16.08.02, Tracy, et al., Britain's Medieval Episcopal Thrones

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Bradford Lee Eden

The Medieval Review 16.08.02

Tracy, Charles, with a chapter by Andrew Budge. Britain's Medieval Episcopal Thrones: History, Archaeology and Conservation. Philadelphia:Oxbow Books, 2014. pp. x, 186. ISBN: 9781782977827 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Bradford Lee Eden
Valparaiso University
brad.eden@valpo.edu

This is the first book to examine the medieval episcopal thrones that survive from the fourteenth century in Britain. There are six in all; a small number when compared to the thirty-six cathedrals of medieval Britain, Scotland, and Wales, but still significant in that they have never before been brought together into one scholarly tome. Four of them are in oak, and two are in stone, and they are located at Durham, Lincoln, Hereford, St. Davids, Exeter, and Wells. A sparse treatment from 1910 by Francis Bond is the only other documentation known that examines these thrones as a group. All of these chairs (except for Lincoln) were built on a monumental scale, and reflect the political and economic power that medieval English bishops wished to display to their parishioners and peers at these particular locations. All of the oak thrones were worked on and restored by the Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), and this has presented its own challenges to modern-day historians and experts.

The book begins with an excellent introduction to episcopal thrones in the early Christian church, which are also known as cathedra, sedes episcopalis, and thronus. The seating arrangement for the clergy in early Christian churches usually consisted of two or more stone benches on either side of an elevated bishop's throne, known as a synthronon. The author provides numerous color photographs of surviving bishop's thrones from the first millennia of Christianity's existence, discussing manuscript evidence on their construction and positioning within the building itself. The form and style of many of these thrones is examined as well, with a focus on the growth of relics worship and collection, finally moving to a quick reference to the thirteenth-century archbishop's stone throne at Canterbury Cathedral before focusing on the topic at hand.

Chapter 2 contains a detailed description and physical analysis of the three oak thrones that have survived from the fourteenth-century. Exeter's throne is positioned in the southeast end of the choir, and by its sheer size emphatically breaks from previous thrones and eras. A large tip-in of the south and north elevation of this throne has been provided (surveyed, measured and drawn by Peter Ferguson, Dip.Arch. [UCL], RIBA). Various color and black-and-white photographs, along with historical drawings, ground plans, and sectional elevations of Exeter's throne are included as the author describes the history, building, and persons responsible for its construction as well as its restorations. St. Davids episcopal throne is accorded the same treatment, again with a nice tip-in of the north and east elevations as well as various sectionals by Peter Ferguson. Hereford's episcopal throne also has the same description and physical analysis section, but without a tip-in (perhaps because it was removed from its original position in the nineteenth century to the adjoining arcade). The chapter ends with an addendum on the use of timber for these three thrones, given that stone was the most commonly-used material for bishops' thrones in western Europe at this time. The author speculates that there may have been a preponderance of oak in remote West-Country locations at this time (which is where these three cathedrals are located). The use of oak would also have allowed the builders and decorators more opportunities with color and polychromy, which would have produced admiration and awe in worshippers.

Chapter 4 focuses on the bishop's chair at Lincoln, which appears to have had more of a secular rather than a religious function, since the Plantagenet kings may have used it for meetings of Parliament in the chapter house. In any case, the carved lions on the hand rests along with the eight-petalled flower are quite unique, and the various colors indicate that this throne was very impressive in its original state. The author ends discussion of the four oak thrones with some miscellaneous comments on some later timbered thrones at Christ Church Canterbury, Wells Cathedral, and Llandaff Cathedral.

The stone episcopal thrones at Wells and Durham cathedrals are discussed in chapter 4, with the same care and detail as the timbered thrones but by a different expert (Andrew Budge). The Wells throne has a tip-in for the east and north elevations funded by the Friends of Wells Cathedral; there is no tip-in for the Durham throne. There is an interesting discussion of the connection between relics and bishops' thrones in this chapter, specifically in regards to Exeter and Wells cathedrals.

A number of appendices are provided that expand upon and emphasize critical information not contained in the narrative portion of the book. Appendix I and II contain representative extracts from the Exeter Cathedral fabric rolls on the manufacture and cost of that particular bishop's throne. Appendix III is written by Hugh Harrison and Peter Ferguson, and focuses on the construction and assembly of the Exeter and St. Davids thrones, providing much more architectural and design details on various restoration efforts, as well as a tip-in on levels 1-6 plans that have survived for the St. Davids throne. Appendix IV is a summary of the medieval polychromy scheme of the Exeter throne by Eddie Sinclair, and Appendix V examines the medieval evidence for Chudleigh, Norton as the location where the oak for the Exeter throne was obtained.

The strength of this book is that a number of scholars and their expertise have been brought together to document and research a particular time period and its unique products that have survived to the present day. The fourteenth-century medieval English episcopal thrones are varied in their construction, histories, and personages, yet together bring a new perspective and focus on the political, religious, and economic climate within this particular century of English history.

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