West Country Rebels

Mark Hailwood

A patchwork of conversations, thoughts and observations on the rebellious history of the South West of England, stitched together by a Somerset-born honorary-Devonian….

It’s a small world. On a recent archival trip to the Hampshire Record Office I got chatting to their immensely helpful Principal Archivist Sarah Lewin, and after a bit of biographical back-and-forth it transpired that I had done my undergraduate degree in her hometown of Norwich, where she grew up as good friends with my now MP – as a resident of Exeter – recent Labour Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw.

Anyway, our conversation then moved on to the remarkable fact that the said Ben Bradshaw is now the only non-Conservative MP in the South West outside of Bristol (and you can take quite a broad definition of the South West here, encompassing Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Whilst the Conservatives have long been the dominant party in the region, this is nonetheless a significant historical departure: few governments have ever been able to consider the West Country quite the stronghold that this one can.[1]

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

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No place like home: Seventeenth-Century Portishead

I suppose it is natural when you are on the other side of the world to turn your thoughts towards home. And so it is that on a trip to the Huntington Library in California (to attend this ace conference on ballads) I’ve felt inspired to write a post about my home town: Portishead in North Somerset.

The Huntington: A long way from home...

The Huntington: A long way from home…

One of the areas I focused on in researching alehouses for my forthcoming book was the county of Somerset, which has excellent quarter sessions records. Of course, as I scoured the archive looking for evidence of alehouse regulation and instances of good fellowship, I kept an eye out for references to my home town. I didn’t find much – it was no more than a small village before the Victorians adopted it as a seaside resort in the nineteenth century – but there were a few cases I came across which suggest something of the character of the place and its inhabitants. They don’t necessarily portray my ancestors in a positive light.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

The first thing I discovered was the following order, made by the county magistrates, at a meeting of the Somerset quarter sessions in Wells, in 1656:

‘Whereas one Susan Gulston a poore cripple is lately come into the parish of Portishead in this County; and itt appearing that shee was last settled att Takeley in the County of Essex, this Court uppon complaint of the parishioners of Portishead doth order: That the said Susan bee retorned from parish to parish by the officers of each parish to Takeley aforesaid there to bee provided for according to lawe.’[1]

Basically, a poor crippled woman had turned up in the parish, and the locals did not want to be responsible for paying her poor relief. So they had asked that she be escorted from parish border to parish border all the way back to her home parish some 154 miles away to claim relief. That’s 51 hours of walking, according to google maps (assuming she stuck to the most direct A roads). That’s some walk, especially given that this poor woman was disabled:

The Long Walk Home

The Long Walk Home


The case doesn’t, I think, reflect particularly well on my Portishead forebears – but it is not by any means an untypical response to a poor stranger turning up in an early modern parish. As Brodie’s recent post on a 101-year old vagrant woman attests, the world’s first nation-wide welfare system was not necessarily a deeply compassionate one.

The next reference I found came from a meeting of the quarter sessions at Taunton in 1630. This time, the county magistrates were issuing an order that:

Fifty pounds be raised by a County rate and the money arising therefrom to be paid unto Rice Davies and Richard Cole, Esquires, to be by them imployed for and towards the transportinge of a greate number of Irish people from the parishe of Portishead.[2]

The precise details of what was going on here are not entirely clear, but it seems once again like a case of a cold Portishead welcome for outsiders – perhaps a group of Irish migrants had landed a ship at the beach in the parish, only to be apprehended by the locals who then asked for assistance to fund sending them straight back.

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

I was starting to fear that the only imprint left by my ancestral townsfellows on the historical records of the early modern period were a few cases of a pronounced, if not unusual for the period, lack of hospitality and compassion to outsiders – ‘local xenophobia’ if you will.[3]

Then I recently came across another reference rather more to my liking. In 1637, the churchwardens of Portishead – a local voluntary office whose duties included maintaining peace and good order in the community – were reported to their superiors for their tolerance of:

‘fives playeinge [an early racket sport like squash], dauncing, Cudgill playeinge [an early form of cricket perhaps?], and fightinge in the churchyard there’.[4]

Since the Reformation, church authorities had worked hard to banish games and pastimes from taking place in the church grounds, as they sought to establish clear lines between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, and increase a sense of sober reverence in and around the church itself. But here were the parishioners of Portishead, having a merry old time in the churchyard, whilst local officials willingly turned a blind eye to this defiance of authority.

