In these religious houses of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries neither time, nor expense, were of moment in the production of their works of art, whether for the grandest cathedrals, or tiny churches. ' The wealth of the Church was immense, for she drew at will upon the fear and superstition of the earth; and her spirit was as great as her power. For centuries her treasures were for the most part wisely and munificently expended, and the noble buildings she erected and the good deeds she performed cannot be contemplated, even now, without admiration. She opened her gates to the poor, spread a table to the hungry, gave lodging to the houseless, welcomed the wanderer; and high and low - learned and illiterate - alike received shelter and hospitality. Under her roof the scholar completed his education, the chronicler sought and found materials for history, the minstrel chaunted lays of piety and chivalry for his loaf and his raiment, the sculptor carved in wood or cast in silver some popular saint, and the painter conferred on some new legend what was at least meant to be the immortality of his colours. To institutions so charitable and useful, the rich and the powerful devised both money and lands abundantly; an opulent sinner was glad to pacify the clamours of the Church and the whisperings of his own conscience, by bequeathing wealth which he could no longer enjoy; and chantries were added to churches, and hospitals erected and endowed, where the saints were solicited in favour of the departed donor's soul, and the poor and hungry were clothed and fed."
1 The Act by which any combination of workmen, for their own protection or betterment, could be punished with tine, imprisonment or mutilation, was only repealed after 1820. Geo. IV, Cap. 129.
Fig. 1. St.Alban's Abbey Before The Reformation.
This illustration gives some idea of the number of monastic buildings which clustered round an Abbey. From an original drawing by Charles H. Ashdown, Esq., F.R.G.S.
Fig. 2. A Key To The Illustration On Opposite Page.
Fig. 5. Atherington Church, Devon. - West Side of Chancel Screen. Early Sixteenth Century.
An example of a Devonshire Rood Screen with Rood Loft complete. On the eastern (chancel) side the loft is boarded on the front and with applied tracery. On the western (the side shown here) the front is decorated with elaborate niche-work. The detail (Fig. 5) shows the Italian ornament in the vaulting of the screen, a sure indication of the sixteenth century.
Mr. Fredk. Sumner, Photo. 14
" No better conditions could have prevailed for the execution of works which should persist as monuments of art and craftsmanship as long as materials lasted. The Church created its own artisans, its masons, sculptors, carvers or joiners and employed them on its own works under the skilled direction of its prelates. That these craftsmen were lay brothers or monks is probable; certainly they seem to have either disappeared when the monasteries were suppressed, or to have lost their skill both in designing and in executing. Possibly when the higher dignitaries of the Church came under the baneful notice of Wolsey and Cromwell, and many, as at Reading, Colchester and Glastonbury, perished at their hands, the guiding spirit of English architecture and woodwork took wings and fled.1
That these religious houses had increased in number out of all proportion to the population, and in wealth and power to such degree as to be a menace to King and State, is unquestionable. The policy of the public good may have dictated reduction in size, wealth or number, but no one will credit Henry VIII with any higher notice than the replenishment of his own exchequer."2
That art lived and grew only in the shadow of the Church cannot be doubted when fourteenth-century castles and cathedrals are compared. True, the former were built to withstand armed assaults, from which the latter were protected by their sacred character, but the interiors of castles were often as rude and free from ornament as their exteriors. We meet with exceptions, as at Tattershall Castle, where, in the fifteenth century, Ralph, Lord Cromwell, Lord Treasurer of England under Henry VI, embellished the thirteenth-century castle of Baron de Tatershale both outside and in, after the fine Gothic manner of his age. But the twelfth-century Abbey of Kirkstead was near by; - it had, in fact, been founded by the original builder of Tattershall, - and there is no doubt that the decorative work, the windows, the heraldic vaulting and the stone chimney-pieces (the latter of which underwent such extraordinary vicissitudes some years ago, being rescued actually from the housebreakers' hands, after removal, by Earl Curzon of Kedleston) were the work of the neighbouring monks. The great abbeys and monasteries supplied both the designing and executive ability for the more ornate secular houses and castles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One would venture to assert, for example, that the aid of the neighbouring Abbey of Robertsbridge was not invoked in the decoration of the late fourteenth-century Castle of Bodiam illustrated in the pages of this chapter.
1Alan Cunningham, "William of Wykeham."
- The jewelled canopies to some of the tombs in the earliest chapels of Westminster Abbey were despoiled and sold by the rapacious monarch.
The guiding and directing influence of the Church is very apparent in such woodwork and furniture prior to 1520, which has persisted to the present day, and its absence is equally noticeable in the later work. Gothic woodwork and furniture is, necessarily, ecclesiastical in proper habitat as it is in origin. Secular houses, prior to the sixteenth century, contain little or no furniture or woodwork, as a general rule, and there is an absence of fine detail or workmanship. It is possible that such was not appreciated nor desired, by even the very wealthy, until towards the middle of the sixteenth century, when a new style, generally known as Tudor, free from the somewhat rigid qualities of the ecclesiastical Gothic, begins to arise. An era of house building also sets in at this period, when internecine strife ceases, and fortified castles began to be replaced by dwelling-houses or mansions. Gothic details, such as two- and three-centred arch in door-heads, crocketing and cusping in lattice and spandril, still persist, but the free ornament borrowed from France and Italy is superadded, as in the fine screen from Atherington Church, Figs. 3, 4 and 5, where Renaissance detail is superimposed on Gothic vaulting. Briefly, it may be said that, with the dissolution of monasteries, departs the former fine tradition in English furniture and woodwork, and the Gothic ceases to be the national style of England.
Note. - Literal extracts from Act I, Edward VI, C. Ill, will be more illuminating, as showing the conditions of the lower classes at that period, than any comment can be.
That if any man or woman able to work should refuse to labour and live idly for three days, he or she should be branded with a red hot iron on the breast, with the letter ' V ' and should be adjudged the slave for two years of any person who should inform against such idler; and the master should feed his slave with bread and water or small drink, and such refuse meat as he should think proper; and should cause his slave to work by beating, chaining or otherwise, in such work and. labour that he should put him unto."
" If he runs away from his master for the space of fourteen days, he shall become his slave for life, after being branded on the forehead or cheek with the letter ' S'; and if he runs away the second time, and shall be convicted thereof by two sufficient witnesses, he shall be taken as a felon and suffer pains of death, as other felons ought to do."
It is furthermore enacted that the master shall have power : - " To sell, bequeath, let out for hire, or give the service of his slaves to any person whomsoever, upon such condition and for such term of years as the said persons be adjudged to him for slaves, after the like, sort and manner as may do of any other his moveable goods and chattels."