Newsletter 59

Welcome to our latest occasional newsletter, for winter 2020 to 2021, which is hopefully the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.


 Standing room only

The earliest churches in Britain, dating to before the Norman invasion of 1066, were not intended for large congregations, and so there was little provision for seating. The ensuing early medieval period saw the building of larger churches, and their interiors were used not just for church services, but also for secular purposes such as markets and community celebrations. In general, church naves were open spaces where the congregation stood, while the priest in the chancel conducted the service.


Altarnun Church, Cornwall, originally Norman,but greatly enlarged in later centuries

All change

The oldest church benches for seating date to the late 13th century, but it took another two centuries before they became a common feature. The clergy was usually responsible for the upkeep of the chancel, while the congregation was responsible for the nave, and when the profits from the wool and woollen cloth industries led to increased wealth, more money was spent on churches, often enlarging or rebuilding the nave. Sermons also became increasingly popular, leading to the installation of pulpits and lecterns, and as larger congregations spent more time in services, the need for additional seating grew. As a result, the secular functions of the church were removed from the nave, either to the churchyard, to other church buildings or even to secular venues.

The ends

The wooden benches in the nave were arranged either side of a central aisle, like seating in many churches today. Soon, churchwardens saw the potential for increased revenue, and churchwarden accounts show that charges for places on the benches were soon being levied. Benches could be a simple length of wood with no back support, but the early ones that survive tend to have backs and ends, and these bench ends provided a surface for carved decoration.

Most surviving late medieval bench ends are in East Anglia or the West Country. The few dated examples, mostly from the West Country, are of the 16th or very early 17th century, even though the style of carving can look medieval. Most bench ends were carved as plain panelling or with a simple foliage design, but various sacred and secular subjects exist, many of which suggest pre-Christian beliefs. They are generally explained as part of a broad spectrum of Christian symbolism, but the exuberance of the carvings and recurring symbols like the green man point to a pagan past.


The ‘green man’ is the name given to a design incorporating a man’s head with foliage sprouting from his mouth. The actual design can differ considerably, as in these two examples, both of which are from the Church of the Holy Ghost at Crowcombe in Somerset.


Simple green man from Crowcombe


The bench end above shows a simple head (sometimes interpreted as a mask) with foliage coming out of the mouth.


Green man with mermen from Crowcombe

This bench end above has mermen (male mermaids) emerging from the ears. Armed with clubs and small shields, the mermen appear to be preparing to fight. The Christian interpretation is that they represent sin and mortality. They may equally reflect the clergy tolerating the existing beliefs of the congregation, who perhaps saw them as fertility deities of the land and sea.

Apart from pagan symbolism, other bench end carvings depict a whole range of designs, from ordinary people in domestic scenes to ships, mills, animals and birds, as well Christian motifs such as figures of saints. The stunning bench ends (including some below) at the Church of St Nonna at Altarnun in Cornwall are Tudor in date and were probably carved during the reign of Henry VIII.


Fiddler from Altarnun


Jester from Altarnun


Grazing sheep from Altarnun


Relatively little is known about the woodcarvers, though occasionally churchwarden accounts give the names of the bench makers, who may or may not have carved the ends as well. In only two localities is there any certainty about the woodcarver. In Somerset, two churches – St Mary and All Saints at Broomfield and All Saints at Trull – have bench ends with inscriptions showing that they were carved by a Simon Warman or Werman. Parish records reveal that he was born about 1520, died in 1585 and lived at Bicknoller in Somerset, all only a few miles apart. At Altarnun in Cornwall, the woodcarver was Robart Daye, and on one bench end he left an elaborate signature panel, held by a winged angel. The text begins ‘Robart Daye maker of this worke’ and names William Bokingham as the curate, though the date is illegible. For more information, see


Robert Daye’s name panel from Altarnun


The survival of bench ends in churches depended largely on chance, many being discarded when benches were beyond repair. Changing fashions in church furniture also led to their destruction, and some must have been scrapped when box pews were installed in the 18th and 19th centuries (see our Newsletter 16). At the Church of St Winifred at Branscombe in Devon, one carved bench end survives, mounted on the nave wall. The others may have been removed when box pews were installed in 1810.


Bench end from Branscombe


By contrast, when box pews were installed in 1830 in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Churchstanton in Somerset, the redundant bench ends were reused to make a decorative front for the gallery at the west end of the nave.


