Medieval English Pulpits

Charles Tracy


  Two panels of the Ham stone pulpit at Frampton, Dorset depicting friars, probably Franciscan  
  Figure 1: St Mary, Frampton, Dorset: late 15th-century stone pulpit, detail of two carved panels    

Although most of the ancient pulpits in English churches were made within a century of the Reformation, their function was not an invention of the late-medieval church. Pulpits are thought to have originated from the raised platform from which the Rabbi read the scriptures in the Jewish temple. They are descended from the ambos, symmetrical pairs of elevated stone platforms which flanked the stone choir enclosures of early-Christian churches, and from which the Epistle, generally on the south side, and the Gospel, on the north side, were read.

By the Middle Ages they had migrated to the nave in the guise of a pulpit and a lectern. Before the consolidation of the pulpit as a permanent fixture from the mid 14th century, preachers used either the altar or chancel steps, or a portable square and somewhat makeshift, utilitarian raised platform, which is sometimes illustrated in manuscripts. The authorities clearly felt a need to regularise this informal arrangement into the dignified structures that we see today – indisputably objects of parochial pride and authority.

The arrival in England, from the late 12th century, of the mendicant friars injected new life into the practice of preaching, already firmly established since at least the 7th century. The friars were in stiff competition with traditional parish churches and, in return for the alms of the faithful, were offering attractive burial rights and the hosting of chantries* (see glossary) for the deceased in their churches.

Proclaiming the Gospel, often in the open air on raised wooden platforms, was possibly their most successful strategy for capturing a new following. The established parish churches tried to counter this challenge by exhorting their clergy, as at the Synod of Oxford in 1223, to ‘preach the Word of God, and not to be dumb dogs, but with salutary bark to drive away the disease of spiritual wolves from the flock’. Although this may not have been a deliberate attempt to fend off the depredations of the friars, it certainly sounds like an exhortation to meet the competition on their own terms. Exceptionally, some churches boasted an integral exterior pulpit, famously the one at St Paul’s Cathedral, known as ‘Paul’s Cross’.

  Richly carved timber pulpit and rood screen  
  Figure 2: All Saints, Trull, Somerset: oak pulpit and earlier rood screen, the pulpit carved with saintly figures in canopied niches with angels above (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)  

Little remains of England’s friary churches, and even less of their furnishings. However, the Ham stone pulpit (Figure 1) at Frampton, near Dorchester, Dorset, although restored, displays two high-relief figure panels, which suggest a possible Franciscan provenance. Against this is the fact that the style of the pulpit is contemporary with the restoration of the church by the dean and canons of St Stephen’s, Westminster in about 1460-70. Like most of its kind, the pulpit has been moved at least once. It has also lost three of its six medieval carved figural high-relief limestone panels. Given the iconoclasm of the Reformation and the Commonwealth period, and although the panels have since been re-cut, they remain remarkable survivals of their genre.

The centre panel of the remaining three (on the left in Figure 1), depicts a friar holding a monstrance* in his right hand and a closed book in his left. On either side are two containers, fashioned as a church or temple, one possibly a reliquary , the other a pyx*. Quite probably this figure represents St Bonaventura, an Italian Franciscan and one of the most renowned 13th-century scholastics. (Scholasticism was a method of theology and philosophy disseminated in medieval European universities – based on Aristotelian logic and the works of the early Christian fathers, it placed a strong emphasis on tradition and dogma.)

Bonaventura was famed as both a preacher and teacher. The ostentatious knotting of his cord, a hallmark of the order, and that of the adjacent friar holding a cross and book, strongly suggests that they were both Franciscans. This would have been very unusual subject matter for a parish church and it is conceivable that the pulpit was removed at the Reformation from the Franciscan friary in Dorchester.

