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A Reformation moment

There are some brief moments of church history whose expression in the physical history of these buildings is at once rare and vivid. The decades around 1700 when a recognisable  ‘Anglicanism’ begins to emerge, is one: another is the brief window between the Dissolution of the Monasteries, starting in 1536 under Henry VIII, and the imposition of a full-blooded Protestantism just nine years later, under Edward VI. During this time, though the saint’s shrines had been taken down but Catholic liturgy remained in place in all its full-bloodied late medieval pomp. It is precisely this era the modern Anglo-Catholics look to.

For many at this time, then, the rescuing of liturgical furnishings from dissolved monasteries for reuse was a perfectly logical thing to do; for some, presumably, based on the assumption that the need for such things was an eternal given, for others perhaps designed to promote their continuance. In all cases the results often take some reading and educated guesswork before you know what it is you are looking at.

A perfect example is the pulpitum bought by the merchant Thomas White from the dissolved Carthusian friary in Bristol and presented in 1542 to the city’s new cathedral. This massive screen, almost a small building, decorated with his merchant’s mark and the coats of arms of Henry VIII and Prince Edward, and emphatically a fitting needed for a church in which the offices were to be sung in an exclusive enclosure rather than one which de-emphasised priesthood and emphasised congregational participation, separated nave from chancel in the cathedral for three hundred years. Fragments of it survive.Bristol screen

Here are two more circumstantial example: the famous shrine of St Edburg, rescued by persons unknown from Bicester priory and installed on the north side of the chancel at Stanton Harcourt, Oxon, where it was placed on top of a crudely carved platform covered in Christological imagery. It’s been suggested the parishioners intended to use it as an Easter sepulchre, and I buy that. In a decade or so, such theatrical church furnishings would be abandoned.


And one more: the palatial sedilia at Wymondham abbey. Like the pulpitum and the Easter sepulchre, such fittings embody traditional faith, emphasising as they do the status of the priesthood and, where a piscina is also attached, the extreme sanctity of any act associated with the Eucharist. Surely this sedilia, itself a very late creation — going on style alone, of the 1510s at the earliest, and the 1520s seems more likely — was originally on the south side of the high altar at the abbey? Presumably, once again, the parishioners moved it here on the assumption (perhaps a defensive assumption, perhaps not) that though the abbey was no longer a going concern their use of the nave as the parish church meant it required a sedilia… Image

More history written in the ‘dumb’ stones of churches.


  1. MJ Range
    March 25, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Dear Jon

    I am grateful that my education in church architecture is able to continue through your posts, thank you.

    Warm Regards,

    Mary Jane Range

    (Martin Randall tour participant October 2013)

    • August 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      The Wymondham abbey sedilia are commonly held to be made from a terracotta tomb monument brought in from the demolished choir, which surely has to be correct. The first post-Reformation rector was the previous abbot which I think is interesting, but since the chancel went through a very unCatholic levelling in 1550 for a communion table I do wonder whether they are Marian. Nevertheless they are the last image in my thesis.

      • August 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm

        Oh god, I was itching to start talking about sedilia, having likewise perused your blog further. This is fascinating — thank you. There’s an example in a comparable context at Binham, too, plain as pants in design… both of these got me thinking about churches with more than one sedilia, especially rare in parish churches, an example of which (Westbury-on-Trym) I’ve published on, but have since come across others which have revised my thinking on that example. Will try and shut myself up for now as am in a Starbucks from which I’m meant to be revising a [BAA] journal article rather than continuing a Cornish holiday, but do say if any of this floats your boat…

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