by Rachel Sycamore (Jan 2023)
Chests were among the most important and prevalent forms of medieval furniture, with many still extant in parish churches today. Originally, they provided secure containers in which to store vestments and the sacraments, collecting alms for the poor, or funds for crusades. Frequently made from oak or elm, sometimes pine, poplar or deal, they were constructed as heavy, immovable objects intended to keep their contents dry and secure from thieves and vermin. Wealthy households often used church chests as safe depositories for their valuables, believing the sanctity of the church would provide protection against theft.
Figure 1: The Medieval Dug-out Chest at St. James, Ashleworth, Gloucestershire (Sycamore 2022).
There are four main types of church chests: dug-out chests made by hollowing out a solid tree trunk; boarded chests formed from six large boards nailed together; clamped chests so called because their front and back each comprise a large board (or boards) clamped between two wide stiles; and panelled chests made from loose panels inserted within a frame to allow free movement of the wood. The latter appears in the 16th century to overcome the problem of shrinkage-splits occurring in other types. Some chests are a combination of two types; early studies assumed they evolved in sequence, but dendrochronology (tree-ring) dating has shown that different styles co-existed between the 13th and 17th centuries. It is therefore more likely that the choice of design was influenced by levels of skill, use, cost and preference. The dug-out type of chest was previously confined to the earliest period of chest chronology, and considered ‘primitive’, ‘crude’ and devoid of technical skill, but recent research by the author has presented evidence that contradicts this theoretical framework established by early scholars.
Following the Norman Conquest, the church chest underwent a process of transformation in complying with various edicts issued by kings and popes, which affected their form, function, significance and even their physical position in the church. In 1166, as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket, King Henry II issued orders for ‘money trunks’ to be placed near the altar to collect relief for the Holy Land. They were to be fastened with three locks and three keys: one for the bishop, one for the priest and one for a religious layman, who each had to be present to unlock the chest. Many chests had money slots cut into their lids, and in return for contributing alms parishioners would be granted remission for their sins. A further edict in 1287, issued by the Synod of Exeter, ordered chests for the storage of books and vestments in churches, but banned their use for the collection of money for crusades, and so existing money slots were covered up.
Figure 2: The Boarded Chest at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Redmarley, Gloucestershire (Sycamore 2022).
Since many chests held sacred items of church accoutrements, they too were made sacrosanct; this explains why they originally stood next to the altar, the most sacred part of the church. During the English Reformation many church chests and their contents were destroyed or sold to raise money for the crown, but some chests, particularly those in rural or remote areas, escaped destruction and remain in parish churches to this day. Some were gallantly hidden in crypts, belfries, or even streams.
Conservation Issues and Concerns
Many churchwardens and members of the congregation face a challenge as to how to look after the legacy of the church chest. Often chests have been relocated to the rear of the church (if they can be moved) and used to store flower-arranging equipment, vases and Christmas decorations; many have water-stains on their lids, broken hinges and missing locks, filled with mice droppings, decaying fabric and dust.
The weatherworn dug-out chest at Foy Church in Herefordshire lies hidden from view in the belfry, open to the elements (Fig. 3). It is believed to have been hidden here from Oliver Cromwell’s men during the Commonwealth, but as the only way up to the chest is via a very narrow, spiral staircase, the chest must have been hoisted up into the belfry prior to the present flooring being fitted.
Figure 3: The 13th century dug-out chest in in the belfry at St Mary’s Church, Foy, Herefordshire (Sycamore 2019).
As part of research for a Master’s by Research degree (MRes) in Medieval Archaeology, a total of 139 church chests in Herefordshire and 93 church chests in Worcestershire have been systematically recorded by the author. Around half were found to be poorly looked after and timber decay was prevalent.
Many chests provide an undisturbed home for rodents and furniture beetles, whose grubs can live inside the timber, chomping away unseen for anything up to five years. They then pupate and hatch just below the surface, emerging from their flight holes as little brown beetles. These have a few days to mate before re-laying their eggs in old flight holes. So continues the cycle until there is no nutrition remaining in the wood and it is reduced to a crumbling mass of dry ‘honeycomb’.
Woodworm favours sapwood, the timber just below the bark of the tree, but they will also attack heartwood if the conditions are right. Generally, relative humidity levels of around 60 per cent are required for the eggs to hatch and for pupation to occur. In a house or office environment it is usually possible to reduce moisture to below this amount, however it may be difficult in a church. If a chest is to remain in a damp environment, the only recourse may be a proprietary chemical treatment to break the cycle and protect the timber from further decay.
Tell-tale signs of active woodworm include piles of gritty crumbs (frass; the regurgitated wood from the beetles) on the floor beneath the chest and flight holes which appear brighter in colour where pupa have recently emerged, with bits of frass beneath.
A further common ailment of the church chest is that of the ironwork becoming detached and lost. It is important that any ironwork which becomes loose or breaks away from the chest is kept in a safe place, preferably with labelling as to where it came from and when it came loose. A conservation blacksmith should be consulted in the re-fitting or remaking of any replacement ironwork; modern repairs should be obvious and always catalogued. The same is true for any necessary repairs to woodwork. Filler may be suitable for joinery which has been planed and painted, but, on the aged timber of a church chest, wood filler of any type would appear unsightly and incongruous.
Damaged timber that has lost its structural qualities should be carefully repaired with patches of the same timber, where old timber is carefully cut away and new timber inserted and colour-matched but remaining an obvious repair (Fig. 4).