Whether it was delivered in Anglo-Saxon, Latin or English, under the 24th Canon of the Edict of Arles (398 AD), it was enjoined that anyone caught leaving the church during the sermon would be excommunicated. According to the Rites of Durham (discussed in more detail in Allan Doig’s article 'Sacred Space: Liturgy and Architecture at Durham Cathedral' also in this edition of Historic Churches) the monastery’s monks were wont to preach from one o’clock to three o’clock in the Galilee Chapel, hardly challenging the stamina of Soviet-era politicians but still demonstrating a certain tenacity. In his A Werke for Householders, first printed in 1530, the cleric and theologian Richard Whitford was by no means alone in stressing that attendance at preachings was even more important than at the Mass.

  Gloucestershire stone pulpit with crocketted and finialled ogee arches  
  Figure 3: North Cerney, Gloucestershire: detail of stone pulpit showing lily carving (Photo: Hugh Harrison)  
  Oak 'wine-glass' pulpit at Sandon, Essex: none of the original colouring is visible  
  Figure 4: St Andrew, Sandon, Essex: oak pulpit  
  Richly painted oak 'wine-glass' pulpit  
  Figure 5: St James the Great, Castle Acre, Norfolk: oak pulpit  

During services the Gospel was usually read from the pulpit, but the latter also fulfilled another role as a vehicle for the promulgation of current affairs. In this capacity, it was a springboard for information about forthcoming episcopal visitations and indulgences for various good works, including the repair and rebuilding of churches. The reading of the Bede Roll from the pulpit every Sunday, including the Bidding Prayer ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’ and the benefactors to the church, and the announcement of any new names to be added to it, was both mandatory and of great importance to the congregation. This was usually the parish priest’s job, and he received an annual fee for his trouble.

Manufactured either in wood or stone, the late-medieval pulpit was always an eye-catcher. It was usually octagonal or hexagonal in form, brightly coloured in red, green and blue, and often gilded, but the pulpit came in many shapes and sizes. It usually had panelled sides, often traceried*, incorporating painted figures or sculptures of the evangelists, Doctors of the Church and particular saints. The deployment of niches, however, does not invariably indicate an intention to fill them with sculpture. At Halberton, Devon, they were simply decorative, and lack any pedestals.

A wooden pulpit’s rostrum was supported by a continuous deep plinth, unless it was stemmed or stood on narrow shafts. The preacher’s access to the platform was most often by means of a ladder, or occasionally a staircase. Only a few of the access stairways for even stone pulpits have survived and most of the wooden staircases have perished, apart from a rare example at East Hagbourne, Berkshire. An intriguing approach to a rostrum was provided by means of a wall staircase, as sometimes employed in monastic refectories, such as Weston-in-Gordano, Somerset. In other cases, access was via the rood-loft stair, as at Cold Ashton, Gloucestershire.

The internal wall staircase at Weston-in-Gordano would have acted as a resonance chamber to carry the reader’s voice across the refectory dining space. We know from the widespread use in the middle ages of resonance passages beneath choir-stalls that, in an age innocent of microphones and loud speakers, the ability to enhance the carrying power of the human voice was considered a necessity. Unsurprisingly, the prehistoric wooden pulpit illustrated in English manuscripts usually shows a tester, a term of Middle English origin. We can assume that a majority of surviving wooden and stone pulpits were similarly equipped. It hardly needs saying, that these sometimes elaborate canopies would have directed the sound of the priest’s voice down to the congregation below.

The wooden canopy at Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, is not unlike an outsized font cover, with its tiered and spired canopy and ‘starburst’ palmate tierceron vault*. It is, doubtless, excessively elaborate even in comparison with another rare, but prestigious survivor in the late 15th-century Yorkist collegiate church at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire. The latter was a gift of Edward IV. An example of a stone pulpit with a tester is at Brockley, Somerset.