Fun and games at the parish church - now Grade I listed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Peter,_Portishead

Fun and games at the parish church – now Grade I listed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Peter,_Portishead

As Chris Marsh puts it, such ‘inveterate traditionalism’ was probably unusual by this date and these kind of activities had been largely suppressed. So here at last was something for me to hold on to: a sense of pride that Portishead had, albeit in a small way, played its part in the West Country’s long tradition of non-conformity and libertarianism. Even better, it sounds as though an afternoon of cricket, dancing and fighting was as popular in seventeenth-century Portishead as it is today.

* If anyone else happens to have come across a reference to seventeenth-century Portishead, please share it in the comments section.

[1] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. III, Commonwealth, 1646-1660 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[2] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. II, Charles I, 1625-1639 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[3] For more on the ‘culture of local xenophobia’ in early modern England see: Keith Snell, ‘The Culture of Local Xenophobia’, Social History, 2003, 28 (1), pp.1-30.

[4] The case is from REED (Somerset, p.207), though I encountered it through reading Chris Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), p.375.

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 5 – Parting thoughts

Laura Sangha

This is the fifth post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum.

In this final post I offer some brief parting thoughts on the success of the exhibition as an exploration of a complicated and dynamic society.

A skilled society

It was clear that this was a highly creative drakes cup editsociety, with many accomplished practitioners of the arts and crafts. Perhaps this is overemphasised by the very nature of museum exhibitions that are likely to contain a preponderance of manufactured objects and paintings, but that does not detract from the quality of the items on display. There are more prestigious objects such as the Drake Cup (c. 1595). By tradition it was given to Drake by Elizabeth I after he circumnavigated the globe, its silver gilt engraved with a map of the world, complete with names of continents, islands and seas in Latin, plus sailing ships, whales and dolphins. Its hard to imagine anyone actually drinking out of this (it’s enormous and unwieldy for a start), but the same is certainly not true of more everyday objects such as the glazed stoneware drinking vessels and delicate silver spoons also in the collection – whilst important indicators of status and often treasured family possessions, these items were made to be used, not rest on a shelf.

An intellectual society

As ever, I am left to marvel at the intellectual sophistication of people in the distant past, in an era that most people now would think of as the technological dark ages. In terms of intellectual activity the pre-modern period was not backwards or uncivilised, this was a society that exhibited civic pride (for more see day 1: a map of Exeter), where renaissance style and learning was spreading, and where important topographers (such as mapmaker John Norden) and antiquarians (such as Richard Carew) were beginning to make their mark. Another nugget that I learned at the exhibition – Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of Oxford’s Bodleian library, was born in Exeter.

A Protestant society

As a religious historian I am particularly sensitive to the Protestantism that underpins late Tudor society, but I think few historians would disagree that the Reformation’s repercussions were also to be cathedralfelt in every sphere of daily life. From the goldsmiths who prospered when reshaping church plate for a new liturgy (for more see day 3: a Devon communion cup), to the soldiers engaged in an epic struggle against the antichrist and international Catholicism (for more see day 4: the Spanish Armadas), to those for whom scripture became deeply embedded in their ways of expressing themselves and in guiding their everyday activities (for more see day 2: domestic decoration), Protestantism was key. We can’t even begin to understand this society without considering it.

An ambitious society

On his talking tour, exhibition curator and Exeter Professor Sam Smiles described Francis Drake as the Neil Armstrong of his age, and the analogy struck a chord with me that kept reverberating. Partly because it immediately suggested the celebrity of the man – how many contemporaries knew Drake’s name? Current scholarship has a tendency to be picture-astronaut-walking-legsceptical about the importance of exploration for sixteenth century societies, with claims that few people were aware of new discoveries which made little impact on ordinary people’s lives. But the Armstrong analogy is intriguing because of what it suggests about the mentality of the Elizabethans. Clearly some were ambitious, self-confident, cocky even, heading into the unknown on the uncertain hope of economic rewards and a boost for their honour and all important reputation. This was a society where political success and innovation or entrepreneurship were occasionally linked. And it is undoubtedly true that whilst precedent, custom and tradition were revered this was not to the exclusion of novelty.

Two maps in the exhibition really capture this duality. The first is the map of Exeter that I discussed in my first post.

braun_hogenberg_VIThe second is a map of the North America village of Pomeiooc, on Roanoke Island (1585-93).

the-village-of-pomeiooc1Placed next to each other, the similarities between early modern Exeter and Pomeiooc are striking. Pomeiooc is presented as a well ordered settlement, encased in a wooden palisade for defence, it’s inhabitants are hunters, fishers and farmers. Sophisticated visual techniques are again on display – some of the houses are ‘cut away’ to reveal their inner organisation, and there is even a chap practising his archery by the fishing pools in the top right corner, just like in the map of Exeter. As before, this might tell us just as much about the European who painted the map as it does the native Americans that it depicts. It might reveal the tendency of archerEuropeans to impose their own understandings and framework on the new cultures and societies that they encountered in far away places. It might be propaganda, designed to support overseas settlement by enticing potential settlers to the New World – like Exeter, Pomeiooc looks like a productive and fertile community (though I do wonder, what is that wooden fence keeping out…?). It certainly suggests that not all Europeans dismissed these people as barbaric savages, and that they could identify similarities between their own society and non-European counterparts.

