Glastonbury Antiquarian Society
The Holy Thorn - the history
As I am sure you are aware, both Coronavirus and concerns regarding its spread are increasing. It seems probable that from the end of this week people over the age of 70 years will be asked to self-isolate. Small gatherings are thought to be conducive to virus transmission and we have received a number of expressions of concern from GAS members.
We have decided, therefore, to postpone the final three GAS lectures of the season and likewise, postpone the field trip until the autumn. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause, but we are sure you will understand in the circumstances. As not all GAS members have email, or necessarily have the most update of computer systems, please do pass on this message to any other members with whom you may come into contact.Dr T.F. Hopkinson-Ball, Chairman, Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, Abbey Grange, Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, Somerset. BA6 8DE.
The recent controversy over Jack Stagg, Glastonbury's little stone mascot, was resolved recently when Mr Tom Mayberry, Director of the South West Heritage Trust, personally supervised the delivery of the figure back to its former home at the Glastonbury Tribunal. It was received on behalf of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, its owners, by Chairman Dr Tim Hopkinson-Ball. While preparations are made for its permanent display, it will remain in store at the Tribunal for the time being.
The covered space surrounding the medieval cross was erected in 1604. All was swept away in 1810. The building seen through the arches is the c. 1650 Market House with Court Room above and gaol and covered area below which replaced the similar medieval structure that stood opposite the Tribunal in the High Street. Opposite it is the Red Lion Inn, built within the Abbey Gateway and still with its medieval crenellation.
subsequently the elaboration of the shaft with tabernacle work and the addition of niches allows it to develop into a complex pinnacle or spire crowned with a small cross or finial, as in the Eleanor crosses
This was in part achieved by crowning the structure with a representation of the crucifixion, though subsequent destruction of this feature has tended to mask this aspect of the structure. Not only was this the most exposed part of the building, and therefore the most likely to require renewal in the course of repair, but the cross was one of the principal targets of Protestant iconoclasm in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and as a result it is rare for cross-heads to survive in situ.2
The market cross also tended to become the centre of the life of the village or town. At Folkestone and Ripon the new mayor was elected by an assembly of the inhabitants at the cross. Public proclamations were generally made at the market cross, and at Chester
"...the High Cross was the scene of all great civic functions. Here, again and again, royalty was received... Here proclamations were read out with due formality, and here the (famous) mystery plays were represented."3
The great market crosses, such as those surviving at Malmesbury, Chichester and Salisbury (Poultry Cross) were built as complete entities, with central 'cross' pinnacle and enclosing pentice combined in one coherent structure. Many such structures, however, were improvised by constructing a new penthouse around a pre-existing cross on steps, as at Norwich, Bingley (Yorks), Castle Combe (Wilts), and at Axbridge and Cheddar.
Central Somerset appears to have been particularly well endowed with market crosses. In addition to the surviving crosses at Shepton Mallet, Somerton (built 1673) and Cheddar, there were important market crosses at Wells (demolished 1785), Axbridge (demolished c. 1770), Glastonbury (demolished 1808) and Taunton (demolished 1769). The vogue for market crosses in Somerset seems to have extended well beyond the middle ages, however, so that the Dunster Yarn-Market Cross was built c.16004, the Fair Cross at Milverton (also built around the remains of a medieval cross) was standing by 17155, and the market cross at Nether Stowey was erected about 1750.
At Glastonbury the late medieval market cross was almost certainly intended to support a superstructure terminating with a cross or crucifixion with attendant figures. Not only does the massive central shaft which stood at the apex of the stepped internal structure presuppose a similar or even more weighty vertical continuation above the roof, but the architectural parallels at Cheddar, Shepton Mallet, Wells and the other great crosses demonstrate the ubiquity of this design in the late middle ages. Furthermore, the association of Glastonbury with the Abbey, one of the great centres of medieval pilgrimage in the south-west, would presuppose that its market cross would incorporate a high degree of religious imagery. It would also make it a high priority target for Reformation iconoclasts.