Up to around 60 medieval pulpits in stone and 100 in wood are said to survive in England. Most are in the West Country, East Anglia and the Midlands. In 1915 JC Cox found only a single pulpit in both County Durham and Yorkshire. There may be a few more than this but no modern census has been undertaken.[1]

Stone pulpits are mainly found in Gloucestershire (17), Somerset (20) and Devon (10). All three counties are endowed with plentiful supplies of oolitic limestone. Exceptionally, the early 15th-century pulpit carved with emblems of the Passion, at Egloshayle, Cornwall is worked in Caen stone. Many wooden pulpits have stone bases, like the one at Burford, Gloucestershire, but most are post-medieval in date.

Gloucestershire’s stone pulpits exploit lavish carved decoration. North Cerney’s is a star example, cut from a single block, and supported on a concave moulded polygonal shaft (Figure 3). Its ornament is an audacious presentation of crocketted* and finialled ogee* arches separated by semi-detached buttresses. It displays three bands of lily pattern, which happen to match the treatment of the same motif at Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford, where the lily is the charge* on the college arms. The stonemasons at Oxford are known to have come from Burford and we can assume that they also carved the pulpit at North Cerney.

It is striking that East Anglian pulpits (Figures 4 and 5), in common with most medieval wooden church furniture from this part of England, were more conventionally Gothic in appearance than pulpits from elsewhere, particularly the West Country. By contrast, Devon is renowned for its imaginative deployment of motifs in three dimensions, as at Halberton, as well as the county’s many other ornamental idiosyncrasies. Both tendencies spring from an enduring love-affair with the 14th-century Decorated style, so well exemplified during that period, in both wood and stone, at Exeter Cathedral. Somerset is less concerned with spatial composition, although equally interested in ornament for its own sake, as characterised by the low relief vegetal and geometric decoration on the panel work at Trull (Figure 2).

It is sometimes interesting to note the interplay between wood and stone carvers within the same church. Although the former’s decorative detail tends to be more inventive, it is sometimes astonishing to discover that a stonemason could, if required, carve with equal intricacy. Many Devon stone pulpits comfortably match the delicacy of the wood carver’s ‘bossy’ foliage, a local speciality. Often the pulpit was made en suite with the chancel screenwork. On these occasions, the aesthetic effect can be breathtaking, particularly the juxtaposition of a stone pulpit with a wooden screen at Dartmouth, Devon. In such cases, it is a challenge to decide whether both components were carved by the same craftsman.

In East Anglia two very different specimens of the delicate ‘wine-glass’ pulpit can be seen at Sandon, Essex (Figure 4) and Castle Acre, Norfolk (Figure 5). Both have retained their stems, with vaulted trumpet sections intact. Although they share a certain restoration content, it is merely discreet at Sandon, where most of the original colouring is lost.

At Castle Acre, although the Victorian praying angels at the base of the colonettes* strike a false note, the surviving full range of polychrome is astonishing. As a bonus we find painted marbling on both column and stem, doubtless an attempt to ensure a certain religious propriety based on Classical precedent. The generally excellent state of preservation of the four surviving painted panels of the Doctors of the Church is reassuring and, sadly, contrasts with the pulpit at nearby Burnham Overy, which has not escaped modern over-painting. The pulpit’s spandrel* carvings, and the painting style of the surviving dado* from the chancel screen, suggest that both components were made en suite. The painter has been identified as ‘William Castleacre, steyner and peyntour’, who is recorded in 1445.

Sandon provides an interesting contrast, because, now lacking painted decoration, its principal aesthetic investment is in the quality and variety of its early 16th-century carving. Dating the Essex pulpit presents a challenge, however. One can understand how its conventional-enough, somewhat heavy-handed, traceried* panel-heads could have suggested a late 15th-century date, yet it displays several features which push it into the early 16th century, particularly the pierced waved carving of the lower frieze and the linenfold* panels. In its original full colour dress, this elegantly constructed and decorative piece would have appeared even more impressive than it does today.