An impressive society, an excellent exhibition

All in all, I was deeply impressed by both the achievements and complexity of the Tudor south west, as well as the exhibition’s capacity to capture and explore it. The Golden Age is here in all it’s glory – crafts, art, architecture, entrepreneurs, discovery, military triumph, intellectual development.

My only remaining niggle is that the difficulties, the struggles and the violence of the age are largely absent. Here we see the middling and upper sections of Elizabethan society, but these objects are largely silent about the lower sorts, the people suffering in the hardships of the 1590s, the people resisting religious change and suffering due to economic trends. We do come face to face with Lord John Russell, 1st earl of Bedford,John_Russell_Earl_of_Bedford_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger in a sketch by Holbein the younger. Russell was in charge of the forces that brutally suppressed the West Country or Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, slaughtering hundreds in a number of bloody encounters around Exeter. But here his image must serve as the only reference to the scars left on the south west by that tragic rebellion. Of course, it would be strange to linger on these more troubling aspects of the period in an exhibition that is intended as a pointer to the south west’s ‘manifold contribution to the Tudor age’, and these comments are not intended as a (horribly unfair) criticism of the exhibition. They are included here as representative of my worry that perhaps there is too little space for the lower sorts in our museums and a reminder that we should fight hard to make sure they can find a place.

In summary, this is undoubtedly an excellent exhibition that certainly fulfils its remit of revealing the intellectual, artistic and economic importance of south west in the Tudor Age. The sophistication of this society is perhaps the most striking impression that one is left with: despite being a geographically-peripheral region, this was by no means a provincial backwater. Head to the RAMM to see for yourself.

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 4 – The Spanish Armadas

Laura Sangha

This is the fourth post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum. Click on pictures for enlargements.

Pendennis Castle, Cornwall.

Pendennis Castle, Cornwall.

Politically, the south west was of crucial importance during Elizabeth’s reign when hostilities with Spain put Devon and Cornwall in the front line. This drew the region into events of national importance, but these events were also experienced on a local level and were of particular significance for the region. The 1588 Spanish Armada is probably the best known event of Elizabeth’s realm, and is certainly the most iconic, but for the south west things didn’t end there: two more invasion fleets sailed for Britain in 1596 and 1597. From the exhibition catalogue I learned that the region had in fact had been repeatedly strengthened militarily during the Tudor era – forts were constructed at western harbours in the reign of Henry VIIII, including the impressive examples at St Mawes (1543) and Pendennis (1546). In Elizabeth’s reign, Plymouth’s St Nicholas Island was heavily fortified in 1583-85 and Sir Richard Grenville was given command of the defence of Devon and Cornwall in March 1587, when he readied the equipment and defences of the peninsula. Anxieties remained high throughout the 1590s, Plymouth received more fortifications, and a small force landed at Mousehole, Newlyn and Penryn in 1595, doing extensive damage when they set them afire.

But it was the 1588 Spanish Armada that really became embedded in national consciousness and whose memory has endured. This is surely because the failed invasion was accorded with such importance at the time. Special forms of prayer were issued by the government giving thanks for the nation’s deliverance, and celebrations wind-blowing-on-armadamarking the defeat became a regular fixture in a rapidly developing new national ‘Protestant’ calendar, as David Cressy has documented. In the epic struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, God appeared to have revealed his hand, assisting the numerically inferior and poorer Protestant forces to miraculously defeat the mighty fleet of a Catholic superpower. This was not a mere fluke convergence of bad weather and inspired naval leadership, this was a providential deliverance. The ‘Protestant wind’ that sent the Spanish ships into disarray was proof of God’s special care and protection of his chosen people, those Protestants who professed the ‘true’ faith.

ELIZ portraitEven at the time the iconography of the Armada was well developed (again giving lie to the ‘iconophobia’ discussed in a previous post). If you see a crescent of tall masted ships you are probably looking at a representation of the Armada of 1588, and there a few examples of these crescents in the RAMM’s exhibition. Most obviously, there is the ‘Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, so called because the queen is framed by two images of the naval action. Above the queen’s left shoulder the English ships are shown bravely sailing towards a confrontation with the Spanish fleet in its distinctive crescent formation; over her right shoulder a wreckage strewn seascape represents the remains of the once proud Spanish fleet.