Gallery at Churchstanton, Somerset, constructed with bench ends


Another threat to the survival of bench ends, particularly in the 19th century, was the brutal restoration of churches, often amounting to rebuilding, when anything regarded as unfashionable was discarded or destroyed. The Church of St Nonna at Altarnun therefore fared very well when it was restored in 1867, because many early pieces of church furniture were retained, as well as the carved bench ends. Inevitably, the wood of those bench ends has deteriorated over time, but these rare carvings have survived for over four centuries. Any churches that still retain such bench ends are well worth visiting.



Mermaids were supernatural sea creatures, their lower half being a fish’s tail and the upper half a woman, usually with very long blond hair. To see a mermaid was a sign of bad luck, and like witches, they were also considered to be evil, causing natural events like storms and floods, though in some stories they helped people in difficulties. As mythical creatures, they occur worldwide and have been linked to the sirens of ancient Greek mythology. Stories and legends about mermaids crop up all round the coast of Britain, with several from Cornwall.

The lure of the mermaid

On the Cornish Atlantic coast, just west of St Ives, lies the small village of Zennor, where in times past the inhabitants made a living from farming, fishing, mining and quarrying. Nowadays, tourism is predominant, and the attractions include a Museum of Cornish Life and the romance of the mermaid legend. What was probably a much older story was first published in 1873 by William Bottrell, an early collector of folklore, in his book Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall.

It began with a beautiful and richly dressed young woman attending local churches – sometimes Zennor, sometimes Morvah, 5 miles along the coast. Her visits were irregular, but she always enchanted the congregation with her fine looks and exquisite singing. Nobody knew where she came from, and as the years passed, they puzzled over why she did not age. When she took notice of a young man called Mathey or Mathew Trewella, the best singer in the parish, he followed her after one service, and neither of them were seen again.

The story might have ended there, but for an incident some years later. A ship dropped anchor off the coast nearby, and shortly afterwards a mermaid swam alongside and hailed the ship. She told the captain that she was returning from church but could not reach her children, because his anchor was resting on the door of her dwelling. Mindful that the appearance of a mermaid was a bad omen, the crew hurriedly raised the anchor and moved the ship.

When the story reached the people of Zennor, they realised who the mysterious young woman had been, and in commemoration, they carved her likeness as a mermaid on a piece of oak kept in the church. That, at least, is the legend!


Mermaid bench end from Zennor

At the church of St Senara in Zennor, only two original bench ends survive. On one is carved a mermaid holding a mirror and a comb, an image which is also known from other bench ends in some inland churches. It probably had a pagan origin, though the Christian interpretation is that it symbolises vanity. The Zennor story was most likely invented to make sense of the old carving in the church once its original use as a bench end had been forgotten. The church, with its legendary carving, is now much visited by tourists.

Belief in the existence of mermaids was once widespread, and debates about whether they were real or mythical continued well into the 19th century. Various forgeries were exhibited, and sightings of creatures thought to be mermaids were frequently published. In 1829 it was reported in the Royal Cornwall Gazette that the famous scientist, Sir Humphry Davy, had joined the argument:

Mermaids– Sir Humphry Davy proves that such an animal as the mermaid cannot possibly exist. ‘Wisdom and order,’ he says, ‘are found in all the works of God, and the parts of animals are always adapted to certain ends consistent with the analogy of nature; and a human head, hands and breasts are wholly inconsistent with a fish’s tail.’

He went on to point out the difficulties such a creature might face if living in the sea, and then added: ‘Such an animal, if created, could not long exist.’ This appeared in the newspaper in January 1829, taken from Davy’s book on fly fishing, which had been published the previous year. By a strange irony, a few weeks after this newspaper piece Davy suffered a stroke. He never properly recovered and died three months later at the age of 50.



Bridge history

Many people crossing the River Thames over Henley Bridge are intrigued by the four signs that warn ‘engine drivers’ against towing more than one loaded truck. The bridge connects the eastern Berkshire side of the river to the western Oxfordshire side, carrying the road from Maidenhead straight into the main street of Henley. This town is best known for its annual regatta on the Thames and has a number of historic features, including the bridge.


One of the signs on Henley Bridge over the River Thames


A bridge was in existence at Henley from at least the medieval period, but by the late 18th century it was dilapidated and urgently needed replacing. After much wrangling over the siting and design of the new bridge, as well as several false starts, it was finally completed in 1786. By 1816, it could be seen that one supporting pier had sunk slightly, because of the pressure from the water. Numerous repairs and strengthening measures were carried out, including two extra arches that were built in 1830. The bridge then remained reasonably stable for decades.

