Rope Beds Reconsidered: Research and Reproduction of a Portable Medieval Rope Bed (Part one)

Once I began to have a more “authentic” encampment at Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) events, a good friend who had retired from camping gave me his rope bed.  A rope bed can be defined as a bed frame wherein the mattress is supported by a net of interlaced ropes.  The ropes provide a supportive, yet flexible, surface; unlike the more familiar wooden slats, which provide a supportive, but rigid, surface for a mattress.

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Rope Bed by Baron Sir Richard FitzAlan, based on design by Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon

Provided that a suitably thick layer is placed over the ropes (I used a thin backpacker’s air mattress), a rope bed can be as- or more- comfortable than a box-spring mattress.  I have thoroughly enjoyed sleeping on this bed frame.  However, it is demonstrably inauthentic; as it was made from dimensional lumber, has a head-board of plywood, commercially-produced rope, and was made using modern power tools.  I have always wished to make one for myself and, in doing so, strive towards making a rope bed closer in design to one made in the Middle Ages.

But first, I had occasion to make a rope bed off of the Greydragon design.

Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon is, in my estimation, the person singly most responsible for people sleeping comfortably at SCA events.  He did not invent the design but he did refine and popularize it.  The design for a rope bed he has made available is easy to follow and can be constructed using available lumber and common tools by people with relatively basic woodworking skills.  Additionally, the bed-frames look good; other than a close inspection, they look consistent with extant examples.  Perhaps most importantly, the bed-frames are easy to assemble and disassemble, making them eminently transportable.

So when my friend Thalia de Maccuswell was in need of a bed for her encampment, it was the Greydragon design to which I turned.  I began by determining with her the dimensions of the sleeping area, the space within the frame, which would work best for her.  Since I intended to use dimensional lumber, all of the measurements then grew out of the sleeping area plus the lumber’s dimensions.

img_8126

I make no pretensions that this is a historically accurate reproduction.  It is an aesthetically pleasing, visually consistent reproduction modified for convenient transportation.  Thalia’s basic requirements were for it to be comfortable (she says it is), break down to fit into her sedan (it does), and “pass” as medieval under casual inspection (which it does, arguably).  All-in-all, I think the project was successful in meeting the stated goals.

However, I remained bothered by the facts that the process did not teach me anything about how rope beds were really constructed in the Middle Ages; and I decided that at some point in the future I wanted to research and reproduce a more historically accurate bed.  I wasn’t intending to start that project this Winter, however, until this happened…

 

img_8128

The break happened as I sat on the edge of the bed one morning.  The downward force of the combined weight of the bedstead and occupant is supposed to be transferred to the narrow shoulder on each leg.  It is not supposed to be transferred to the tops of the mortises.  If the bed rail is not set firmly atop the shoulder, however, the whole weight of the bed rail is suspended by the mortise off of the tenon.  When I added my own weight to that of the rail, the wood split along the grain right at the top of the mortise.

Fortunately, the simplicity of the Greydragon-design rope bed makes replacement of broken parts quite easy.  Still, this was the deciding factor in starting a research project.

Rope Beds in Art and Extant

My research began by first going back to Master Terfan’s website to review the documentation he has posted.  The extant examples here include the Tudor bed housed at the Saffron Walden museum and photographs from Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture – The British Tradition.  As these examples are all of 16th and 17th century pieces, I extended my search for earlier examples.

I poured through the books of medieval art and furniture in my small collection.  I searched the on-line collections of museums in the United Kingdom (Victoria and Albert; Saffron Walden; Weald and Downland; et. al.), France (Louvre; Museé Hôpital Notre-Dame de la Rose; Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune; Bibliothèque nationale de France; et. al.), Germany, and the Netherlands.

The earliest example I have seen (and I have seen it in person) is King Tutankhamun’s rope bed (circa 1323 BCE) found amongst his other funereal belongings.  The earliest medieval example I have found, however, is an image carved in ivory on the Andrews Diptych, circa 900 AD.

rope-bed-for-web
Detail from the lower left panel of the Andrews Diptych

The image in the Andrews Diptych appears to show a bedstead of bobbin-turned wood with a lattice of diagonally-crossing cords.  Near the foot or head of the bed is an additional crosspiece of turned wood to which the cords are attached at that end, and itself connected to the true end of the bed by spiral-laced cords.  This design, curiously, is still commonly produced today in India.  Unfortunately, no extant examples of this design remain (or, at least, I have been unable to locate any) from medieval Europe.  Wooden furniture is at a disadvantage against the ravages of Time.  Decay, fire, and changes of fashion have destroyed most pieces.

