WITH the advent of the roundel or medallion, it was not uncommon for chests to be carved with this form of decoration upon their front panels, while those exhibiting the linen fold were relegated to the ends. English chests of this period exhibiting portrait medallions are not very frequently met with, and this feature appears to have been a much more common form of decoration in France, where the medallions and portraits sometimes attain a very large size. On the finest specimens of this class, both in England and elsewhere, the heads would appear to be portraits of the members of the family who commissioned the piece from the craftsman, perhaps more or less fancifully treated, but on commoner examples the heads are often grotesque, and sometimes hideously ugly. In common with the designs on tapestry and other household decorations, helmets and body armour, when exhibited on these figures, take the Roman form after the pseudo-classic style popular during the Renaissance, Chests of this period are sometimes provided with a singular and almost unnecessary feature - the addition of a dwarf leg or foot in the centre of the front.
The mouldings at the edges of the framework about this time began to show degeneration from the beautiful Gothic forms which had hitherto embellished furniture, in some cases being carried round only one or two sides of the frame, and being supplanted in the others by the stop-chamfer. When the ornamental strap-hinge disappeared, its place was taken by the two interlocking, ring-headed staples driven through the wood, and having their ends flattened back. The importation of 'Flanders chests' still continued during the early years of the Renaissance. A magnificent specimen of the time of Henry VIII. remains in East Dereham Church, Norfolk - probably the finest of its kind in the kingdom. This chest is elaborately buttressed, and its panels are carved with female figures habited in costume and head-dress of the period, typifying the various arts and crafts. The lock is a most elaborate piece of flamboyant work in wrought-iron. The chest was presented to the church in 1786 by one Samuel Rash, who has recorded an amusing fallacy concerning its history on a brass plate affixed to the lid.*
* 'As a token of Respect towards his Native Place, Samuel Rash, Esqre., on the 1st day of Jany., 1786, Presented to the Church of East Dereham this chest for the Purpose of keeping together and Preserving the Deeds, Records, and other Writings belonging to this Parish. Tradition says this Curious Chest (and lock) is upwards of Four Hundred Years Old, was taken out of the Ruins of Buckenham Castle, and many Years since the Property of the Noble Family of the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk, and supposed to be used by them for Depositing their Money and other Valuables.'
'FLANDERS CHEST' IN EAST DEREHAM CHURCH, NORFOLK, TEMP. HENRY VIII.
Height, 3 ft. 9 in.; length, 6 ft.; width, 2 ft. 6 in.
From the symbolical nature of the figures on its front and sides it would seem probable that its original purpose was connected with some guild or fraternity of craftsmen.
A curious oak coffer, which shows the lingering of the debased style of Gothic, exists in the church of Cottingham, Northamptonshire. This receptacle, which is of large size, stands high from the floor, the front being supported by two spandrels incised with a conventional rose and leaf. The front panel is carved in three courses, the upper and middle ones exhibiting a band of trefoil ornament resembling the so-called Tudor flower and the sinuous rose trail respectively, while on the lower tier, which is divided into compartments, appear the Tudor rose, two wheels of Scandinavian character, and a geometrical device bearing some likeness to, and by some held to be, the spread-eagle, the cognizance of Spain. It is undoubtedly an English production, and may possibly date from the reign of Philip and Mary. Its construction, which is simply that of planks butted together without stiles, the taller ends alone resting on the floor, represents a change from the method of the Gothic craftsmen, which as truly indicates its comparatively late origin as the debased nature of the design carved on its front.
One form of coffer closely associated with the period of the Renaissance is that which is fitted with the dome-top or barrel-lid. Such pieces are almost invariably bound with iron straps, and occasionally constructed of some lighter wood than oak. Made rather for security than ornament, these massive safes are often sheathed in a perfect network of iron bands, yet from their very plainness there is little to indicate their proper date, except such character as may be found in the locks and hasps. By the unskilled they are generally regarded as belonging to the Norman period - mainly for no better reason than that, in common with the arch of that period, they are round-topped. At Minster, in Kent, at Northampton, at Letheringset, in Norfolk, and in the neighbourhood of most English churches where these round-topped coffers remain, a vague legend will be found to exist fathering their origin upon the Norman conquerors of England. The coffers at Letheringset and Minster have their lids formed from the solid half of a tree - a cheap, easy, and very efficient method of closing a receptacle, and one from which the modern term 'trunk' is actually believed by some to be derived. In most cases, however, such scanty evidences as the fittings of these relics afford point to a much later period.
It is quite possible that coffers of this kind may have been in use during Norman times, but I must confess that I have been unable to discover contemporary evidence. The massive round-topped coffer at Rockingham Castle, which is reputed - from what evidence I know not - to belong to the time of John, presents certain unusual features in its construction which seem to point to a remote period; but here, again, the fashion of its hasps hardly bears out the theory of so great an age. In the case of the barrel-lid coffer known as 'King Edward's travelling chest,' in the Pyx Chapel, Westminster, some curious details may be observed which would seem to the critical eye to point to a more remote period than that of the Renaissance. These are the ringed attachments to facilitate removal by mules (which are in themselves a very early feature), and the small projecting buttons to its central hasps. A round-topped coffer at Tempsford Church, Bedfordshire, has hasps of precisely the same character, but this specimen only opens at its centre, the movable lid measuring about a third of its length. The lock plate also displays remains of Gothic scrollwork in wrought-iron, similar to the feature mentioned in the last chapter.