Brass Eagle Lecterns in England

Marcus van der Meulen

 

 
The Birmingham lectern acquired by the Earl of Shrewsbury for the church of St Chad by Augustus Pugin, today in The Met Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1968)  

In the Anglican church interior the brass bookstand with a reading desk in the shape of an eagle is part of the standard fittings. The freestanding bookrest is used for supporting the Bible, for readings from the scriptures or as a minor pulpit. Most are creations of the Victorian age, output from a serial production of ecclesiastical furnishings on an industrial scale.

Inspiration for these Victorian bookstands came from the eagle lecterns of the late 15th and early 16th century, many of which had vanished during the Reformation’s great purge of ecclesiastical ornament. The revival was prompted by a series of discoveries. At Oundle, Northamptonshire, the eagle lectern reappeared from the river Nene when it was dredged in the early 19th century. Around the same time a lectern was found in the marshes outside Isleham, Cambridgeshire, and another was dug up in the churchyard of Snettisham, Norfolk.

In the 1830s a lectern unlike any other in the country was found buried in the bishop’s garden in Norwich. This pelican lectern was restored, receiving some 19th-century additions at the same time, including three statuettes representing the priesthood. Finally, in 1841 it was returned to its pre-Reformation home, Norwich Cathedral.

In the same year the Church of St Chad, Birmingham, designed by AWN Pugin, was inaugurated. Later raised to cathedral status (the first Catholic cathedral in England since the Reformation), the ecclesiastical space designed by Pugin was fashioned to the principles set out in his influential books Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). Pugin’s books laid the theoretical foundations for the Gothic Revival and envisioned a return to the pre-Reformation church interior.

The ecclesiastical space of St Chad’s was adorned with fittings predating the English Reformation in an attempt to recreate an interior from the period before England turned its back on Rome. An impressive piece acquired for the church was the early 16th-century lectern (above) which was bought at auction by the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, Pugin’s close friend and patron. Its influence was immediate, as can be seen at Norwich Cathedral where the three statuettes added during the restoration of the pelican lectern are clearly derived from the Birmingham example.

The revival of the liturgy in the Anglican church in the 19th century, of course, is the result of the Oxford Movement. Of great importance were Tracts for the Times, published between 1833 and 1841. Once a Catholic fixture, the brass eagle lectern was again seen to be an appropriate Anglican church fitting, at least in the high church. Many cathedrals were refurbished according to the principles of the Gothic Revival. At Hereford as at Durham not only was a screen replaced but a new lectern was made and placed in front of it. The newly created cathedral at Truro was embellished with an impressive bookstand that again draws inspiration from the Birmingham lectern.

Suppliers of ecclesiastical fixtures were soon producing their own versions of the brass eagle lectern. From the 1840s firms like John Hardman of Birmingham; Hart, Son, Peard & Co of London; and Benson & Froud of London began mass-producing lecterns. Advertised in newspapers and transported by rail, the Victorian designs often closely followed those of the gothic examples that had been discovered, and they found their way into Anglican church interiors across Britain.

PRE-REFORMATION DESIGN

  Advertisement for Hart, Son, Peard & Co illustrated with an eagle lectern
  A late 19th-century advertisement by an ecclesiastical fittings supplier
  Brass eagle lectern with choir stalls in background
  Brass eagle lectern c1500 at Wren’s Church of St Bride, Fleet Street, London (Photo: Marcus van der Meulen)

The freestanding bookrest with its eagle-shaped reading desk has three components: the pedestal, the stand and the desk. In the late 15th to early 16th century the pedestal becomes circular and is supported by three or four small lions, seated or couchant.

The stand is treated as a column or baluster, decorated with geometrical shapes at both ends of the stem and repeated in the middle. The stand is topped by a sphere on which the eagle rests, its wings outstretched to form the reading desk.

A fine example of an early brass eagle lectern can be seen at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street in the City of London (below right), which is typical of the style popular in England in the decades prior to the Reformation (roughly 1470-1530).

These Tudor lecterns, which later inspired the Victorians, share a similar design and are the products of a similar metalworking tradition. Brass or ‘latten’, the difference is purely linguistic, is an alloy of copper and zinc. The latter was unknown as a material for a large part of our history and instead the powder of a stone containing high concentrations of zinc ore was used. This stone was called calamine and was found in abundance in the region between Aix-la-Chapelle and Liège in modern Belgium.

The Meuse Valley became a centre for brass-workers, filling domestic and ecclesiastical interiors with candlesticks and kettles from the 10th century onwards. In the early 12th century Theophilus Presbyter described the process of brass-making in his book Schedula diversarum atrium, and archaeological finds from the 13th to the 15th century support his account.

