Historic Churches 2020

38 BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 27 TH ANNUAL EDITION CHURCH CHESTS Rachel Sycamore C HESTS WERE amongst the most important and prevalent form of medieval furniture, and many still survive in parish churches today. Originally, they provided secure containers in which to store vestments, church plate, documents or alms for the poor, or to collect funds for crusades. Frequently made from oak or elm, sometimes pine or deal, they were constructed as heavy, immovable objects intended to keep their contents dry and secure from thieves and vermin. There are four main types: dug-out chests made by hollowing out a solid tree trunk; boarded chests formed from six large boards nailed together; clamped chests so called because their fronts and backs comprise a large board (or boards) clamped between two wide stiles; and framed and panelled chests made from loose panels inserted within a frame to allow free movement of the wood. The latter appears in the 16th century to overcome the problem of shrinkage-splits. Some chests are a combination of two types; early studies assumed they evolved in sequence, but dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) has shown that different forms coexisted between the 13th and 16th centuries. It is therefore more likely that the choice of design was influenced by levels of skill, use, cost and preference. During the medieval period the church chest underwent a process of transformation to comply with various edicts issued by kings and popes affecting their form, function, significance and even their physical position in the church. For example, in 1166, as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket, King Henry II issued orders for ‘money trunks’ to be placed near the altar to collect relief for the Holy Land. They were to be fastened with three locks and three keys: one for the bishop, one for the priest and one for a religious layman, who each had to be present to unlock the chest. Many chests had money slots cut into their lids and in return for contributing alms, parishioners would be granted remission for their sins. A further edict in 1287, issued by the Synod of Exeter, ordered chests for The 13th or early 14th century boarded chest at Cradley Church, Herefordshire and (below left) the 14th century clamped chest at All Saints, Hereford, Herefordshire and (below right) the end of the 13th century dug-out chest at St Weonards Church, St Weonards, Herefordshire (All photos: Rachel Sycamore)