Chest (furniture)

Church Chests

By the Rev. Geo. S. Tyack, b.a.

AN  interesting article of Church furniture which has scarcely received the amount of notice which it deserves, is the Church Chest, the receptacle for the registers and records of the parish, and sometimes also for the office books, vestments, and other valuables belonging to the Church. In recent years attention has frequently been directed to the interesting character of our ancient parochial documents, but the useful cases which for so many years have shielded them, more or less securely, from damage or loss, have been largely overlooked.

The present authority for the provision in every English church of a proper repository for its records is the seventieth canon, the latter part of which runs in the following words, from which it will be seen that some of its details have been suffered to become obsolete: “For the safe keeping of the said book (the register of baptisms, weddings, and burials), the churchwardens, at the charge of the parish, shall provide one sure coffer, and three locks and keys; whereof one to remain with the minister, and the other two with the churchwardens severally; so that neither the minister without the two churchwardens, nor the churchwardens without the minister, shall at any time take that book out of the said coffer. And henceforth upon every Sabbath day immediately after morning or evening prayer, the minister and the churchwardens shall take the said parchment book out of the said coffer, and the minister in the presence of the churchwardens shall write and record in the said book the names of all persons christened, together with the names and surnames of their parents, and also the names of all persons married and buried in that parish in the week before, and the day and year of every such christening, marriage, and burial; and that done, they shall lay up the book in the coffer as before.” This Canon, made with others in 1603, was a natural sequence to the Act passed in 1538, which enjoined the due keeping of parish registers of the kind above described. It is, in fact, obvious that the canon only gave additional sanction to a practice enforced some years earlier; for Grindal, in his “Metropolitical Visitation of the Province of York in 1571,” uses almost identical terms, requiring, amongst many other things, “That the churchwardens in every parish shall, at the costs and charges of the parish, provide ... a sure coffer with two locks and keys for keeping the register book, and a strong chest or box for the almose of the poor, with three locks and keys to the same:” the same demand was made, also by Grindal, on the province of Canterbury in 1576.

Church chests did not, however, come into use in consequence of the introduction of the regular keeping of registers. The Synod of Exeter, held in 1287, ordered that every parish should provide “a chest for the books and the vestments,” and the convenience and even necessity of some such article of furniture, doubtless led to its use in many places from yet earlier times.

We have in England several excellent examples of “hutches,” or chests, which date from the thirteenth, or even from the close of the twelfth century. Some there are for which a much earlier date has been claimed. These latter are rough coffers formed usually of a single log of wood, hollowed out, and fitted with a massive lid, the whole being bound with iron bands. Chests of this kind may be seen at Newdigate, Surrey, at Hales Owen, Shropshire, and elsewhere; and on the strength of the rudeness of the carpentry displayed, it has been asserted that they are of Norman, or even of Saxon, workmanship. Roughness of design and work are scarcely, however, in themselves sufficient evidence of great antiquity; many local causes, especially in small country places, may have led the priests and people to be content with a very rude article of home manufacture, at a time when far more elaborate ones were procurable in return for a little more enterprise or considerably more money. The date of these rough coffers must therefore be considered doubtful.

Of Early English chests, we have examples at Clymping, Sussex, at Saltwood and Graveney, Kent, at Earl Stonham, Suffolk, at Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey, and at Newport, Essex. The Decorated Period is represented by chests at Brancepeth, Durham, at Huttoft and Haconby, Lincolnshire, at Faversham and Withersham, Kent, and at S. Mary Magdalene's, Oxford. The workmanship of the Perpendicular Period has numerous illustrations among our church chests, such as those at S. Michael's, Coventry, S. Mary's, Cambridge, the Chapter House of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford, and others at Frettenham, Norfolk, at Guestling, Sussex, at Harty Chapel, Kent, at Southwold, Suffolk, and at Stonham Aspel, Suffolk.


In the making of all these coffers, strength was naturally the great characteristic which was most obviously aimed at; strength of structure, so as to secure durability, and strength of locks and bolts, so as to ensure the contents from theft. But in addition to this, artistic beauty was not lost sight of, and many chests are excellent illustrations of the wood-carvers' taste and skill, and several were originally enriched with colour.