Augustine Ryther engraving, note Exeter top right.

Augustine Ryther engraving, note Exeter top left.

The exhibition also houses a wonderful series of exquisite hand coloured engravings, telling the story of the engagements off the Devon and Cornish coasts. The engravings were produced by Augustine Ryther from charts which recorded the route of the Armada around the coast. They really do provide the story of the events – this black and white copy shows the recognisable crescent shape of the fleet, and collapses the timing of the events so that two parts of the action are shown simultaneously, creating an easily understood narrative. This is a technique that I often encounter when examining early printed material with my students, particularly those ballads and broadsheets that seem to be aimed at the least literate members of society.

cartoon with tapestriesThe prints are similar to the tapestries that were hung in Parliament in 1650. Commissioned in 1592, the ten tapestries were enormously expensive, costing £1,582 (the equivalent of 87 years wages for a labourer in 1590); and enormous in size: we think they measured 14 feet in height and between 17 and 28 feet in width. In 1650 they found their way into the Houses of Parliament, where they were mentioned in debate on several occasions. As if further evidence were needed of the longevity and significance of the Spanish Armada, in 1798 when there were concerns about a possible French invasion, the artist James Gillray was commissioned to produce images that would rouse patriotic fervour in the English people – the series of satirical prints he produced included one (above) depicting a French Admiral ordering his men to destroy the Armada tapestries.

medalFinally, amongst other Armada memorabilia in the collection there is also a commemorative medal similar to the one in the picture. These were not only produced in England but also in other Protestant nations, indicating the way that the defeat of Catholic Spain reverberated throughout Europe, an important symbolic victory for international Protestantism. The medal in the RAMM collection is from the Netherlands. In the 1580s the Dutch United Provinces were in revolt against Catholic Spain, and Spanish hostilities against the English were in part an attempt to stop the English aiding their European Protestant allies.

The museum medal depicts the Armada in its familiar crescent shape. It bears the famous inscription ‘Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt’ (with ‘Jehovah’ in Hebrew letters, the Tetragrammaton יהוה): ‘Jehovah blew with His wind and they were scattered’. It is a reference to Job 4: 8-11:

Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.

By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed.

 The roaring of the lion, and the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions, are broken.

The old lion perisheth for lack of prey, and the stout lion’s whelps are scattered abroad. [King James Version]

Spanish Armada - so famous it made it into the Simpsons.

Spanish Armada – so famous it made it into the Simpsons.

References like this are deeply suggestive of one of the ways that Protestantism was changing English society. Scriptural allusions were commonplace, and from the way that they are used (casually, briefly) it strongly suggests that people were expected to recognise them and the deeper religious truths that they stood for. Job has of course already cropped up in this series of posts (see day two, domestic decoration), here the brief quotation serves a similar purpose as an image: a reminder, a prompt to reflection, a stepping stone to a more profound appreciation of one’s own faith.

In the final post tomorrow: a round up of the prominent themes.

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here

Further reading:

Sam Smiles (ed.), West Country to World’s End: The South West in the Tudor Age [essays to accompany the RAMM exhibition].

David Cressy, ‘The Spanish Armada: Celebration, Myth and Memory’, in J. Doyle and B. Moore (eds), England and the Spanish Armada (Canberra, 1990) or Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989).

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 3 – Goldsmiths and urban redevelopment

Laura Sangha

This is the third post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum.

Today I want to talk filthy lucre. One of the things I learnt at the RAMM was that Exeter was an important centre for the goldsmith trade from as early as the thirteenth century, and this set off a train of thought that ended up in the surprisingly short-term world of town planning. I’ll try to recreate the train here.

The goldsmiths golden age

cup editMany of Exeter’s early modern artisans had their workshops in Goldsmith Street, an impressive thoroughfare that had a church at either end, almshouses, and a handsome hall used by the Company of Tailors. The exhibition houses a variety of related items, but the one that took my eye was a communion cup made by John Jones, one of the wealthiest goldsmiths in early modern Exeter. It is indicative of the fact that in this society, ‘fine art’ did not necessarily mean paintings (though there are some wonderful Holbeins in the exhibition, if that’s your thing). This cup, manufactured from silver with delicate engraving around the gilt-edged rim and foot, is extremely accomplished, in fact I was rather surprised by quite how fancy it was, given that this was over ten years into the Calvinist-inspired Elizabethan reign. The cup is still a thing of beauty, it could easily be a lot plainer and less ostentatious.