Sculptural decoration of the other surviving major market crosses is now largely limited to the capitals and corbels which supported the vaulted or wooden roofs of the encircling pentices. At the Salisbury Poultry Cross there are six demi-angels on the central capital and the remains of a single survivor of the matching angel-corbels on the interior face of the northern pier (there being traces of original polychromy surviving on these carvings, including heraldry on the shields). At Cheddar the knop beneath the (lost) cross head terminal still survives, and this is composed of four demi-angels wearing albs and amices, the bare-head of each framed by its wings, and holding scrolls almost horizontally across their chests. A similar knop exists at Stringston near Bridgwater, which 'consisted of four demi-angels, holding shields, but their heads have been broken off, and themselves made almost unrecognisable through defacement.6
In Somerset, only at Shepton Mallet does it appear that a cross terminal survived from the late middle ages into the eighteenth century. Rev. John Collinson described the market cross as it appeared c.1790, and recorded the benefactors' inscription,
The market-place is on the east side of the Town-street, at its entrance from which stands a very curious market-cross of stone, consisting of five arches, supported by pentagonal columns; and in the centre is a large hexagonal pillar, standing on two rows of steps, and supporting a flat roof, over which rises a lofty pyramidal spire, decked with Gothick niches, and crowned at the top with an oblong entablature, on which are the figures of our Saviour on the cross between the two malefactors, and several saints. This cross was erected in the year 1500 by Walter and Agnes Buklond... as we learn from the... inscription, on a brass-plate affixed to the central pillar..."7
Sometime after this the uppermost section of the spire, with its carved representation of the crucifixion and unspecified saints, is said to have fallen, damaging the fabric beneath; following the fall of the top of the spire Frank Allen says that the cross 'remained for many years with a truncated spire topped with a weathervane'. The present superstructure is the work of G.P. Manners of Bath in 1841, but Buckler's 1833 drawing suggests that the termination described by Allen had already been replaced in a discordant 'Gothick' style.
Given the exclusively religious character of this sculptural decoration, and the implied monumental nature of the medieval cross, it is difficult to suggest a context for the relatively small, crudely executed and apparently naked figure of Jack Stagg at Glastonbury.
By the end of the eighteenth century the central shaft of the cross above the roof-level had been truncated, and it terminated in a pyramidal weathering from which rose a 'barley-sugar twist' console supporting the freestanding sculpture of Jack Stagg as its terminal. This console is of the form common in high quality vernacular buildings in the second half of the sixteenth century, and can be parallelled in the Clifton Maybank 'corridor' at Montacute House, Barrington House and elsewhere. Given its affinities with Elizabethan secular carving perhaps the most likely working hypothesis is that the superstructure of the Glastonbury cross was demolished at or soon after the Reformation, and that the truncated central shaft was subsequently capped off with the newly made console and diminutive figure.
Glastonbury, its abbey and its abbot seem to have been deliberately targeted by the Tudor reformers, with Whiting executed on the Tor - the most prominent landscape feature in Somerset - between two of his monastic officers in a bizarre travesty of the crucifixion, and the tower of St Michael on the Tor was deliberately retained as a silenced reminder of the bells which had served the local community as their 'timepiece', tolling the canonical hours while the Abbey had stood. In this environment it is unlikely that the religious sculpture of the market cross would have been permitted to endure.
The figure, originally facing north up the High Street, stood in a very exposed position and has suffered significant erosion from weathering, though perhaps not as much as might be expected from over two hundred years of exposure, particularly in regard to the top of the head. It is carved from face-bedded Doulting stone in two blocks, with a horizontal joint through the legs and the cylindrical support between them. The upper part is certainly original, but the lower appears to be of a slightly different bed, slightly darker, slightly coarser, and with a more open texture. The front of the plinth also appears crisper and less weathered, and its underside shows traces of tooling which appear more modern, particularly where it has been cut away to reduce the weight in two triangular pockets - the latter, however, could be a more modern 'improvement'.