A good example of those in which security has been almost exclusively sought, is provided by a chest at S. Peter's, Upton, Northamptonshire. The dimensions of this hutch are six feet three inches in length, two feet six inches in height, and two feet in width. Its only adornment is provided by the wrought iron bands which are attached to it. Four of these are laid laterally across each end, and four more, running perpendicularly, divide the front into five unequal panels; the bands on the front correspond with an equal number laid across the lid, where, however, two more are placed at the extreme ends. Each of the panels in front and top is filled with a device in beaten iron roughly resembling an eight-pointed star, the lowest point of which runs to the bottom of the chest. Yet simpler is the chest at S. Mary's, West Horsley, which is a long, narrow, oaken box, strengthened by flat iron bands crossing the ends and doubled well round the front and back, while six others are fastened perpendicularly to the front; there are two large locks, and three hinges terminating in long strips of iron running almost the complete breadth of the lid. The church of S. Botolph, Church Brampton, has a chest equally plain in itself, but the iron bands are in this case of a richer character. Elegant scroll-work originally covered the front and ends, much still remaining to this day. S. Lawrence's, in the Isle of Thanet, possesses an exceedingly rough example, with a curved top; seven broad iron bands strengthen the lid, and several perpendicular ones, crossed by a lateral one, are affixed to the front, the whole being studded with large square-headed nails; a huge lock is placed in the middle, with hasps for padlocks to the right and left of it. It is raised slightly from the ground by wooden “feet.”


For security and strength, however, the palm must be awarded to a coffer at Stonham Aspel. The following description of this remarkable chest was given in the “Journal of the British Archæological Society” in September, 1872: “This curious example is of chestnut wood, 8 feet in length, 2 feet 3 inches in height, and 2 feet 7 inches from front to back; and is entirely covered on the outer surface with sheets of iron 4½ inches in width, the joinings being hid by straps. The two lids are secured by fourteen hasps; the second from the left locks the first, and the hasp simply covers the keyhole; the fourth locks the third, etc. After this process is finished, a bar from each angle passes over them, and is secured by a curious lock in the centre, which fastens them both. The interior of this gigantic chest is divided into two equal compartments by a central partition of wood, the one to the left being painted red; the other is plain. Each division can be opened separately; the rector holding four of the keys, and the churchwardens the others, all being of different patterns.” The writer of this description (Mr. H. Syer Cuming, f.s.a., Scot., v.p.) assigns the chest to the fifteenth century.


Turning now to those chests, whose makers, while not forgetting the needful solidity and strength, aimed also at greater decoration, the handsome hutch at S. Michael's, Coventry, claims our notice. The front of this is carved with a double row of panels having traceried heads, the upper row being half the width of the lower one. In the centre are two crowned figures, popularly (and not improbably) described as Leofric and his wife, the Lady Godiva. At each end of the front is a long panel decorated with lozenges enclosing Tudor roses, foliage, and conventional animals; while two dragons adorn the bottom, which is cut away so as to leave a triangular space beneath the chest. At S. John's, Glastonbury, is another fine example, measuring six feet two inches in length, and at present lidless. Within six vesica-shaped panels are placed quatrefoil ornaments, each divided by a horizontal bar. Above these are five shields, three charged with S. George's Cross, and the others, one with three lozenges in fess, and the other with three roundles, two and one, and a label. The ends, or legs, are elaborately carved with dog-tooth figures in squares and circles. Saltwood, Kent, has an ornately carved chest, divided (like that of Stonham Aspel) into two parts, the lid being correspondingly formed, and opening in sections. One half is secured by three locks, and the other by one. The front is carved with five geometrical “windows” of four lights each; and the ends of the front have three carved square panels, divided by bands of dancette ornament. The base has a long narrow panel, with a simple wavy design. There is some bold carving on a chest at S. George's, South Acre, in Norfolk; a row of cusped arches fills rather more than half the height of the front, the rest being taken up with four panels containing roses and stars, similar designs on a smaller scale being repeated at the ends. The front is cut away at the bottom in a series of curves.


At Alnwick is a massive coffer, over seven feet long, bearing on its front a number of figures of dragons, and heads of birds and beasts, amid foliage; above which are two hunting scenes, in which appear men with horns, dogs, and deer, amid trees. These two scenes are separated by the lock, and are precisely alike, save that the quarry in one is a stag, and a hind in the other. Empingham, near Stamford, has a fine chest of cedar wood, adorned with incised figures. At S. Mary's, Mortlake, is one of walnut, inlaid with boxwood and ebony, and ornamented with designs in metal work; the under side of the lid has some delicate iron-wrought tracery, which was originally set off with red velvet. The Huttoft chest is enriched with traceried arches, which were apparently at one time picked out in colour; that of Stoke D'Abernon is raised on four substantial legs, and is decorated with three circles on the front filled with a kind of tracery; there are other interesting specimens at Winchester and at Ewerby. In the old castle at Newcastle-on-Tyne is preserved an old church coffer, which was probably removed there for safety during the troublous days of the Civil War. At Harty Chapel, Kent, we find the figures of two knights in full armour, tilting at each other, carved on the front of a chest; the legend of S. George and the dragon is illustrated in a similar way at Southwold Church, Suffolk, and yet more fully on a chest in the treasury of York Minster.