The uniqueness of the Church of England

My first thought was that perhaps this is proof that the Elizabethan Settlement acted as a ‘broad umbrella’, incorporating a number of different types of Protestants and a range of churchmanship? Christopher Haigh has argued that the adjustments made to the Prayer Book at the start of Elizabeth’s reign, particularly additions to the words used during the administration of the Lord’ Supper, deliberately introduced ambiguity into the ceremony, encouraging a range of opinion about what actually happened during the sacrament to survive or evolve. Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued along similar lines, suggesting that these changes were to bring the English Reformation in line with what was happening in the rest of Europe, particularly in Germany and Geneva. It is entirely plausible that the fancy cup could be a part of these processes – the use of a silver work of art, rather than a plain wooden cup, would have been deeply suggestive to a congregation versed in the ritual and symbolic importance of the liturgy.

The impact of the Reformation

Beyond the sometimes obscure and Glastonbury2always complicated world of Reformation theology, the goldsmiths can also tell us much about the way in which changes in belief left a deep and enduring imprint on early modern society. For part of the reason for the continued success and prestige of the goldsmith community in Exeter was the dissolution of the City’s priory and friaries in 1538 and ongoing changes in religious policy that sent a lot of work their way. Historians have discovered that far from being isolated and cut off from their local communities, monasteries were in many ways integral to the social and economic functions of their local region, providing charity and education, and as producers and consumers. Following their abrupt closure, the shock waves were swift, reshaping the landscapes of local communities physically as well as spiritually. Large, imposing buildings were torn down or their functions changed, and Henry VIII quickly appropriated the vast riches of these institutions. This not only meant that the crown took control of church lands, they also seized their more moveable treasures. For the large group of goldsmiths in Exeter, this would have meant a very welcome steady source of work and income, as church plate was confiscated, some of which had to be melted down and reworked in a more acceptable shape, suitable to the new reformed liturgy. This was a lucrative business, as at each stage of the process the participants could take their cut, not to mention that the parishes had to buy new plate from the goldsmiths to replace the old throughout the Tudor era. Similar processes happened in parish churches – the RAMM’s information card tells us that the churchwarden accounts of St Petrock’s church in Exeter show that Jones was paid £1 15s 5d in 1572 for ‘converting’ this communion cup to make it suitable for Protestant worship. Thus the redistribution of wealth that the dissolution triggered is not restricted to the property market but bought benefits and profits to other groups that can easily be overlooked.

Heritage and Urban Planning

Exeter's Goldsmith's Street as it once was.

Exeter’s Goldsmith’s Street as it once was.

Finally, I was also interested to discover the fate of Goldsmith Street – the majority of the historic buildings there were demolished by the City Council in the 1970s to make way for redevelopment – today you will find Marks and Spencer and Millets where the goldsmiths used to ply their trade. Although one of our enduring national myths is that bombing raids in World War II were responsible for the destruction of much of our pre-modern urban architecture, more recently historians have begun to question this narrative. They have drawn attention to the fact that many cities were already undergoing a programme of redevelopment that included sweeping away inconveniently narrow medieval streets that were seen as obstacles to modern infrastructure and progress. Though the blitz did account for damage in many historic centres, our society’s own decision to prioritise the needs of economic and industrial advancement over our historic past may be the real explanation of urban change. A recent article on the BBC website revealed that this is even true of Coventry, which suffered devastating destruction in a terrible air raid in 1940, but where demolition had actually started before the war and continued after it. Exeter too suffered, in a severe raid in 1942 1,500 houses were destroyed, 2,700 were seriously damaged, and the Cathedral itself was hit, narrowly escaping the destruction of the nave. But much of value was left, though not all of it was subsequently retained – wiped away just as Goldsmiths was to make way for shopping centres and fast food joints.

The shock of the new

Exeter's Goldsmith Street now.

Exeter’s Goldsmith Street now.

In many ways modern redevelopment of our urban landscapes is now just as shocking and significant as the deliberate destruction of the monasteries and the properties of the parish churches in the 1500s, and increasingly we are now beginning to see it that way. Each was an iconoclastic act, signalling a rejection of and moving away from the past. They were both inspired by a shift in the prevailing ideology and the emergence of something new: Protestantism, capitalism, modernity. Each are shocking to us now because these acts display a complete lack of respect for the past and for beautiful treasures which can now never be recreated. Each seems to have been driven by ‘the authorities’ in the face of limited public resistance, and in many cases the public seem unable to prevent the change even where they disagree with it. Perhaps this can helps us to understand the ‘compliance conundrum’ – the question of why there was a relative lack of any widespread resistance to the dissolution, despite the commitment that most English women and men had previously shown to the institutions. Perhaps they felt as helpless as we do in the face of development, perhaps they also felt a sense in which they were swimming against the tide in trying to preserve the past or stand in the way of state sponsored change. Or perhaps they came to terms with and even embraced the changes, regretting the passing of the old ways and the destruction of beautiful things, but eager to make the most of the opportunities that the new future offered them, and keen to create new and more beautiful – but different – things to replace those that had been lost.

