Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic
When we arrived at the Wells Cathedral today I helped Mike set up the desk and then went out to the front desk as I was going to join three short 20-minute tours. The first was called “Stories in Stone”. The second was about one particular stained glass window with the theme “The Beloved Bishop Ken” and the third tour was an embroidery walk named “King’s Bishop, Soldier, Spy”. For first and last tour I was the only person so I had a personal tour.
John Riviere took me to see some of the stonework around the cathedral. The first was about a short series of carvings around the top of the columns on the outside of the original entranceway to the cathedral. It depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund who was King of Anglia in the 900’s. The Danes attacked and required him to denounce his Christianity. He refused so the Danes made an example of him. The scene shows Edmund with arrows stabbing each side of him with an archer each side shooting him. Once he was dead he was beheaded and while his body was buried his head was thrown into the forest. A wolf found his head and carried it back and the burial was opened to bury the head with it. The head miraculously rejoined to the body without a scar and Edmund came back to life. St Edmund was the patron saint of England before St George and is still the patron saint of East Anglia.
There is another story around the top of a column inside the south transept. The first scene shows a young man holding a basket of grapes and an older man with a knife. They are stealing the grapes. The next scene shows a farmer wearing a hat tied around his neck. His farmhand holds a farm tool and they look over and see the men stealing the grapes. In the next scene the young robber has run off with the grapes but the older man has been captured by the farmer. In the last scene, the farmer hits the older man with such force that he hat falls behind his head although you can still see it tied around his neck. The possible moral of the story is “Crime doesn’t pay” but considering the fact that the younger robber got away with the grapes the moral might be “Don’t get caught”.
John then showed me the funeral stone of William Bytton II which is an incised effigy, so the effigy is etched into the stone. It is very old. When William died, he had a full set of teeth which at the time was highly unusual. People would make a pilgrimage to Wells to touch the stone to neal them from a toothache or prevent a toothache. All around the head and mouth of the stone is pitted with no etching remaining. Pilgrims would take a piece of the stone to keep on their mantlepiece as a holy relic to prevent them from getting a toothache.
Next, John showed me a series of green men – three in the south transept and six in the north transept. There are others in the nave. Most green men have leaves growing out of their mouths but one of the corbels has leaves growing out of the ears which are known as a “bloodsucking” green man. Green men go right back to 500 BC. Another of the carved corbels shows a fox grabbing a goose and the farmer is shouting at him. His mouth is painted white to help give the impression of an open mouth and perhaps teeth.
The next tour I went on with two other people was led by Margaret Barker who was talking about one particular window dedicated to Bishop Thomas Ken. Bishop Ken was the Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1685 – 1691. He didn’t die in office or move elsewhere but was stopped from being a Bishop because of the politics of the time. He was deprived of the see on 1 February 1690 for not taking the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the sovereigns.
Bishop Ken’s stained glass window is a very busy Victorian enamelled window with silver staining which gives the yellow colour to the white glass. It was designed by Philip Westlake, his brother Nathaniel completed it and was made by Lavers, Barraud and Westlake Studios in London. It is largely enamels but the sombre colours are not helped by its position in the north side of the cathedral as it is overshadowed by the Chapter House. The window was erected in 1885 by Dean Plumptre to celebrate the bicentenary of the Bishop’s consecration as Bishop of Bath and Wells. The pictures illustrate Bishop Ken’s life and character. Bishop Ken was born in Hertfordshire in 1637 and was brought up as a high Anglican. He was involved with the church in Winchester and then became chaplain to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. He then became chaplain to Princess Mary who married William of Orange and later chaplain to Charles II. In 1685 he became Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was also chaplain to James II who was Roman Catholic in an Anglican England. James II passed an Act of Indulgence which Bishop Ken could not agree with so he was removed from office as Bishop. Bishop Ken was buried in Frome at St John the Baptist church. He worked tirelessly restoring the churches in his Diocese and made sure that the clergy was working properly. he also worked with the congregation and prisoners.
I then went on to the third 20 minutes talk, this time by Sue May and again I was the only one on the tour. We went to the quire where she was talking about the tapestries around the walls and the tapestries on the first two rows of the quire. In the late 1930’s the project was suggested and Lady Alice Hilton who was the great-niece of a Bishop designed every piece. Each of 40 Bishops from 1323 is represented with their coats of arms and are placed in order with their backgrounds of red and blue alternating around the walls. The last Bishop depicted was the one from 1937. A few are missing if they did not stay long or if they were not distinguished for anything. It was realised that war was coming and so silks, cottons and canvas were stockpiled so that work could continue throughout the World War II. The last tapestry was hung in 1952. The Bishop’s throne is particularly amazing as are the Chancellor, ArchDeacon, Dean, Precentor and Sub-dean.
The particular tapestry that Sue was concentrating on for this talk was Bishop Peter Mews who was the Bishop before Bishop Ken from 1672 – 1685. Bishop Peter was the complete opposite of Bishop Ken. He was born in 1619 and went to Oxford to read theology. But at heart, he was a soldier. He dropped out of university and became a soldier for the Royalist cause of Charles I. At the Battle of Naseby he was injured and imprisoned for a short time. After the war, he went back to Oxford to complete his theology degree then he was appointed the Archdeacon of Huntington. There he became a master of disguise and spied for the Royalist cause right through the period of the Commonwealth. He had 13 uneventful years as Bishop of Bath and Wells and in 1685 became Bishop of Winchester. At the Battle of Sedgemore Bishop Peter gave advice to the Young Churchill who had positioned his troops wrongly. When he moved his troops according to Bishop Peter’s advice Churchill won and Bishop Peter gained the nickname of the Bombardier Bishop of Great Winchester. His tapestry sports canons, cannonballs and trumpets. In the centre near the bottom is James II embroidered in a finer yarn and on finer canvas which was later inserted. The gold outline is called couching.
We then went to talk about the Millenium altar frontals. Dean Richard Lewis, who was an opera singer, held a competition to find designers for the altar frontals. the two winners were Jane Lemon who designed all the High Altar frontals. She was an ecclesiastical embroiderer from the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court and the Sarum Group at Salisbury. Before this, she was a costume designer for the theatre. Maurice Strike designed all the Nave altar frontals and had a history of set design for the theatre. Jane and Maurice collaborated with the colours and styles but their results reflect their backgrounds in costume and set design. Maurice’s frontals are all backlit. The Nave altar frontals depict the journey and the searching while the high altar frontals depict the arrival. There are twelve altar frontals for the six different seasons of the church year – Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, Advent and Christmas. Up until today the Easter frontals have been up but today they were changed to Pentecost and two days later they changed again to the Trinity frontals.
On the way home we took an alternate route up Old Bristol Rd and visited St Lawrence church in Priddy, St Hugh’s in Charterhouse and St Michael the Archangel in Compton Martin. As we drove up the road to Compton Martin I realised we had been here before (on 18/7/17) but had been unable to find the cache at that time. We parked by the pond and I went to find the cache easily this time while Mike went to see if the church was open. It was and it had some wonderful stained glass windows especially four small single windows depicting St Jerome, St Etheldreda, St Edward the Confessor and St Thomas. It also had some wonderful Norman vaulting on the ceiling with faces on the apex. One column was definitely ‘on the huh’ and there was a lovely spiral column too. There were two tiny stained glass windows in the porch, one of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers and toothache and the other St Barbara, patron saint of artillery, mining and mathematicians. The other two of the churches were closed but we found all three geocaches. We travelled right over the Mendip Hills on a beautiful warm evening.