Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

King size

I'm told that today is International Lion Day. In honour of this occasion, I offer my readers a lion – more national than international, as he is part of the royal arms of King James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) and is found in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, Wisbech. The coat of arms, carved some 400 years ago, hangs in the head of one of the large arches separating the south aisle from the nave, and if I tell you that it fills most of the upper part of the arch you will get an idea of just how large it is. The lion must be nearly as tall as an average human adult.

Royal arms have been installed in English churches since the reign of Henry VIII, Henry having broken from Rome and declared himself head of the church in England. Many such coats of arms survive in churches, but most of them date from after the English Civil War. That makes the arms at Wisbech triply unusual – as rare survivors from the early-17th century, as amazingly large, and as quite well and vigorously carved. His tongue, teeth, and so on are carefully delineated, and his mane cascades about his shoulders like the wig of any Stuart monarch. Fit for a king, indeed.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I must have seen this during my time in Wisbech. But have no memory of it. Yes, we can walk among countless buildings as if our eyes are shut. Full marks to this blog for helping us to notice the details!

Heraldic carving is not as straightforward an art as some seem to believe: an article in Tribute to an Armorist (Heraldry Society, 2000) by Anthony Wood quotes opinions belittling this art because figures are stereotyped, but I reckon really good heraldic art has had a small number of practitioners. These arms in Wisbech would probably have been by one of them. Could the artistry (or careful concealment in some corner) have protected them from being chopped up in Cromwell's time?

Philip Wilkinson said...

There's certainly some artistry about this carving. It would have needed a big corner to conceal it...but maybe such a corner was found.

Stephen Barker said...

The fine plaster Royal Arms in Market Harborough Church are dated 1660. As the town had supported Parliament during the Civil War it was no doubt considered politically expedient to have a show of loyalty to the Restored Monarchy.