Copper was heated in a crucible, then charcoal and the powdered calamine were added. A vapour containing the zinc ore reacted with the copper to produce brass. This process is called cementation and was used for brass-making until the Industrial Revolution. It remained a skilled craft and trade secrets were not readily shared.

At the top end of the market were ecclesiastical fittings like large candleholders and eagle lecterns. These objects were too big to cast in one piece so they were assembled from many individually cast segments using a lost-wax technique. Moulds were taken from wooden or plaster models. The pedestal and its lion-shaped feet were separate parts and even the bird’s talons were individual pieces, as the following examples illustrate.

At Christ’s College Chapel, Cambridge, the lions are substituted by greyhounds (thought to be a reference to Lady Margaret Beaufort who re-founded the college in 1505). The colour difference suggests these were not made in the same workshop as the lectern. Two of the three lions of the lectern in Croft, Lincolnshire, were stolen in 2008 and later replaced.

Several eagles are now missing their original individually cast talons and their loss is often blamed on Oliver Cromwell. At Wolborough, Devon, the lost talons were later replaced in silver. More recently, the talons of the eagle at Oxborough, Norfolk were replaced, taking inspiration from those of the contemporary and similar lectern at Southwell Minster. The conservation of the lectern, including the replacement of the talons, was done by Rupert Harris Conservation Ltd of London.

It was not unusual to have two lecterns in a church, as the Gospels were read from the cornu Evangelii on one side of the altar, while the Epistles were read from the cornu Epistolae on the other, as is recalled in the Rites of Durham. This is confirmed by the 13th-century writings on liturgy by William Durand, the Bishop of Mende. The locations may be situated to the north and south of the altar. In the chancel behind a screen or pulpitum, the area reserved for the clergy, the Gospel and the Epistle were sung in Latin.

According to the 16th century author of the Rites of Durham:

At the North end of the high altar, there was a goodly fine letteron [lectern] of brasse where they sung the epistle and the gospel, with a gilt pelican on the height of it finely gilded pulling hir bloud out hir breast to hir young ones, and winges spread abroade wheron did lye the book that they did singe the epistle and the gospel.

This evocative description formed the basis of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design for the present pelican lectern at Durham Cathedral, which was made by Francis Skidmore of Coventry. Late 19th-century photographs (see final illustration below) provide a view of the intended effect and its location at the end of the aisle in front of the screen. Placing lecterns in this central position became widespread during the Reformation. Previously hidden behind the screen and supporting a Gospel or Epistle handwritten in Latin, the lectern now addressed the congregation and held a printed Bible in English.

In 1539 the Great Bible was presented and a copy had to be displayed for all to consult. Freestanding bookstands like the brass eagle lectern already present in some houses of worship could fulfil the task perfectly. In the Church of St Petrock, Exeter, the lectern was placed in ‘the body of the church, to set the Bible on’. The inventory of 1554 describes ‘an egle of latten whiche ys to leye the Bible on’ in the church of Havering, Greater London.

Detail of naively rendered brass eagle's head  
Detail of the St Bride's lectern (Photo: Marcus van der Meulen)  

Of all the brass eagle lecterns in England dating from before the Gothic Revival of the 19th century and the industrial output that followed, a surprisingly large number can be dated to between 1470 and 1530. Only one is earlier and can truly be called medieval, that of Holy Rood Abbey, Southampton, today at St Michael’s Church.

From the 18th century two survive, one at Brasenose College, Oxford, the other at St Paul’s Cathedral. Less than a dozen were made in the 17th century, and none during the Commonwealth. Yet a staggering 40 or so survive from the relatively short period between the end of the Wars of the Roses and the beginning of the English Reformation.

THE DECLINE

The consequences for the church interior could not have been anticipated when Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1534. In the process the liturgy was reformed, heralding a rising influence of protestant attitudes towards idolatry, with radical implications for the church interior.

At Westminster Abbey the sale of two brass lecterns was ordered by the chapter in 1549 as they were ‘monuments to idolatry and superstition’. The supposed profanity can be explained by the iconographical connotations of the eagle. It is a symbol of St John the Evangelist, whose Gospel starts with the words In principio erat Verbum (‘In the beginning was the Word’), so there was a symbolic connection between the eagle and the Bible which rested on its wings – the word of God. The eagle is one of the four animals of Ezekiel, a tetramorph which is completed by the bull for Luke, the lion for Mark and an angel for Matthew. Depictions based on texts in the Bible were accepted by many early protestants. One of the earliest Lutheran church interiors, the chapel at Wilhelmsburg Castle in Schmalkanden, features a curious altar-cum-font supported by all four creatures from Ezekiel’s vision.

