The Furniture Chop

What does 'Gothic' really mean? Sun 12 June 2022

Just a fairy tale... with an ogre sitting on an odd-looking chair. Source

And a pile of dead babies on the dining table.

From History of the Holy Trinity Guild at Sleaford, E chap 2, note 44, p93:

It will be observed that the furniture and appointments, even of palaces and baronial mansions down to a very recent period, bore no comparison with the splendid seats of our present nobility ; yet they retained a repulsive dignity and stately pride, of which we, in these liberal times can form no conception ; <!-- although their ordinary food was of a nature that would turn the pampered stomach of a modern gentleman - to say nothing of the other sex - who would reject, with disgust and loathing, a breakfast at seven o'clock in the morning, consisting of bread in trenchers, salted mutton and beef, eaten with their fingers, and copious potations of ale and wine to assist the digestion.

(Quoting Aubrey): "They always ate in gothic halls at the high table, or orsille, which is a little room at the upper end of the hall where stands a table with the side table. The meat was served up by watch words. The poor boys did turn the spits and licked up the dripping for their pains." --> 1

From The Torrington Diaries (Abridged Selected), p158 at Belvoir Castle:

in the whole House, there is no Furniture (Pictures excepted) that a Broker would think worth the carrying away; Nor one Chair, Table, Carpet or Curtain of use or comfort! An old Bed, curiously worked by a Countess of Rutland, in a tapestry Room, with fine velvet Chairs, is the most antient Observation in the House.

Velvet for clothing was made from silk. Upholstery velvet was made from long animal hair. But what exactly does:

a bed, curiously worked by a countess of Rutland


Byng also adds a telling observation:

In this Condition was the House found by the late duke;


Visiting Louth, Lincolnshire, Byng describes the furniture in the 'hermitage' built by William 'Wolley' Jolland, St James church's vicar from 1780 to 1840. In The Torrington Diaries (Abridged Selected), p364, Byng says Jolland built its furniture from tree roots, fir cones and polished horses' bones.

Byng didn't mention that the altar and various pavements were surfaced with animal parts:

  • Cloister floor paved with flints, pebbles and sheep's bones arranged in the shape of four-petaled flowers;
  • Second cloister floor paved with alternating squares of flints and sheep bones;
  • Oratory floor paved with highly polished horses' teeth;
  • Altar top surfaced with highly polished horses' teeth;
  • Legs of hour-glass stand made from fangs;
  • Walls decorated with seashells
  • Curtains decorated with snail trails. 2

But Byng does hint it hard to imagine how Jolland and his assistant could have made so much in the available time. And both descriptions of the hermitage, and paintings, suggest Jolland re-used existing remains. Most obviously, he had thatched pre-existing ruins:

Thatched Hermitage left, stone ruins right. Source: William 'Wolley' Jolland

Byng often comments that all the furniture is missing from the halls and mansions he visits. Furniture in what he calls: 'the Old Taste':

At Milton Abbey, near Peterborough, 1789-06-05, Brownlow Bertie (Duke of Ancaster) and Byng:

cou’d only peep thro’ the windows into The Lower Rooms, which appeared very comfortable, and Elegantly furnish’d: but not in the Old Taste!

From The Torrington Diaries, Vol III, p98, Skipton Castle:

a melancholy wretchedness of bad old rooms, some miserable tapestry, and some (basely) neglected pictures, especially one of the Countess, with a child in her hand, are the only relicts; for all the furniture has been removed to Appleby Castle.

Yew trees are ubiquitous in British churchyards.

In Byways in British Archaeology, p400 onwards, author Walter Johnson shows yew was:

  • used to make furniture,
  • only very reluctantly adopted as a Christian symbol by ordinary people, who
  • associated it with death.

Johnson also suggests the properties of yew and bone were combined to make tools and implements.

From Byways in British Archaeology, Walter Johnson, pp 402-403 3:

Ossian speaks of the war chariot thus:

"Of polished yew is its beam; its seat of the smoothest bone."

Recently, it has re-emerged that human bone was made into fertiliser on an industrial scale.

But sorting, stacking and display is unnecessary for bones going en-mass to fertiliser mills. Yet over 65 English churches are known to have hadwarehouses of sorted bones displayed on shelves with access aisles. Ossuaries.

From A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices in Medieval England, Jennifer Nancy Crangle. 2016:

The existence of many sites under churches was completely unknown prior to their accidental discovery, normally by gravediggers from the late 17 th century onwards... Prior to these rediscoveries there appear not to have been any common knowledge or record amongst local populations that there ever existed a charnel chapel... Many references to charnel chapels are made in the 18 th and 19 th centuries by antiquarians who do not always specify the exact location of the chambers beneath churches, or even to which particular church they are referring. In most cases where these locations can be verified by documentary or architectural evidence, the charnel is no longer within the charnel room, having been removed at some point after the dates of the initial reference. It seems that once the chambers and charnels were closed and were deemed unacceptable as part of post-Reformation religion, they quickly fell out of memory.

There was clearly more involved in the eradication of charnel chapels than a desire to end the ‘Popish’ practice of charnelling due to unspecified ritualistic connotations.

"Unspecified ritualistic connotations..."

Crangle gives example of access to ossuaries and charnel chapels being available to guilds:

Various craft guilds were also located in the lay cemetery such as the Guild of St Luke, associated with bell-founders, pewterers and glaziers.

And to the public at fairs on market days and fairs held on feast days. At Norwich Cathedral:

Pentecost or the Feast of Whitsun, the seven weeks after Easter Sunday...

And at St Pauls, London:

to pilgrims ‘who were to have access to the charnel house every Friday and on certain days, such as the Feast of the Dedication of the cathedral, three days after Whitsun, and the Feast of the Relics’

The slot left between the altar and former ossuary at Holy Trinity church, Rothwell, Northamptonshire, offers a clue about the relationship between altar table and ossuary:

Floor slot in front of altar near top left.

Perhaps cleaning bones was an early form of community service performed by faulty bio-engineering experiments:

Prisoner feeding time. Source: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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  1. Aubrey MSS. Ashmole Museum, Oxford. 

  2. List of Louth hermitage animal components from Christopher Sturman's A Lincolnshire Hermit: Wolley Jolland (1745–1831), The Georgian Group Report & Jounal, 1987, pp. 62–76. 

  3. Who or what was Ossian? From William Stukeley: 18th Century Antiquary, Stuart Piggott, p177: In 1760 the literary world was taken by storm by an unpretentious small octavo volume of seventy pages entitled Fragments of Ancient Poetry and purporting to be the remains of epics by the ancient Gaelic poet Ossian, handed down by oral tradition and gathered and translated by one James Macpherson. 'Ossian' appears to be a Lady Augusta Gregory-style romantic rewrite of Scottish folklore. 

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