  Brightly coloured and richly carved pulpit with ploygonal timber shaft and stone base at Long Sutton, Somerset  
  Figure 6: Long Sutton, Somerset: oak pulpit on stone base, note the modern apostle figures and colouring  

Surviving English medieval pulpits are not remarkable for the quality of their figure sculpture. Notwithstanding the opportunities presented by the pulpit to visually underline the Christian doctrine, relatively few cases can be found where this opportunity was taken up. It was the Doctors of the Church who were most often recruited, and more usually in the medium of paint. Augustine was one of the most renowned theologians of the Christian church, Gregory the first monk to be made pope, Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and Ambrose was a renowned preacher. Any one of them could provide the text for a sermon.

Sculpturally, they are now depicted in only one remarkable instance, at Trull, Somerset. Here they are accompanied by St John the Evangelist, all five standing with a hovering guardian angel above (this is another example of a pulpit designed to blend en suite with a chancel screen). As in much other West Country woodwork, the carving style is idiosyncratic and unaffected by metropolitan influence. It is somewhat stereotyped, but devout, and full of human feeling. The provincial aesthetic of these mid 16th-century figure carvings and the charming but somewhat primitive techniques elicited by the joinery of their framing, is witness to a geographical isolation and a traditionally trained craftsman caught fair and square between the Gothic and Renaissance.

Finally, at Long Sutton, Somerset, the wooden pulpit (Figure 6) with a 16-sided rostrum has been confidently dated to 1430 but with no apparent proof (the carved initials at the top of the stem might produce the evidence for a donor). It stands on a decorated stone column. The rostrum consists of a tightly-packed echelon of niches below gablets*, filled now with the competent figures of the 12 apostles, of 1872.

There are several other similar English pulpit facades, as at Bovey Tracey, where the niches are two-tiered, Cheddar, Somerset and South Burlingham, Norfolk, but few elicit the same impression of crowded intensity and miniaturisation. Most probably, the Long Sutton pulpit originally accommodated a credal scheme, the display of the twelve apostles symbolising the Creed, to which they are each said to have contributed a verse. This would have provided an all important pedagogic facility for the preacher.

At Trull there are 12 small figures on the buttresses flanking the large figures, but we cannot be certain that they were supposed to represent the apostles. If so, of course, in that church the preacher’s pedagogic cup would have overflowed.




chantry endowment for the singing of masses for the soul of the deceased; also a chapel, etc, dedicated for this purpose

charge design, device, etc depicted on heraldic arms

colonette small column, often arranged in clusters

crocket small projecting sculpture of leaves or flowers used to decorate finials, gablets, etc

dado lowest part of a chancel screen between the plinth and the upper rail

gablet small gable or pitched canopy

linenfold relief carving that imitates the form of folded cloth

monstrance receptacle, usually of gold or silver, incorporating a transparent container for the display of a holy relic or the consecrated bread

ogee ‘s’-shaped architectural or sculptural form visible in arches and archlets

palmate tierceron vault a circular vaulting bay which combines a girdle of secondary ‘lierne’ ribs at its centre, supported by a system of converging tertiary ‘tierceron’ ribs

pyx small receptacle for the consecrated bread

spandrel roughly triangular area or surface between the arches of an arcade or between an arch and surrounding frame

tracery ornamental work in which windows, panels, etc are divided by a decorative arrangement of ribs, etc

Recommended Reading

JC Cox, Pulpits, Lecterns and Organs in English Churches, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1915

FT Dollman, Examples of Ancient Pulpits Existing in England, George Bell, London, 1849

FE Howard and FH Crossley, English Church Woodwork, Batsford, London, 1917


[1] According to Michael Good’s CD database The Compendium of Pevsner’s Buildings of England (2nd ed, Yale University Press, 2005), Pevsner found just six surviving medieval pulpits in the whole of the North of England and few in the West Midlands, compared to 42 in Devon alone.


Historic Churches, 2011


CHARLES TRACY PhD FSA is a specialist in historic church furniture, and has written several books, including a two-volume study on English Gothic choir-stalls, and a study of continental church furniture in England. He is frequently consulted by dioceses, parishes and architects over difficult reordering decisions that hinge on the significance of a church’s furnishings.

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