The Andrews Diptych bedstead was not a unique example, as evidenced by a similar turned bedstead shown in a trictrac checker from 12th century France.

judith-and-holofernestrictrac-checker-ivoryfrance-12th-century-louvre-museum
The Judith and Holofernes trictrac checker.  Ivory.  France. 12th century.

Although the image shown does not give details on how the mattress was suspended, it is undeniable that the bedstead was of a type identical to that shown in the Andrews Diptych, two centuries earlier.

But when did flat-sawn boards begin being used in rope bed construction?  We know from early examples, such as the extant Gokstad bed (9th century) and various paintings shown  below, that flat-sawn bedsteads and turned bedsteads co-existed in medieval Europe.  The earliest extant example of a flat-sawn rope bed which I have been able to locate is the one currently housed at the Saffron Walden Museum.

Saffron_Walden_bed.jpg
Saffron Walden Bed, without ropes or canopy valances.  Late 14th- early 15th century. England.

This bed was dated primarily by two of its most distinct architectural elements: the lozenge pattern carved on the four posts are similar to those carved on the tomb of Mary of Burgundy (circa 1500) and on the bronze screen of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey (circa 1515); and the linen-fold panels of the headboard, which are consistent with a multitude of similarly patterned panels found on headboards, chairs, and wall paneling of the 15th century.

To be continued…

 

Bibliography

Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon, Plans for a Rope Bed, http://www.greydragon.org/furniture/beds/ropebed.html.

Saffron Walden Museum, www.http://saffronwaldenmuseum.swmuseumsoc.org.uk/.

Museé Hôpital Notre-Dame de la Rose, http://www.notredamealarose.com/.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, www.http://gallica.bnf.fr/.

Mémoires de Société d’archéologie de Beaune, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k4082392/f172.image

 

 

 

SCA Charters: Wordsmithing in Medieval Styles (Part one)

Among my favorite traditions within the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) are Charters given to acknowledge the recipient’s endeavors in the research and recreation of pre-seventeenth century feudal societies.  Quite often, these Charters describe the recipient’s qualities and the particular reason for which they are being gifted a Charter.  Charters are read aloud in Court ( which is in part an awards ceremony) so that the recipient’s friends and family can hear the kind words said.

Charters in the SCA have little to do with extant medieval charters.  Medieval charters were given by feudal or ecclesiastical authorities to grant rights or properties or both to recipients.  Medieval charters were lengthy documents describing the legal extent and limits of the right or property being granted.  For instance, the Ismere Diploma (circa 736) of King Æthelbald of Mercia specified the lands “…in provincia cui ab antiquis nomen inditum est Husmeræ . juxta fluvium vocabulo Stur , cum omnibus necessariis ad eam pertinentibus cum campis silvisque cum piscariis pratisque in possessionem æcclesiasticam benigne largiendo trado.” ( “…in the province, which is the ancient name is Husmeræ, alongside a river whose name Sturbridge, with all the necessary fields and woods with her belongings when in possession aecclesiasticus meadow fisheries kindly giving up.”).

Ismere_Diploma_of_King_Aethelbald_charter_Cyneberht_736
Ismere Diploma of King Aethelbald

 

With a single exception (more on this later), the Charters I have written in the SCA are not representative of the style of medieval charters.  Rather, they are accolades of accomplishments and qualities of fellow members.  To lend an air of medieval flavor to these Charters, however, I have attempted to model the words on extant poems or poetic forms consistent with the recipient’s persona.  Why poetry?  Well, I like poetry; and as long as I am creating something that feels like it is medieval, but never actually existed in the middle ages, I have free rein to do with it as I wish.

What follows are the words I’ve written for a few of the Charters I have given out, with the historical inspirations and a bit about my processes.

Olcan’s Heavy Fighting Championship: 2015

In 2014 (anno societatis XLIX), the heavy fighting championship for the Barony of Glymm Mere in the Kingdom of An Tir was won by the honorable lord Olcan Mac Meanma, known affectionately as Olcan “the Gentle”.  He served us well for a year with the title ‘Shield of Glymm Mere’, at the end of which I presented him with a Charter.  For inspiration I researched a fair number of poems written at a time and place in which his persona, from ninth century Ireland, may have heard them.