Figure 4: The dug-out chest at St John the Baptist Church, Feckenham, Worcestershire, showing cut-in oak patch repairs behind 19th century replacement locks (Sycamore 2019).
A good example of caring for a chest can be seen at Munsley, Herefordshire. Here the dug-out chest has been sympathetically repaired, conserved, and displayed on a specially-made metal stand, which not only facilitates the flow of air around the chest, but also brings it to the eye level of a viewer (Fig. 5).
Figure 5: The 14th century dug-out chest at St Bartholomew’s Church, Munsley, Herefordshire (Sycamore 2022).
Dendrochronologically Dated Chests in Gloucestershire
Dendrochronology is the only reliable and scientific method of dating church chests. The testing relies on counting and measuring the growth rings in elongate samples extracted from quartersawn timber (sawn perpendicular to the growth rings), with a minimum of 50 growth rings. Dug-out chests are generally good candidates, having accessible radial growth rings in the base. Quarter-sawn lids made from straight planks with square ends are also good candidates, but if the lids are tangentially sawn (i.e. sawn parallel to the growth rings) they cannot be tested. Chests with damage or woodworm are also not suitable for testing. Elm is a more difficult timber to date, owing to erratic growth patterns, less visible rings, and being the most genetically diverse native hardwood.
Two dug-out church chests have been dated by dendrochronology in Gloucestershire. One is at St. Mary’s in Kempley (Fig. 6), and the other is at St. Mary and the Virgin in Hartpury (Fig. 7). The oak tree used to make the chest at Kempley has a felling date of between 1492 and 1522. It measures 1200mm (4’) wide, 600mm (2’) deep and 500mm (1’8”) high. Though the body is made of oak, it has an elm lid. It has wide straps criss-crossing the lid and further straps extend down the front of the chest. Numerous nails have been hammered between these straps for added security to prevent someone sawing into the chest. There are two locks on the lid, which are likely to be original. More recently a metal cage has been made to secure the chest to the purpose-made stand.
The chest base at Hartpury was found to have a felling date of between 1254 and 1286. It measures 1170mm (3’10”) long x 560mm (1’10”) deep x 440mm (1’5”) high. The lid and ironwork are later additions and the whole chest has been painted with a wood-graining popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Beneath the paint two former lock scars have been filled with new timber.
Figure 6. The dug-out chest at St. Mary’s, Kempley (Sycamore, 2020).
Figure 7. The dug-out chest at St. Mary and the Virgin, Hartpury (Sycamore, 2022).
Conservation Guidelines for Chests
Minimum requirements for the conservation of church chest should include:
• Raising the chest up from the ground on wooden bearers or a stand.
• Allowing a good airflow around the whole chest, including the underside.
• Regular, gentle removal of debris and dust from surfaces inside and outside.
• Placing the chest away from damp stone walls and from direct sources of heat, as movement caused by frequent changes of temperature can be damaging.
• Where fresh frass indicates active furniture beetle or death watch beetle, an insecticidal wood preserver may be applied by brush, injected into flight holes, or in some cases sprayed into difficult areas (this requires appropriate safety procedures).
• Seeking the advice of the quinquennial inspecting architect/surveyor on the relative humidity levels of the environment surrounding the chest and on how to keep them below 60 per cent to reduce the likelihood of furniture beetle attack.
• Recording and carefully storing any broken parts and documenting any restoration of the chest.
• Employing a qualified blacksmith or furniture restorer/conservator to make sympathetic repairs or advise on caring for the finish of a chest (this may require the application of a Faculty granting permission for the work from the relevant Church authority).
One of the chests surveyed was found to have been coated with a coloured liquid wax, or even varnished. Such methods should be avoided as they are not only incongruous to the aged finish of the chest but give a ‘plastic’ appearance; any varnish will yellow over time and flake off in unsightly pieces.
A micro-crystalline wax can be carefully applied to both the ironwork and the timber, but each chest should be assessed individually by a conservator and any treatment should be in accordance with their advice.
The Future for the Church Chest
From the carpenter to the laymen, from churchwarden to the bishop, the church chest held different meanings to different people throughout the medieval period, and given that many are now consigned to the rear of the church and consistently overlooked, they hold a very different meaning to people in the present day.
It is time that church chests received recognition for not only the workmanship that went into creating them, but also their significance as part of the archaeology of the church. An awareness of the importance and significance of church chests should ensure that they are cared for in a way that will preserve them for future generations.
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Lewer, H. W. and Wall, J. C. (1913) The church chests of Essex. London: Talbot & Co.
Miles, D., Worthington, M. and Groves, C. (1999) Tree-ring Analysis of the nave roof, west door and parish chest from the church of St. Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire. English Heritage Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report, 36/99.
Moir, A. (2022) Dendrochronological analysis of an oak dug-out chest in Hartpury Church, Gloucestershire, England. Tree-ring services report: CHST/41/22.
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Sycamore, R. and Lewis, J. (2022) ‘Crude and primitive? Rethinking the dating and construction of dug-out church chests in Britain’, Church Archaeology, 22, pp.81-99.
Sycamore (2021) Medieval dug-out church chests in Herefordshire and Worcestershire: a systematic archaeological study. MRes Thesis, The University of Worcester.
Rachel Sycamore (BA, MRes) is a furniture restorer and conservator. She completed a Masters in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Worcester in 2021, researching medieval dug-out church chests in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Since then she continues to record and conserve church chests around England. Rachel is also the Furniture Consultant for the Hereford Diocese and writes significance reports on church furniture for churches seeking to apply for a Faculty.