Steam engines

Henley Bridge was always a road and pedestrian bridge, and the heaviest vehicles would have been horse-drawn waggons, but the advent of steam engines meant much heavier traffic, such as traction engines and steamrollers. Traction engines started to be common in the 1860s and were used for hauling loads in trucks that resembled farm waggons or railway freight trucks. The engines themselves weighed over 20 tons and were capable of hauling loads several times that weight, so that they were the heaviest vehicles on the roads. Some of them were fitted with wheels that had solid rubber tyres, which caused relatively little wear to the road surface, but steam engines used in the fields tended to have solid metal wheels that could cause severe damage.

By the end of the 19th century, traction engine drivers were towing more than one loaded truck at a time over Henley Bridge, and the weight caused considerable concern. The Corporation of Henley, responsible for the maintenance of the bridge, was so alarmed that in 1903 they put up the four warning signs to engine drivers (one on each side of the road at both ends of the bridge), effectively imposing an indeterminate weight limit. In 1905 a thorough inspection of the bridge took place, which found a number of cracks requiring repairs and strengthening, but with continued periodic repairs and the replacement of facing stones, the bridge has survived and is still in use. It now has official protection as a Grade I Listed Building.


A 1920s steamroller towing a small truck on a road in Sussex


You can find a more detailed account of the building of the bridge in an article by Francis Sheppard called ‘Henley Bridge and its Architect’ in Architectural History volume 27, 1984, pages 320–30, which can be downloaded from




Because holly trees were widely thought to protect against evil, and particularly witches, they were planted near houses and churches, which probably led to the superstition that they were unlucky to cut down. It was also believed that holly was never struck by lightning, and therefore provided safe shelter in storms. Bizarrely, in some areas thrashing chilblains with spiky holly leaves was said to be a cure.

In different parts of Britain, holly was a means of finding out a future husband. One method was for a young woman to fill three pails with water and pin three leaves of holly to her nightdress. In her sleep, his vision appeared, and if interested, he moved the pails. An alternative method was for her to pick prickly and smooth holly leaves on a Friday evening, wrap them in a handkerchief and place them under her pillow, so as to induce a vision.

The holly itself is supposed to foretell the weather – if covered in red berries in the autumn or early winter, a hard winter is said to follow (though this is usually not the case).


Holly with berries

Christmas customs

Before the mass commercialisation of Christmas, decorations in homes and churches were mainly limited to greenery like holly. The practice is likely to have a pre-Christian origin, and in early Christian times people were probably encouraged to decorate churches with greenery around the midwinter solstice, just as they had previously decorated sacred pagan sites, in an attempt to integrate different beliefs.


An old Christmas card using holly as a motif


In rural areas holly was freely gathered at Christmas, and much was taken into towns and cities, especially London, and sold for decorations. Major customers were the city churches, and payments for holly appear in churchwarden accounts. This practice was described in 1795 by the Bristol poet, Romaine Joseph Thorn, in Christmas, a Poem:

‘From every hedge is pluck’d, by eager hands,

The holly-branch, with prickly leaves replete,

And fraught with berries, of a crimson hue;

Which, torn asunder from its parent trunk,

Is straightway taken to the neighb’ring towns,

Where windows, mantels, candlesticks, and shelves,

Quarts, pints, decanters, pipkins, basons, jugs,

And other articles of household ware,

The verdant garb confess [adorns].’


See also our Newsletter 29 for other seasonal descriptions of holly and ivy.



Next book

We continue to work hard on our next book, thankful that we can devote ourselves to fascinating stories from the past and block out much of the present. More news on this book another time!

Trafalgar audiobook

The full-length audiobook of Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle is now published by Hachette Audio UK (coinciding with the 215th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson on 21st October 1805). It is narrated by the acclaimed actor John Telfer, who did such a wonderful job narrating Gibraltar. Those of you who are fans of the Archers will know him as Alan Franks. It is about 13 hours long, available as an Audible download, as well as on other platforms. It will be published in the US in January 2021 by Tantor.

A wartime Christmas card from 1939


You can find details of all our books on this website – paperbacks, hardbacks, e-books and audiobooks, along with information on foreign translations.

Next newsletter

Thank you for reading this occasional newsletter. The next one will probably be in April, and we hope for better times by then. Keep safe and well.