One poem in particular struck me: Pangur Bán written in the ninth century in Old Irish by an anonymous monk at Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany (Stokes).  It is a relatively short poem, just eight verses of four lines, comparing the monk’s joy of learning to his cat’s joy of hunting mice.

Original verses:

Messe ocus Pangur bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

Caraim-se fós, ferr cach clú,
oc mu lebrán léir ingnu;
ní foirmtech frimm Pangur bán,
caraid cesin a maccdán.

Ó ru-biam ­ scél cén scis
innar tegdias ar n-oéndis,
táithiunn ­ dichríchide clius
ní fris 'tarddam ar n-áthius.

Gnáth-huaraib ar greassaib gal
glenaid luch ina lín-sam;
os me, du-fuit im lín chéin
dliged ndoraid cu n-dronchéill.

Fúachaid-sem fri freaga fál
a rosc a nglése comlán;
fúachimm chéin fri fégi fis
mu rosc réil, cesu imdis.

Fáelid-sem cu n-déne dul,
hi nglen luch ina gérchrub;
hi-tucu cheist n-doraid n-dil,
os mé chene am fáelid.

Cia beimini amin nach ré
ní derban cách a chéle;
mait le cechtar nár a dán
subaigthiud a óenurán.

Hé fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid du-n-gní cach óenláu;
do thabairt doraid du glé
for mumud céin am messe.

English translation:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way.
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I,
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

                  ---translated by Robin Flower

 

I was charmed by the hominess of the poem, and saw that the parallels drawn between the pursuits of the monk and the cat could work well in a poem about martial pursuits.  As Olcan’s heraldry includes rampant wolves, I settled on a wolf being the counterpoint for comparison.

Gentle Olcan and a wolf:
'Tis like prey they would engulf.
Hunting stags is ones delight;
T'other hunts for a good fight.

Better far than songs of bards
Olcan lists the clang of swords.
The wolf prefers his packs howl
When he is on his nights prowl.

'Tis a merry thing by far
At their tasks how glad they are.
In the eric or the wood,
Each finds joy just as they should.

But the wolf, he earns no fame.
Of the man the bards proclaim,
"Gentle Olcan with his spear:
He was the Shield of Glymm Mere."

 

pangur_ban
The page of the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1 fol 1v) containing the manuscript of Pangur Ban, seen in the lower half of the left page.

In writing my Charter I endeavored to use the same number of syllables per line and the same rhyme scheme as was used in Pangur Bán. The piece is shorter by half, due to the nature of SCA Charters necessary brevity and as I did not wish to overburden the scribe who would be calligraphing the words.  I was unable to use the same meter, as I do not read Old Irish and so am unaware of where the stresses fall.  I also fairly imitated the style of Robin Flower’s translation and I fully acknowledge that I lifted my verse “Tis a merry thing by far/At their tasks how glad they are.” nearly verbatim from Mr. Flower.

Fortunately, Olcan won the Shield of Glymm Mere again in 2015 and gave me a second chance to write a poetic Charter for him in a medieval style.

Olcan’s Heavy Fighting Championship: 2016

In 2015 (A.S. L), Olcan became our Shield of Glymm Mere for a second year in a row.  In planning the Charter to give him at the end of his year of service, I really strove to create a wholly original piece in a meter, rhyme scheme, and style consistent with his personas poetic culture.  I dove deep into ninth century poetic forms, reading works in Old Irish and Old English alongside translations of the pieces.  Although I do not understand these languages, I find that reading them aloud helps me find the meters, rhymes, and cæsura (cæsura are built-in pauses which temper the meter, aide in oral recitation, and help group lines into couplets).  Reading the pieces alongside translations assists me in understanding the metaphors, similes, variations, and alliterations commonly used.  Additionally, the translations gave me ideas of how kennings, a kind of metaphor, were crafted.

Properly, the word kenning applies to the figurative language used in Old Norse poetry.  However, similar techniques are found in Old Irish and Old English poetry and, lacking a native word, ‘kenning’ is modernly accepted as a term for the technique regardless of origin.  Briefly, kennings are substitutions of a noun with a two word descriptive epithet.  Faulkes wrote “…where instead of referring to a person or thing by its normal name, a poet replaces (or conceals) that name with another, which may be a poetical term like ‘steed’ for ‘horse’, or a kenning, which has at least two elements, such as when gold is called ‘sea-fire’ or a king ‘gold-giver’.

