Among my earliest projects of researching and reproducing medieval furniture were a pair of faldstools in the ‘Glastonbury’ style, based on the two extant examples constructed circa 1530 and now residing in Wells, Somerset, England. The extant chairs are believed to be based on earlier examples witnessed in Rome circa 1500.
These faldstools were presented at a Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) event to Russ and Kara Whitsell (known in the SCA as Their Excellencies Sir Godric ap Rhys and Kara of St. David) in December of 2008 (Yule of AS XLIII). My goal in making them was to express my admiration of these remarkable people through a craft of my hands. With that in mind, I chose to refrain from the use of power tools and endeavored, when available, to use tools close in design to those which may have been used by a cabinetmaker of the sixteenth century.
General History of Faldstools
Faldstools were portable, semi-folding chairs (the word literally means ‘folding chair’) designed for formal use by ecclesiastics and nobility. According to Hubermann, et. al., they were “…used in pontifical functions by the bishop outside of his cathedral, or within it if he is not at his throne or cathedra. Other prelates enjoying the privilege of full pontificals also use it. The rubrics prescribe it as a seat in the conferring of baptism and Holy orders, in the consecration of oils on Maundy Thursday, at the ceremonies of Good Friday, etc. It is prescribed as a genuflexorium at the door of the church at the solemn reception of a bishop, at the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, and before the high altar. Red, green, and violet cloths are ordered as a covering to correspond to the season or the rank of the prelate. It may have once been something like a campstool and it accompanied the bishop in his journeys. Materials, even the most costly, were employed in its construction; one wrought of gold and jewelled was presented to Pope Clement IV by Charles, King of Naples. Some were made of silver, of gilt metal, of ebony, or of wood. They were sometimes elaborately carved, ending in clawlike feet, the four corners at the top representing the neck and head of animals. Cloths of silk of a rich texture with gold and silver served to cover them. A faldstool is prescribed by the old English Ritual in the consecration of a bishop.”
History of the Extant Examples in the ‘Glastonbury’ Style
First let it be stated that the name ‘Glastonbury Chair’ is a Victorian invention. It is unknown by what name these chairs were called in the sixteenth century, but it is likely they were simply referred to as faldstools. Two examples of this ‘Glastonbury’ style of chair are extant. Their complete histories are obscured by Time, but certain facts are known and certain legends may be based on actualities.
The first of these chairs, now known as the Bishop’s Chair, was constructed for or by John Arthur Thorne, a Benedictine monk and the last treasurer of the great Abbey at Glastonbury.
The design was based on a verbal description of a chair or chairs seen by Abbot Richard Beere during his visit to Rome in 1504. It is likely that the maker of this chair may have made more than one, and that the extant example was not the first one made. Brother John Arthur did not enjoy his chair for long, however, as he was arrested by officers of Thomas Cromwell, along with Abbot Richard Whiting and Brother Roger James, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. They were imprisoned in the Tower of London in September 1539. By 14 November 1539 the three clerics were returned to Somerset and held in the Bishop’s Palace at Wells. The chair, meanwhile, had been looted from Glastonbury Abbey and somehow found its way to the Bishop’s Palace as well. Undoubtedly, Brother John Arthur recognized his chair as Abbot Whiting was seated in it (hence the name ‘Bishop’s Chair’) during his trial under charges of “robbing the abbey”. Brother John Arthur, Abbot Whiting, and Brother Roger were summarily dragged by horses from the Palace to the top of Glastonbury Tor where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. The chair remained behind, where it has enjoyed a quiet five-hundred year retirement.
The second of these chairs may have also been made by the same cabinetmaker as the Bishop’s Chair. It certainly was based on the same verbal description. This chair resided in the early sixteenth century in St. John’s Church in Glastonbury. At an unknown time it was removed from the church and eventually ended up in the private collection of Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford. According to Preston, in 1842 the Reverend Lionel Lewis, vicar of Glastonbury, traveled to the great auction at Strawberry Hill. After an impassioned plea to the bidders he purchased the chair at his uncontested opening bid and returned it to St. John’s Church where it has remained ever since.
Materials: The chairs are constructed of quarter-sawn white oak and finished with walnut oil and beeswax. The oak was acquired in non-dimensioned lumber, milled flat-four-face (f4f). I chose white oak as it not only is the same species as was used for the original chairs, but is also a superior wood for strength and durability.