Probably, however, the handsomest example of a carved church chest now preserved in England is at Brancepeth, in the county of Durham. This beautiful piece of work, which rests in the south chapel of the church, has its front completely covered with elaborate carving. At either end are three oblong panels, one above another, on each of which is a conventional bird or beast; at the base is a series of diamonds filled, as are the intervals between them, with tracery; and above this is an arcade of six pointed arches, each enclosing three lights surmounted by a circle, the six being divided by tall lancets, the crockets of the arches and a wealth of foliage filling up the intervening spaces. This fine chest dates from the fourteenth century.

The Rev. Francis E. Powell, m.a., in his pleasantly-written work entitled “The Story of a Cheshire Parish,” gives particulars of the parish chest of Over. “The chest,” says Mr. Powell, was “the gift of Bishop Samuel Peploe to Joseph Maddock, Clerk, April 30th, 1750.” It probably was an old chest even then. The donor was Bishop of Chester from 1726 to 1752. He was a Whig in politics, and a latitudinarian in religion, as so many bishops of that time were. That he was a man of determined courage may be seen by his loyalty to the House of Hanover, even under adverse circumstances. One day, in the year 1715, he was reading Morning Prayer at the parish church at Preston. The town was occupied by Jacobite troops, some of whom burst into the church during the service. Approaching the prayer-desk, with drawn sword, a trooper demanded that Peploe should substitute James for George in the prayer for the King's Majesty. Peploe merely paused to say, “Soldier, I am doing my duty; do you do yours;” and went on with the prayers, whereupon the soldiers at once proceeded to eject him from the church. The illustration of the chest is kindly lent to us by the Rev. Francis E. Powell, vicar of Over.

In the vestry of Lambeth Palace is a curiously painted chest; several of an early date are preserved in the triforium of Westminster Abbey; there is one at Salisbury Cathedral, and another in the Record Office, having been removed from the Pix Chapel.

One of the original uses of these coffers, as we have seen, was to preserve the vestments of the church. The copes, however, being larger than the other vestments, and in the cathedrals and other important churches, being very numerous, frequently had a special receptacle provided. At York, Salisbury, Westminster, and Gloucester, ancient cope-chests are still preserved. These are triangular in shape, the cope being most easily folded into that form.

In not a few instances these large coffers, or sections of them, were used as alms boxes, for which a very ancient precedent can be found. At the restoration of the Jewish Temple under King Joash, we are told (2 Kings xii., 9, 10) that “Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in the lid of it, and set it beside the altar, on the right side as one cometh into the house of the Lord: and the priests that kept the door put therein all the money that was brought into the house of the Lord: and it was so, when they saw that there was much money in the chest, that the King's scribe and the high priest came up, and they put up in bags, and told the money that was found in the house of the Lord.”

At Llanaber, near Barmouth in North Wales, is a chest hewn from a single block of wood, and pierced to receive coins. At Hatfield, Yorkshire, is an ancient example of a similar kind; and others may be seen at S. Peter's-in-the-East, Oxford, at Drayton in Berkshire, at Meare Church, Somersetshire, at Irchester and Mears Ashby, in Northamptonshire, at Hartland, in Devonshire, and in the Isle of Wight at Carisbrooke. An interesting chest, with provision for the reception of alms, is preserved at Combs Church, Suffolk, where there is also another plain hutch, iron-bound and treble-locked. The chest in question is strongly, but simply, made, the front being divided into four plain panels, with some very slight attempt at decoration in the form of small disks and diamonds along the top; and the lid being quite flat and plain, and secured by two locks. At one end, however, a long slit has been cut in this lid, and beneath it is a till, or trough, to receive the money, very similar to the little locker often inserted at one end of an old oak chest intended for domestic use, save that in this case the compartment has, of course, no second lid of its own. This chest has the date 1599 carved upon it, but is supposed to be some half a century older, the date perhaps marking the time of some repairs or alterations made in it.

Hutches of the kind that we have been considering are not peculiar to England, some fine and well-preserved examples being found in several of the ancient churches in France. Among ourselves it is obvious that great numbers must have disappeared; many doubtless were rough and scarcely worthy of long preservation; others by the very beauty of their workmanship probably roused the cupidity, or the iconoclastic prejudice, of the spoiler. Near Brinkburn Priory a handsome fourteenth century chest was found, used for domestic purposes, in a neighbouring farm-house; a Tudor chest, belonging to S. Mary's, Newington, lay for years in the old rectory house, and subsequently disappeared; and these are doubtless typical of many another case. When the strictness at first enforced as to the care of the parish registers became culpably relaxed, and parish clerks and sextons were left in practically sole charge of them, it is but too probable that these men, often illiterate and otherwise unsuited to such a trust, were in many instances as careless, or as criminal, in regard to the coffers, as we unfortunately know they frequently were with respect to their contents.

Few church chests of any interest date from the Jacobean, or any subsequent period. Plain deal boxes were then held good enough for the purpose of a “church hutch.”