Yet another connotation of the eagle could be regarded as outright blasphemy. The Physiologus, a medieval encyclopedia describing the earth as an allegory of heaven, regards the eagle as the King of Heaven. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas wrote ‘as an Eagle He [Christ] ascended aloft into heaven’. As an allegory for Christ, the brass eagle lectern was the epitome of the idolatry which Puritans wished to excise.

The Physiologus also provides an explanation for the pelican’s significance, claiming that the bird would pierce its own breast to feed or revive its brood. In one of his Eucharistic hymns for the Feast of Corpus Christi (1264) Thomas Aquinas made the connection with Christ even clearer: Pie Pellicane, Iesu Domine. Me immundum mundo tua sanguine (‘Pious pelican, Lord Jesus, cleanse me, impure one, in your blood’). The pelican thus provided the church with a vibrant allegory for Christ, his sacrifice on the cross washing away the sin of mankind.

  Historic b/w photo of cathedral interior with lectern in dominant central position lookig down aisle and with elaborate screen behind it
  Interior of Durham Cathedral looking towards the choir in the late 19th century, with Scott and Skidmore’s pelican lectern in the location for which it was conceived (Source: AD White Architectural Photographs Collection, 15/5/3090.01048, Cornell University Library)

It is unsurprising that Puritan protestants of the 16th and 17th century regarded such objects as idols. The pelican lectern at Norwich was buried, probably to prevent its destruction. By the late 16th century, few church wardens regarded the opulence of the lectern as a fitting support for the Bible.

Of the 100 or so brass lecterns mentioned in inventories in 1536, less than half survive today, and many probably ended up in the melting pot. Many of these pre-Reformation lecterns had only recently arrived in the churches.

At Peterborough the inscriptions on the lectern presented by the Abbot William Ramsey and Prior John Malden are illegible today, but they were recorded in the past and date the lectern to between 1471 and 1496. At Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen, Norfolk the engravings can be deciphered as reading orate pro anima fratris Robti Bernard gardiani Walsingham anno Domini 1518.

The one now at Southwell Minster, recovered from the lake at Newstead Abbey, is dated 1503 and the lectern at Lowestoft is dated 1504. Among the later pre-Reformation lecterns is the one in Woolpit which dates from 1520.

No attempt was made by the Tudors to strip church interiors of these objects of idolatry on a national scale. However, many church wardens chose to replace the lavish lectern with a bookstand made of a humbler material like wood. At Long Melford, Suffolk, the medieval Rood Cross was used to fabricate a support for the English Bible.

The lecterns which survived the big sell-off during the 16th century became objects of a witch hunt in the years of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. A Puritan rage tried to cleanse the nation of its blasphemous bookrests, an unsurpassed iconoclasm smashing to pieces centuries of religious heritage.

In 1642 troops under the command of Colonel Sandys destroyed the early 16th-century lectern inside Canterbury Cathedral. Not far from the bridge at Cropredy, site of a Civil War battle of 1644, a brass eagle lectern was retrieved from the river and now sits in the local church. Whether it was hidden from Parliamentary troops before the battle or thrown in by Puritans is unknown. Similar stories are told across the country, from Bovey Tracy in Devon to Oundle in Northamptonshire. Many lecterns were not recovered until the early 19th century, an unexpected resurrection after being buried for centuries.

At Canterbury Cathedral a new beginning was marked when a brass eagle lectern was placed in the choir during the Restoration, made by William Borroughes of London in 1662. Once again the brass eagle lectern adorned an English ecclesiastical space, translated to the new function and location for an Anglican liturgy, supporting the Bible in the English language and placed in the body of the church.

~~~

Further Information

M van der Meulen, Brass Eagle Lecterns in England, Amberley Books, forthcoming 2017

CC Oman, ‘Medieval Brass Lecterns in England’, Archaeological Journal, Vol 87, 1930

CC Oman, ‘English Brass Lecterns from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, Archaeological Journal, Vol 88, 1931

T Rehren and M Martinón-Torres, ‘Naturam Ars Imitata: European Brassmaking between Craft and Science’, Archaeology, History and Science: Integrating Approaches to Ancient Materials, Left Coast Press, California, 2008

M de Ruette, ‘Les Lutrins “Anglais”: Considerations Techniques’, Actes Congrès de la Fédération des Cercles d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de Belgique, Vol 49, 1991

 

 

 

Historic Churches, 2017

Author

MARCUS VAN DER MEULEN (marcusvandermeulen@outlook.be) researches the reactivation of churches as a preservation strategy and studies church interiors. He is a member of the Centro Studi Ghirardacci, Bologna University and a member of the Future for Religious Heritage Network Committee. His book The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England is due to be published in 2017.

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