Thursday, June 2, 2022

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

The lion and the unicorn, 1

The practice of displaying the royal arms in churches became widespread during the reign of Henry VIII, after the king broke with the pope and the Roman church and appointed himself as the leader of the church in England. Royals arms were put up in churches (often under the chancel arch, where the Rood had formerly been) under Henry and his son Edward VI, although the Catholic queen Mary I ordered them to be removed. They were brought back under her successor Elizabeth I, often destroyed or removed under Oliver Cromwell, and restored once more with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Many remain from these periods and from the later Hanoverian rulers, although generally not beneath the chancel arch but in some slightly less prominent place inside the church.

These coats of arms are often worth a good look. Though most are painted on boards, there are some on canvas, as well as carved wooden ones and examples moulded form plaster. Often they reveal work of character by a talented local artist (most are unsigned). The skill with which the animal supporters on either side of the shield are depicted is often telling – they’re heraldic beasts, so don’t have to be realistic, and the lions, especially, are often strikingly painted or carved. The artists could also show their skill in the depiction of the scrolls, leaves and flowers that are included.

My photograph shows one of my favourites. It is of carved wood and it is huge – it occupies the entire space beneath one of the curved arches between nave and aisle in the parish church at Wisbech. The arms are those of James I of England, who, as James VI of Scotland united the two kingdoms under one criown. His heralds added the Irish harp and Scottish single lion to the shield, in addition to the three lions that had been used on the English royal arms for several centuries. Since I first saw it, I’ve admired the characterful faces of the two beasts and the vigorous portrayal of their bodies. The scrolling foliage around their heads is also impressive.

The arms of James I are just one example of several that I have admired during my years of blogging. Those interested in such things might like to seek out my posts on the arms of James at Abbey Dore and those of Edward VII at Onibury. Together they are a timely reminder in this Jubilee year of the commitment of British monarchs to the church over a long timespan. Like the one at Wisbech, both of these are carved. I have a painted one in mind to post here soon.

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