In these brief words I tried to capture the essence of Olcan Mac Meanma: the juxtaposition of his juggernaut fighting style tempered by his frank and friendly demeanor.

Firm and fast his ashen axe,
Grim-grinning his hardened helm,
Valorous victor now named.

Gentle giant, generous giver,
Friend to foe and fallen fighters,
Soft spoken now named.

Olcan oak-limbed, spirit's son,
Twice taker of Glymm Mere's greatsword,
Named now hero and hearth-friend.

I am pretty satisfied with how this one turned out as an original composition, and people who know Olcan well have complimented the poem’s epithet of him, but for historical accuracy I know that I still missed the mark.  For one, the brevity makes it more of a modern ode than a poem from ninth century Ireland.  It should be considerably longer, narrate his accomplishments, and tell a story.

For other Charters, then, I endeavored towards more historical authenticity.

Elanor Stanhope’s Equestrian Championship: 2015

In 2014 the Barony held our first Equestrian Championship.  Lady Elanor Stanhope became our champion, and as her year of service neared it’s end I began to research poetic forms appropriate to her persona.  As her persona is of a twelfth century Anglo-Norman noblewoman, I decided to try my hand at writing in French.

Caveat: I don’t speak French.  More to the point, I don’t speak or read Anglo-Norman.  So from the get-go I knew that the best I would have a fighting chance of accomplishing is, with the help of an old high school text book, writing in modern French.  For inspiration I turned to the circa 1300 Anglo-Norman romance “Beves of Hamtoun“.

Savarric le roi, notre seigneur et souverain;
Dalla, reine, notre étoile guidant;
Entendre mes humbles mots.

Je parle de Elanor Stanhope, chevalière,
Elle qui a prouvé sa maîtrise dans les arts équestres
sur de nombreux vaillants adversaires.

Sachez-le, vos Majestés , et entendre tout ce que les gens vous:
Elanor Stanhope sera à jamais connu
Comme le premier champion équestre de Glymm Mere.
 My thanks to Master Eduardo Francesco Maria Lucrezia for proof-reading my French.
Translation:
Savarric the King, our Lord and Sovereign,
Dalla, Queen, our Guiding Star,
Harken to my humble words.

I speak of Elanor Stanhope, horsewoman,
Who hath proven her mastery in the equestrian arts
Over many valiant challengers.

Know this, your majesties, and hear this all people,
That Elanor Stanhope will forever be known
The premiere Equestrian Champion of Glymm Mere.

It should be stressed that I composed the piece in French and then translated it into English, not the other way around.  I felt this was important to the process because words in one language do not necessarily have a corresponding word with the same meaning in another language.  I wanted to avoid using an English word for which there was no precisely comparable word in French.

With Elanor’s Charter I feel I got some things right: it said a bit of what I wanted it say about her accomplishments; it had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavor; and the three stanza, three line structure is documentable to her persona’s time and place.  However, the language was still not quite right (modern French versus Anglo-Norman) and the poetic form used was wrong, in that I had chosen a form used for lengthy tales and not one for praising individuals.

Besseta Wallace’s Art & Sciences Championship: 2015
In 2014 (A.S. XLIX) Besseta Wallace won the Barony’s Arts & Sciences championship with her entry of foods from a lowland Scottish kitchen.  Besseta is one of those wonderful people who has thoroughly researched her persona and has the skills to bring it to life through her garb, her foods, and her accoutrements.  In honor of her, I wanted to create a Charter thoroughly consistent with her time and place.
Unlike French (see Elanor’s Charter; above), I read enough Middle Scots to muddle through.  I turned to Robert Henryson’s poem The Annunciation for stylistic inspiration.  Wittig wrote that Henryson’s power was in his use of the first-person voice speaking of daily, common life in the vernacular at a time when European literature had just barely begun being written in languages other than Latin.
The Annunication is written in stanzas of three quatrains, using rhyme scheme abab bccb bccb.  My composition failed to follow this rigid structure, as I was unable to work what I wanted said into it.  However, I am not unhappy with the language or the imagery.
O lady lele and lusumest,
Thy face moist fair and schene is.
Thow makar of micht mast,
Quhose art a blosum of luf is.