In tomorrow’s post: the Spanish Armada arrives off the south west coast.

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 2 – Domestic Decoration

Laura Sangha

This is the second post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum. View the first post on a map of Exeter here.

In early modern England the population was expanding incredibly rapidly and massive inflation led to the deterioration of living standards for many of the lower sorts. In contrast, changes in income tended to increase the number of middling groups in society, those merchants, artisans and gentry who benefited from rising property prices. In the west country, the prosperous cloth trade and various mercantile enterprises meant that the middling sorts had money to invest in the arts. You are perhaps already aware of the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition on Elizabeth I and her People, and if that is your sort of thing, there are lots of paintings at the RAMM too, including ‘The Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I; several from the school of Holbein; numerous works by Exeter’s most significant artist to date, the miniature-painter Nicholas Hilliard; and a huge piece that tells the story of the arrival of Armada in the South West in 1588. Click on images for enlargements.

attributed hilliard armardaAll are deeply impressive, but the artistic accomplishment of the south west is also to be found in the crafts – in the production of jewellery, elaborate drinking vessels, church plate (more on that in tomorrow’s post), household utensils, decorative plasterwork, moveable furniture, architectural stone and woodwork, and fine needlework. Some of these were functional, but all displayed the taste, wealth and status of their owners in this society.

Two of my favourite objects in the exhibition seem to be less about status, but certainly fall within the category of the decorative arts. They are a set of boards with an image painted on each them. Both are reasonably small – perhaps the size of an A3 sheet of paper – and one depicts Moses, the other Job. Each has a scriptural extract painted above the image. On loan from the V&A, they are part of a series of Old Testament figures. The drawings are plain but relatively accomplished: Job wears a long red tunic, cinched at the waist with a belt with a tasseled pouch hanging from it. He has a long brown pointed beard and wears a small turban and long boots, an interesting suggestion of ethnic stereotyping. He looks as if he is walking somewhere, and his hands are together and raised in supplication. The figure stands on some scraggly grass, and it is against a black background, in contrast to the scriptural text in black letter against a white background that forms a strip across the top of the board. It reads: ‘I ame sure that my redemer liveth and that I shall rise [oute?] of the earth at the latter day. Job [19?].’

Moses wears a white tunic and his extra long, brownish belt flaps around his legs as if in a breeze. He has tights tucked into his high brown boots, and wears a warm looking hat. He has a brown beard, much shorter than Job’s, and he also looks like he is walking. In his arms is a large tablet divided in two, dashed lines across it representing the Commandments. There is a skull between his feet, and I was intrigued to see that Moses is blindfolded – I am assuming this represents the Lord’s impartial justice but would be delighted to hear of other examples of this. His inscription reads ‘The Lord will stirr up amonge the brethren a Profet, like unto me. Deutrinomy 18’.

The RAMM’s information card informs us that the boards might have been displayed in a church or private house near Plymouth, but immediately my little grey cells started humming. I doubted that it was the latter in Elizabethan England, where the work of iconoclasm in parish churches was relatively complete. To me, these images were a surprise – what were images of scriptural figures doing here, in an era when images had been rejected by the reformers as leading to wrong belief and wrong practice?

When iconoclasts attack.

When iconoclasts attack.

The scholarship on visual culture in early modern England can help to answer this question, as it has been rapidly developing in recent years. Earlier historians had to an extent been won over by Patrick Collinson’s argument that throughout Elizabeth’s reign, English Protestantism became less, not more popular in character. Crudely summarised, Collinson asserted that the first generation of Protestant publicists and propagandists made polemical use of cultural vehicles (songs, drama, cheap print, the visual arts), using these forms to transmit the evangelical message with the aim of converting the English people to Protestantism. Protestant plays were written and produced, godly ballads were published and sung, images were used to attack Catholicism and to commend their own religious beliefs and values. But around 1580 Collinson thought that a new generation of evangelicals began to reject visual and performative culture, judging it to be unsuitable for their religious message. This later generation of Protestants thought that plays, songs and images were distracting the audience and confusing the religious message. Worse, the arts mixed sacred ideas with filthy ‘popular’ forms, doing violence to religious truth by associating it with base, bawdy and inappropriate behaviour and language. In this new world, Collinson argued that Protestants came to completely refuse any appeal to the senses in religious matters. All images were ‘Popish’, most Elizabethan and Jacobean bibles therefore had no illustrations, the only decoration in the parish church was to be the Royal Arms and perhaps a table of the ten commandments. England had moved from iconoclasm in the first stages of reform (rejection of abused, dangerous and false images), to complete iconophobia (rejection of all images).

