Friday, February 18, 2011


I mentioned the Chester Cathedral in my last post and promised I would return to it. Originally a Benedictine monastery established in 1093, it was later disbanded in 1538, only to become a cathedral of the Church of England under the authority of Henry VIII in 1541. As typical, many changes have been made though the years to its structure to give the town of Chester the lovely church they have today.

There are many beautiful features of the cathedral worth mentioning, including the organ,

the cloisters,

and the stunning Gothic Revival features of the choir stalls for which it is known world wide for the quality of its wood carving. It was absolutely stunning!

In medieval times the custom was for the monks and clergy to stand throughout entire services, often very lengthy, so very early on, consideration was made for the elderly and infirm to give them an option of standing upright the whole time.

Here my husband was demonstrating the benefits of a misericord. A misericord is a narrow ledge on the underside of a hinged seat which was designed to support a person standing at rest against the seat when it was turned up. This way, the monks were not actually standing, but more or less leaning on a tiny ledge.  The earliest misericords date from the middle of the 13th century and are found at the Exeter Cathedral. England has an impressive tradition of misericords scattered throughout the country.

When you flip up the seats, the fascinating thing about the underside of these seats is that they were decorated with some intriguing carvings, sometimes humorous, sometimes moral, and often secular or pagan in subject. The carvings at the Chester Cathedral are some of the best surviving examples. Forty-three of them still date from 1390.
Here you see a king's head crowned and supported on each side by medallion heads with collars.

This one had a monster with a lion's head and bat's wings supported on each side by a fleur de lis.

I learned while researching these carvings that a "wodehouse" is an aboriginal wild man of medieval lore in Britain, as seen here, all covered with shaggy hair. The center wodehouse is seated on a prostrate man, and two other wodehouses are on each side.

We kept lifting the seats that day looking for more craftsmanship. We found this monster with the head and forelegs of a lion and two dragons as its body. What are these creatures doing in church--I kept wondering!

Here is a woman whose husband is on his knees at her feet, and she is holding the tip of his hood with one hand and is chastening him with some tool in her other hand. I'd love to know the story behind that one.

Finally, one more to show you: two wrestlers with marshals on each side of them holding batons, and two demi-angels supporting them on each side.

Have you ever seen a misericord? I had seen them on other occasions and wondered about them, and now I think it will be fun as I visit churches around the continent to look for these touchstones of the past. If you know of others, let me know....


  1. so very interesting! especially if you know john rutter's
    "et misericordia!" i love that there are leaning places
    called the same.


    I hope this transfered completely for you will find there a misericord carving which is suggested to be the origins of Alice chasing/following the rabbit down the hole.

    Because the carvings go back to the middle ages I am guessing that some might have to do with demons and the like.

    This 'stuff' really interests me, and I am throughly enjoying these posts.

  3. I've never known what they were called... now I'll be looking!
    Great post.

  4. Never have I not learned something from you my sweet friend. Wow I love this and soooo interesting. Can't wait to reread this and show it to my family.
    Love stopping by to see what you are up to.
    Take care and love to you

  5. Beautiful fascinating piece of history wonderfully told!! Your pictures are marvelous!! I love following this city with you!!

  6. Just remarkable, Debi – I've seen these but certainly not in such detail and not with the historical background that you share. Amazing the countless hours spent creating these. Fascinating. Thank you!!

  7. Impressing!
    How much work and effords were made to create such beautiful decorations, great!