By having the lumber milled quarter-sawn, I reduced risk of warping and shrinkage due to changes in moisture. Additionally, quarter-sawing white oak reveals its medullary rays: the golden flecks resulting from the radial ribbons of parenchyma cells running vertically through the tree across and perpendicular to the growth rings. This effect adds visual appeal to the figure of the wood, although in itself does nothing for the physical qualities of the furniture.
I chose to finish with walnut oil and beeswax. Both items were known to English cabinetmakers of the sixteenth century as they are listed among the inventories of cabinetmakers in extant Wills and auction bills (Simmons), although the purpose of such items is still undetermined. As they are organic and, though stable, prone to eventual deterioration, there have been no extant remnants of either substance found on furniture proven to have applied in the sixteenth century. Still, it is conceivable that cabinetmakers of the late middle ages would have used both substances to retard moisture exchange.
Methods: The methods used in construction were suggested by the images found in Comenius’ Orbus Pictus, practical knowledge of woodworking, and methods suggested by the functions of the tools available in period.
Using measured drawings (Diehl) of the Bishop’s Chair, I roughed out the framing pieces of both chairs. I made a template for the arms by greatly increasing the print-size of a tracing of a photograph of one arm of the original chair. The two-halves of the stretchers were sawn and planed from 8/4 lumber, then glued together. The stretcher dowels were made by shaving stock with a bench plane until roughly circular, then finishing with a concave spoke shave. The smaller dowels used for pinning the framing members and other pieces were made using a hollow auger, followed by a spoke shave, and finally by driving the dowels through a hole drilled into a ¼” steel plate.
Having no prior experience in frame-and-panel construction, I was challenged from the outset to learn several new skills. The boards for the backs and seats were joined on edge, then extensive planing was required to reduce the 4/4 thickness of the milled lumber. I used a fence with the combination plane to further reduce the panel’s edges. The panel “floats” within the frame, which eliminates any chance of buckling or warping due to seasonal expansion.
Perhaps the simplest, and yet most demanding, step in the process was boring into the end-grain of the stretchers. This was necessary to accommodate the dowels used as tenons. Unfortunately, the lead screw of the center bit, which typically “pulls” the bit into the wood, severs the grain when entering parallel as opposed to screwing into the grain when entering perpendicular. Furthermore, the bit itself failed to gain purchase within the grain. The result of which was that each rotation of the bit merely shaved off a thin disk of end-grain and required a great physical effort to even get that much off. I believe, in retrospect, that should I ever have the opportunity to examine an extant example I will discover that the stretcher is a single piece, turned on a lathe to be narrowed at the ends.
Tools: Comenius wrote: “Arcularius edolat Asseres, Runcina in Tabula, deplanat Planula, perforat Terebra, sculpit Cultro, combinat Glutine & Subscudibus, & facit Tabulas, Mensas, Arcus, et cetera.” The Cabinetmaker smooths hewn Boards with a Plane upon a Work-Board, he makes then very smooth with a small Plane, he bores them through with an Auger, carves them with a Knife, fastens them together with Glue and Cramp-Irons, and makes Tables, Boards, Chests, etc.
The tools I used in construction were either identical in design to –or identical in function to- tools available to a European cabinetmaker of the sixteenth century (Sterre); namely: woodworker’s bench; vise; carcass saw; backsaw; yardstick; charcoal; bit-and-brace; bench plane; card scraper; chisels; wooden mallet; bar clamps; spoke shaves; Stanley #45 Combination Plane (circa 1890); sliding bevel; steel square; hollow auger and yellow glue.
Diehl, D. (1997) Constructing Medieval Furniture. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Comenius, J. (1658) Orbis Pictus. Syracuse, NY: C.W. Bardeen, 1887.
Preston, I. (2001) The Glastonbury Chair. London: Preston Books.
Chinnery, V. (1979) Oak Furniture: The British Tradition. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club.
Herbermann, C. et. al. (1913) The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Simmons, C. (1996) Plymouth Records: Wills and Inventories. Marco, Florida: Picton Press
Sterre, G. (2001) Four Centuries of Dutch Planes and Planemakers. Leiden: Primavera Pers.
Frontispiece: Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture Drawn from Existing Authorities (London: William Pickering, 1836)
Faldstool: Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 24
Papal Coronation Chair: Photograph by Orbus Catholicus Secundus
Glastonbury Abbey: Photographer unknown. Photocrom print in collection of the Library of Congress
Two Views of the Bishop’s Chair: Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture Drawn from Existing Authorities (London: William Pickering, 1836)