And yet…, whilst Collinson’s argument is enormously useful in thinking about the continuing repercussions of religious change, it is perhaps more useful for thinking about reforming clergymen than it is English society more broadly. Objections have been raised, and work is afoot to provide a corrective to the ‘iconophobia’ argument. It is easy to point to the continued existence of images in England – British Printed Images to 1700 is a website that hosts a database of several thousand printed images produced in Protestant Britain, and much decorated medieval furniture can be found in parish churches across the country to this day (though of course some of this may have been restored during a later era). Our Moses and Job boards are of course another example of later imagery.

Images persisted despite reforming disapproval. So how can we explain Moses and Job? Are these a rare surviving example of something from the bottom of the Tessa Watt’s ‘ladder of sanctity’ – inoffensive Old Testament figures that Protestants were comfortable displaying in a secular context? Watt has taught us that those scriptural figures who were the least sacred in the Catholic tradition, those that did not have cults associated with them and who were therefore unlikely to be the focus of devotion, were often still depicted in post-Reformation England. Moses and Job fit the bill – they are Old Testament figures, and both are strongly associated with moral teaching and practices. You are not meant to worship them but to learn from their stories and they were probably a new element of visual language in the post-Reformation church – there are no wall paintings of Job in Anne Marshall’s excellent catalogue of medieval wall paintings, and only one of Moses – which was painted after the Reformation.

Watt’s theory therefore helps us to explain images that survived in the face of fierce criticism of the Catholic use of imagery in worship. It seems that the purposes of post-Reformation images were usually didactic, images were used symbolically to recall to mind important beliefs or Christian principles. Here the scriptural texts above the images suggest that these figures were intended as an aid to memory, representative of bigger theological and moral truths. Job stood for the trials, temptations and suffering that an ordinary family man might face in everyday life, the text the hope of release from them. Moses would call to mind the Ten Commandments (perhaps displayed for all to see in the parish church) and their Picture1importance as the basis of Christian morality and behaviour. Both are eminently suitable for display in a secular sphere such as the household, reminders of everyday Christian beliefs that could comfort and guide people as they went about their lives. Incidentally the British Printed Images database throws up eight images of Moses and two of Job, all from the seventeenth century, suggesting that these images might be less suitable for publication than for display in the household. Often these images are found in the frontispiece: Drexel’s School of Patience (1640) has an image of Job with the caption ‘Patience’; in Francis Quarles 1646 collection of miscellaneous reflections Boanerges and Barnabas Moses represents justice (in opposition to mercy) and wears a similar outfit to that depicted on our boards (see below); whilst a 1695 edition of Richard Allestree’s Works shows the prophet wearing a veil. Does the latter represent squeamishness over showing Moses’ face, or is it just because the book contains a section on the topic of veiling?

quarles mosesIt appears then that Moses and Job need not have been out of place in the Elizabethan south west after all. Tara Hamling’s recent work on domestic decoration supports such an interpretation, and these boards indeed suggest that Elizabethan England ‘still contained many images to help its inhabitants in converting the words of the Protestant religion into a visualised experience’, as Tessa Watt has argued. These images were complementing and supporting preaching and reading, those activities more traditionally seen as the heart of Protestant practice. The physical environments that people inhabited had also been changed as a result of reform, reconfigured to encourage the development of the Godly society that the evangelicals strove to create.

In tomorrow’s post: musings on the impact of the Reformation, goldsmiths and contemporary urban redevelopment.

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here

Further reading:

Patrick Collinson, ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’, The Stenton Lecture 1985 (University of Reading:1986). Reprinted in Peter Marshall (ed.), The Impact of the English Reformation (London, 1997).

Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge, 1991), chapter 4, ‘Idols in the frontispiece’.

Tara Hamling, Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (London, 2010).

The Tudor South West at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Part 1 – City Map

Laura Sangha

This is the first in a week long series of posts about a new exhibition at Exeter’s museum.

Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum

I few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful new exhibition at Exeter’s recently refurbished Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Titled ‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’, the publicity describes it as ‘celebrating the spirit of adventure and enterprise of south west people’ during the Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’. Along with some of my first and second year undergraduates, I was also lucky enough to attend a talking tour of the exhibition by one of its curators: Sam Smiles, Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter. It was an intriguing insight into the thought and planning that goes into such a project, and I was struck by how carefully constructed museum exhibitions are in order to allow viewers to assemble a history from the objects themselves. It led me to reflect on the way that the selection, juxtaposition and display of the objects prompts the viewer to make associations and identify themes, leading to their greater understanding of the period and the subject. The exhibition runs until 2 March 2014, and each day this week I will be offering some thoughts on objects from the exhibition, explaining what the items said to me and following up on the questions that they raised. Click on pictures for enlargements.

Mapping Exeter

Engraving of Exeter by Hogenberg, 1587.

Engraving of Exeter by Hogenberg, 1587.

As a naturalised Exonian, I was very taken by the large scale reproduction of a map of Exeter as it was in 1587. Placed at the start of the exhibition it immediately orientates you within the early modern city, and it is fascinating for any number of reasons. The Exeter on the map has some familiar landmarks, yet the contours are not what are not what you expect: the river has been redirected in the centuries since, the castle and city walls have largely disappeared, and of course modern Exeter is far larger, incorporating parishes that were entirely separate in the early modern period and archers riversprawling suburbs where once there was only farmland. The map is incredibly detailed – there are figures promenading in the streets and a couple of archers practise their skills by the Exe bridge, whilst the tenterhooks used in Exeter’s successful cloth trade are plain to see on the banks of the river. There are at least seven churches within the walls in addition to the huge cathedral, and everywhere there are wide green open spaces: a reminder that the Tudor urban environment was vastly different to our own. The map is hard to navigate for a modern too – the perspective allows the viewer to see the city in it’s entirety, but in doing so fails to indicate the very steep incline between the river and the city centre, so buildings that appear to be next to each other on the map are not experienced like that in reality.

Of course maps are never realistic in the way that they present their subject, they are designed to convey specific information to the map ‘reader’, thus the map designer chooses which aspects to emphasise and which to elide. The resulting distortion might The Cathedral was surrounded by churches, and someone's fancy house.therefore tell us more about the producers’ perceptions and intent than the place they are depicting. Thus we do not see the city ‘as it actually was’, but rather we see what the producer (or patron) wants us to. This map was made for the great city atlas edited by Georg Braun and largely engraved by Franz Hogenberg, published in Cologne in six volumes 1572-1617. Many of the images in this post can be seen at ‘Historic Cities‘ which has excellent digital reproductions of city maps of the past, present and future.

Meanwhile, just outside Oxford

Meanwhile, just outside Oxford…

Braun and Hogenberg’s atlas contained 546 maps of cities, mainly European but there was also room for Mexico city and Casablanca. Other English cities included were London and the second city Norwich, Oxford and Cambridge, York, Canterbury, Chester and Bristol: the fact that Exeter was deemed worthy of inclusion alongside these indicates its important national status at the time. Hogenberg’s other city plans share features with Exeter’s –York is surrounded by a profusion of windmills, and in Norwich archers are also practicing their skills on the outskirts of town. There are differences too: Bristol, Cambridge and Norwich have sheep grazing in their hinterlands whilst in Exeter is surrounded by arable land, some of the maps have larger figures in contemporary dress in the foreground, indeed Oxford has what appear to be two scholars having an argument under a tree.

Either Chester was menaced by giant horses, or this map is not to scale.

Either Chester was menaced by giant horses, or this map is not to scale.

The Exeter map thus tells me that Hogenberg saw the city as a Godly, thriving, well defended and well connected metropolis, relatively compact though already outgrowing the limits of it’s walls. The river was clearly a central part of it’s extensive trading and manufacturing activities, the water cluttered with boats and mills. A steady stream of people cross over the bridge towards the city gates, and within the walls there were some impressive houses suggesting wealthy citizens – this was a bustling regional centre, then as now. Surprisingly there are no cows to be seen (Cambridge, Bristol, Chester and other cities have sheep and horses grazing around about them), but there are some chaps fishing near a weir at Bonhay. The wide streets and green spaces within the city and the rolling Devon countryside which form the hinterland suggest this would be a good place to live and work, it is presented as a civilised, spacious and clean environment. As such, my suspicion is that it only tells part of the story of life in urban Elizabethan England.

In tomorrow’s post: what are images of Moses and Job doing in the Protestant south west?

‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more on their website.


Historic Cities, a joint project of the Historic Cities Center of the Department of Geography, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish National and University Library.

Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, ‘Civitas Exoniae (vulgo Excester) urbs primaria in comitatu Devoniae’, in Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Cologne. Vol. VI 1617.