At present the surface discolouration serves to obscure the extent of repair, but it is evident that there are plentiful traces of mortar including both white lime mixes and Portland or other grey cements. The joint between the blocks and contiguous areas of damage have been made up with what appears to be a buff epoxy resin, this being especially prominent on the reverse of the lower block. The vertical lines of the bedding are clearly visible on the sides of the sculpture, and particularly affect the sides of the face. The extent of the Portland cement capping here suggests that the front of the face has been a cause for concern in the past, and that it may have been detached and refixed: the sinister side of the head has a horizontal line of cement which may cover a recessed cramp set to hold the stone together across the weak bed. Slightly dampening the stone with a mist spray might serve to clarify the extent and nature of the repairs.
The naked figure stands with its legs set wide to either side of a central semi-cylindrical support, broad shouldered and with the arms flexed and the hands brought back to rest flat on the abdomen and chest; the only concession to anatomy being the slight prominence of the pectoral muscles. The features of the face are relatively rudimentary, it is clean shaven, and framed by the hair which ends above the shoulders in a simple bob. There seems to have been no attempt to define the hair in any way behind this.
On the reverse of the central support, just below the joint, the lower block has the remains of a horizontal drilled hole, its inner edge terminated by the recent epoxy resin repair. In its present truncated and obscured state it is difficult to interpret this feature, and several suggestions have been made to account for it.
That it could be part of a water-fed installation, being a feed-point for a system which delivered water to a second hole at the base of the abdomen. However, this would not only require a gravity feed from a reservoir (of which there is no trace), but the second hole is of uncertain status, and given the face-bedded nature of the stone its position may be marked by an embedded fossil rather than a repair over a hole.
That it is part of a fixing system for securing the figure to the superstructure of the cross or to a another structure if the figure has been introduced from elsewhere. It could even have derived from a fixing for display after the removal of the figure from the cross.
- That it is part of a system for fixing the two stones together. A common method for securing composite-block sculptures was to make a lead or lead-grouted iron armature set within a vertically drilled hole running between the components, with outlets usually above and below the joint to allow molten lead to be poured in to form an internal support. Where an iron core was utilised the lead would serve to isolate the iron from corrosion, but if the lead did not fully cover the core it was prone to rusting and expansion and this could easily damage the surrounding stone - such oxidisation of an iron cramp could account for the extent of the epoxy resin repair in this area.
This small, rather crudely carved sculpture, entirely out of scale with the structure which it crowned, is stylistically very far from what might be expected of a late medieval Glastonbury production. The loss of the carving tradition at the Reformation (perhaps exacerbated by the generally unappreciated evidence that much carving by the earlier sixteenth century was in wood or in alabaster rather than freestone), can be seen in the generally poorer quality of the carvings provided for domestic architecture in the reign of Elizabeth (vide, the life-size sculptures of the Nine Worthies on the east facade at Montacute House).
2 Vallance (1920), p. 157, notes that, 'as the seventeenth century advanced the market cross exhibited more and more marked divergence from the original architectural forms, including the abandonment of the cross on the summit, and the adoption, in many instances, of a sundial in place of the cross.' It is finally replaced by the ball-headed obelisk form seen in Somerset at llchester and Martock, etc..
3 Unattributed quotation in Vallance 1920, p.25. The incorporation of market crosses into Royal receptions in London is attested by the entry of Henry V in 1415, when at the Cross in Cheap, a second boys' choir sang again 'like a host of archangels and angels, beautiful in heavenly splendour, in pure white raiment' and they let fall golden coins and leaves of laurel upon the king, recalling the second station of the Palm Sunday liturgy, and which boys, from a high place, threw down cakes and flowers.[Rastall 1996] At Coventry in 1474 for the entry of Edward IV, At the cross in the crosschepyng were iij prophettes standyng at the Crosse Seynsyng and vpon the Crosse a boven were Childer of Issarell syngyng and castyng out Whete obles & ffloures...' [Kipling 2003]