gives special credit to F E Howard for making St Edmund’s interior the delight it is today. However, even the guide’s sympathetic author informs us that any desires by Howard to renovate the rood screen were not permitted.

FEHoward-font-cover-and-lectern-detail
The font cover (left) and a detail of the lectern (right) as envisioned by F E Howard (1888-1934) in a medieval style. Painted wood and gilding. 1928

Personally, I am very, very pleased he was stopped.

The rood screen at St Edmund's, Southwold, Suffolk
Part of the rood screen (the south side) at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St James the Great, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Simon. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

I have nothing against Victorian art and it is as much part of the history and culture of this church as the medieval art. Nevertheless from the our twenty-first-century viewpoint the Victorians’ well-meaning yet heavy-handed painting and renovations can border on vandalism. The repainting of the damaged saints’ faces by Sir George Richmond in 1874 are bad enough, but just think what Howard would have done in the 1920s to all that delicate gilding on the rood screen given half a chance.

Victorian-head-on-medieval-StPaul

As I mentioned at the beginning I am a visual culture purist and as such I appreciate seeing what is left of our medieval culture when it is gently conserved, but I do realise that a little active conservation is necessary. Of course, what we have left is still only an approximation of the reality of the past. Today’s impression for a visitor to St Edmund’s is nothing like the spectacle and mystery experienced by a medieval parishioner or even a Victorian church goer as all the medieval stained glass was blown from the windows by a bomb in 1943 during the Second World War.

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Oxburgh Hall Part 3 – Gatehouse interiors and roof

three-erasIt’s always interesting to go visiting and have the opportunity to climb up a medieval spiral staircase and take in the views from the roof. The original gatehouse of Oxburgh Hall has just such a staircase. Apparently, it used to be possible on a clear day to see across to Ely Cathedral some 20 miles distant before trees obscured the view.

The climb to the roof top begins by taking the North Staircase lined with some amazing and unusual embossed and painted leather wall-coverings.

On the first floor of the gatehouse is the King’s Room. It’s called the King’s Room as some time during the late 15th century King Henry VII slept at Oxburgh Hall, but not actually in this room. Just off this chamber is the King’s Room Closet with a small garderobe (medieval loo).  In the corner of this small space there is a brick-topped trap door concealing the entrance to a tiny priest hole hidden beneath.

Queen of Sheba tapestry.
Tapestry of the Queen of Sheba made at the Mortlake Factory in London. 1623 On loan to Oxburgh Hall hanging in the Queen’s Room – why, to match the 17th century furnishings perhaps.
Now it’s up the spiral staircase to directly above the King’s Room where we find the Queen’s Room . The Queen in question was Henry VII’s wife, Queen Elizabeth of York. The spiral staircase along with the external appearance of the gatehouse is the one part of the Hall that survives from the 15th century without being substantially remodelled and gives us an indication of the superior quality of the original building.

15th-century spiral staircase
The spiral staircase is constructed of brick. It has a handrail that is made from purpose-made moulded bricks set into the wall. This staircase is a clear example of fine 15th-century workmanship and quality materials chosen to make an impression.
When you reach the top the spiral staircase opens onto the roof. More 15th-century details are visible such as the machicolations in the turret walls and a trio of gothic window arches. Machicolations are openings in a wall or floor through which missiles could be thrown down in the event of an attack on the house.

And here are the views looking out into the Norfolk countryside. The photograph on the right is the view to the south-west in the direction of Ely Cathedral. Looking at the near line of trees and the more distant wooded land I think it’s been many decades since anyone glimpsed Ely Cathedral in the distance.

Perusing the National Trust’s guidebook to Oxburgh Hall the recurring theme, we are told, is loyalty. That is, over the centuries, the Bedingfeld family’s loyalty to their Roman Catholic faith and their loyalty to royalty. Obviously, these ‘two loyalties’ have not always been compatible hence the priest hole. I’m not sure what the NT think of their paying visitors, but the tone of their guidebook towards this house and family is bordering on reverential.

heraldic trumpet banner
A Victorian heraldic trumpet banner. This was used by the trumpet players as they accompanied the 7th Baronet, Sir Henry Paston-Bedingfeld (1830-1902) in his role of High Sheriff as he opened the County Assizes in Norwich during 1882. The arms depicted are Bedingfeld quartering Paston with Clavering in pretence.
Sometimes I think the NT finds it difficult to fully accommodate some of the properties they have been donated and these days with modern marketing they have to have a story to sell, sorry, tell. I don’t envy them this tricky task when promoting Oxburgh Hall. Essentially, Oxburgh Hall is presented as Tudor with its original gatehouse and moat, but in reality, thanks to extensive 19th-century remodelling it is mostly Mock Tudor, sorry that is Gothic Revival. I appreciate that any building existing on the same site for over 500 years has evolved, however I personally feel that authenticity matters when selling ‘heritage’. This house’s story is definitely about survival though how we find it today is probably more about wealthy Victorians and their rose-tinted view of the past.

Queens-room

 

Saint Valentine’s Eve and the Victorians of Norwich

Make-your-own-Vic-style-ValentinesCelebrating Saint Valentine’s Eve – a new idea perhaps, but not so, in fact an old local Norwich jollification. During the evening of February 13th wrapped gifts labelled with ‘Good Morrow Valentine’ were left on doorsteps all over the city.  Anonymous admirers then knocked on front doors and hastily retreated. In 1862 one local resident Helen Downes commented, 

‘We do not here content ourselves with lace-cut papers, but everybody sends everybody real presents anonymously; and, as on all gift-bestowing occasions, the children come in for the lion-share.’

During the Victorian times in Norwich the weeks before Valentine’s Eve found the shops so busy with extra trade that additional temporary sales assistants were hired. The folks of Norwich were shopping for Valentine’s gifts. The grander gifts on offer included workboxes, vases, tea caddies and umbrellas or for a very lucky lady a ‘Norwich Shawl’.

Norwich Argus newspaper
Local retailers advertise their Valentine’s gifts in the Norwich Argus, Saturday, 5th February 1876.

However, the most typical gifts were gloves and perfume together with the familiar Valentine’s day card. Victorian Valentine’s cards were elaborate affairs with embossing, paper lace, feathers and even hand stitching.

According to the information at Norwich’s Bridewell Museum both young and old took part in celebrating St Valentine’s Eve. The museum is dedicated to the history of Norwich and as part of displays showing the story of local commerce it has a superb collection of high quality Victorian hand stitched Valentine’s card. Similar examples are sometimes sold nowadays by antique dealers and I’ve also found a few vintage survivors (pictured above and below) on Etsy from Moon Maiden Emporium, The Jewel Mystique and SCDVintage.

I couldn’t help but think how we so often assume we are living in the most consumer conscious times, but nothing is new and the Victorian Norwich shopkeepers obviously spotted a lucrative opportunity over a hundred years ago. Of course, you could just have a go at making your own version! (Sorry no delicate sewing with silk and lace trim just wrapping paper, doilies and reproduction Victorian scraps.)

Vic-style-homemade-Valentines