This writ fra my splene is:
Tha all thy charite and all thy werkis
Unbrynt full blithlie brinnis.

Gudely may, thou michtis are
In name and in dede.
Translation:
O lady loyal and most lovable,
Thy face most fair and bright is.
Thou maker of great skill,
Whose art a blossom of love is.

These words come from my spleen:
That all thy charity and all thy craft
Burn brightly unburnt.

Worthy maid, thou champion are
In name and in deed.
Like Elanor’s Charter, I feel I got some things right: the right place and time; the right flavor; and the piece said some of what I wished to say.  Additionally, I got the language right.  But the structure of my piece fell short, as I had to abandon Henryson’s quatrains and rhyme scheme in order to complete the piece in time to present it to Besseta.  Worse, I did not include two fairly basic elements of an SCA Charter: the recipients name and the name of the championship she won (both of these got incorporated into the illumination of the Charter, just not into the body of the piece).  But all-in-all this one was a great learning experience.
Daedin’s grant of demesne: an actual charter!
And now for something completely different.
Around the time that Aelisia and I became the baronage of Glymm Mere, Her Excellency ban-Jarla (Countess) Daedin had taken a fledgling group of members under her wing.  Through her tutelage, they learned about the SCA and about the joy found in Service.  In thanks for the good work that she was doing we decided to give her a grant of demesne: lands we hold in trust for the Crown, but which are reserved for her own use.  In recognition of the group she had taken in, we gave her the area from which they primarily hail, modernly known as Ocean Shores, Washington.
By the Grace of Their Majesties, do We Aelisia and Dunstan hold these lands
of Glymm Mere: to nurture and to defend, to ensure harmony, and to enrichen the
lives of the Populace.  To that end are We served by those who mentor
and encourage others, who share of their wisdom and knowledge, and who lead by
example in exhibition of chivalry.

Well pleased are We with ban-Jarla Daedin MacAoidh a'Mhonadh in her support and
encouragement of the household known as Corhaven.  In acknowledgement of this do
We grant her a demesne within our lands bounded by the pacific ocean to the west,
the brown point to the south, the grey harbor to the east, and the King’s highway
to the north.  These lands, commonly called Ocean Shores, with all necessary fields
and woods, meadows, and fisheries, are hers to hunt and glean so long as We remain
Baron and Baroness of Glymm Mere.

Know ye that if any violate or deny this rightful gift, the nature of the
fearful judgement of their presumption shall be swift and terrible.

So confirms I, Dunstan, Baron of Glymm Mere.
So confirms I, Aelisia, Baroness of Glymm Mere.
Thus endeth Part One.  Part Two shall be posted soon.

Bibliography

Stokes, Whitley; John Strachan (1904). Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus: A Collection of Old-Irish Glosses, Scholia, Prose and Verse. II. Cambridge University Press.

Faulkes, Anthony (1997). “Poetic Inspiration in Old Norse and Old English Poetry.” Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London 28 November 1997. Viking Society for Northern Research.

Wittig, Kurt (1958). “The Scottish Tradition in Literature” Oliver and Boyd

Glastonbury Chairs: Ecclesiastic Faldstools of the early sixteenth century

Etching of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collectionEtchings of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collection

Overview

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.”

Maciejowski Bible
Faldstool from the Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250.
Pope Saint Pius V
Papal coronation faldstool of Pope Saint Pius V, 5 January 1566

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.

Glastonbury Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey, circa 1900.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbey was sold by the Crown to John Thynne.  The Thynne family and subsequent owners stripped the Abbey of lead and dressed stone, and blasted it for quarry rock.

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.

Etchings of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collection
Two views of the ‘Bishop’s Chair’; artist unknown.  “A very ancient chair of oak, which came out of Glastonbury-abbey; on it are carved these sentences, Joannes Arthurus Monacus Glastonie, salvet eum Deus: Da pacem Domine: Sit Laus Deo, Lord Bathurst had several chairs copied from this.” –Horace Walpole, 1774

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.

Bishop's Chair
The Bishop’s Chair
St. John's Glastonbury Chair
St. John’s Chair

 

 

 

 

 

Construction

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.

IMG_1301
One of the f4f boards used in the construction of the Glastonbury Chair reproductions.

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.

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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.

Bibliograpy

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.

Photograph credits

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)