A mythical beast carved on a bench-end in Nettlestead Church in Suffolk.
A unicorn on a bench-end in Honington Church in Suffolk.
A carving of a bird with a reptilian-like tail on a bench-end in Honington Church.
Another strange-looking bird on a bench-end in Nettlestead Church.
The Bestiary was a book, popular in the Middle Ages, which described the characteristics
of animals and mythical beasts, and drew moral parallels from them. There were several
such books, but they all stemmed from one original source, the Physiologus (meaning
‘one versed in natural history’) which was a manuscript that may have originated
in Alexandria in the middle of the second century BC. It has similarities to some
passages in the Bible. Of the mythical beasts included there is the unicorn with
its long horn and lion’s tail, the gryphon which is a lion with wings and an eagle-like
head, and serpents with wings. The inspiration for the many wooden carvings on bench-ends
in churches that take the shape of strange-looking beasts probably came from pictures
In the early Middle Ages members of church congregations had to stand throughout
services, but seating was installed later when the population grew bigger, people
got wealthier and sermons got longer. While there was a plentiful supply of trees
in East Anglia, practically all the timber used for seating in churches was oak.
A very large quantity of oak was used in Norfolk and Suffolk churches during the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When supplies of oak began to dwindle in the
late seventeenth century other woods were used instead.
Much of the oak seating in churches has survived and shows very skillful carving,
either along the backs or else on the ends of the benches, and frequently both.
Designs on the backs range from patterns and pierced tracery to leaves and flowers,
shields and figures.
One of the commonest designs to be found on bench-ends is the poppy-head finial,
which is not the carving of a poppy, but that of a stylized fleur-de-lis. The term
poppy-head originates from the Latin puppis, a word for the curved poop or figurehead
of a ship. Animals, monsters and figures (such as those of patron saints) are also
found on bench-ends, as well as Symbols of the Passion, representations of the Seven
Deadly Sins, and subjects from everyday life.
The odd-looking ‘bird’ at Nettlestead Church (above right) resembles a snap-dragon.
The history of the snap-dragon is linked with that of the Guild and Fraternity of
Saint George which existed from 1385 to 1548. Its members promised to honour the
memory of Saint George, to keep his feast day, to pray for other members past and
present and to give alms to the poor and needy within the Guild. Its aims were therefore
religious, charitable and social.
On every Guild Day (an annual event) there were processions and pageants which included
a mock fight between Saint George (usually on horse-back) and his dragon. His dragon
became known as a snap-dragon because of the design of its traditional costume, which
in principle was a bit like a pantomime horse, but with one man inside instead of
A Norwich Museum Service Information sheet gives a detailed description of a snap-dragon
that was made in 1795. Its ‘body was made of basketwork over which was a loosely
stretched brightly painted canvas with gold scales picked out with red on top of
a green body. A heavy carved wooden head is supported by straps attached to the
body and counterbalanced by a long straight tail. A wooden pole attached to the
head enables the operator to manoevre the head, and a cord running over a pulley
attached to the upper jaw enables the lower jaw to be pulled up with a characteristic
snap. The considerable weight of the dragon was borne on the shoulders of the bearer
from straps attached to the frame. A round painted canvas skirt disguised the legs
of the operator.’
For further information on the Norwich snap-dragon see Norfolk Museum’s Information
Sheet on the subject publshed in 1984.
Below left: A winged lion carved in English oak on a bench-end in St. Mary’s Church,
Huntingfield in Suffolk. It represents Saint Mark. Below right: Back view of a
dragon, biting its curled tail, on the end of a pew in Mendlesham Church in Suffolk.
The pew with is carving is over four hundred and fifty years old.
Above: Detail on a font in Shimpling Church in Norfolk, depicting a winged horse.
Above left is a picture of a wood-carving of an eagle-type bird representing St.
John. It’s on a bench-end in St. Mary’s Church in Huntingfield in Suffolk, and dates
from the mid-nineteenth-century.
On the right is a picture of a fictitious beast carved in stone in the chancel of
Aslacton Church in Norfolk. It is probably a wyvern (or wivern) which is a winged
and two-legged dragon-like monster.