Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 3.4-3.5: Gothic Sedilia in Chatham, Tilty, and Rochester

Plates: Plate 3.4 is divided into three numbered figures illustrating aspects of Chatham Church, Kent, in three panels, engraved by James Basire after drawings taken on the spot by Jacob Schnebbelie. The large, lower panel, labeled Figure II, shows the triple sedilia on the south side of the chancel of the church of St. Mary the Virgin, which were revealed by demolition works and recorded by Schnebbelie shortly before their destruction in 1788. The smaller panels at the top of the plate show the demolition in progress (Figure I, upper left) and details of the decoration of the sedile on the eastern side (Figure III, upper right).

The two figures on Plate 3.5 depict Tilty Church, Essex and Rochester Cathedral, respectively. The upper figure is signed by Jacob Schnebbelie, while the plate is signed outside the frame by John Carter and by James Basire as engraver. The smaller panel at the top of the plate shows the triple sedilia on the south side of the chancel of Tilty Church in Essex. The large, lower panel shows the triple sedilia on the south side of the chancel of Rochester Cathedral (Kent). There are three details of the decoration of the sedilia at Rochester Cathedral representing three coats of arms. They are situated below the depiction of the sedilia but within the frame.

Objects: The Chatham Church sedilia represented by Plate 3.4 were likely constructed in the early to mid-thirteenth century. They were demolished in 1788, shortly after Jacob Schnebbelie made the drawings engraved on this plate.

The Tilty Church sedilia represented by plate 3.5 are also likely to be from the thirteenth century and remain in situ to this day. The Rochester Cathedral sedilia are of later make, constructed between 1373 and 1389, and also remain in situ.


Plate 3.4:
Top right:
Vol. III. Pl. IV.

Schnebbelie del. Basire Sc.

No. I. The Chancel of Chatham Church, Kent, as it appear’d the 13th March 1788.

II. Three Stalls beautifully ornamented, discover’d in taking down the above Chancel.

III. Figures &c. half the size of the originals in the Pannel [sic] of the first Stall.

Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament, 23 April 1790.

Plate 3.5:
Top right: Vol. III. Pl. IV.

Below first panel: J. Schnebbelie del.

Center: Stalls in TILTEY Church, Essex.

J. Carter del.

J. Basire Sc.

Stalls in the CHOIR of Rochester Cathedral.

Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament, 23 April 1790.

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plates 3.4-3.5.

Commentary by Richard Goddard:

The two plates numbered 4 and 5 near the beginning of volume 3 of Vetusta Monumenta were both published by the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) on 23 April 1790. Together, plates 4 and 5 consist of a set of five illustrations of which figure II on plate 4, entitled “Three Stalls beautifully ornamented, discover’d in taking down the above Chancel,” is the centerpiece in terms of both position and importance. This plate depicts the triple sedilia formerly situated at the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Chatham which, according to the draftsman, Jacob Schnebbelie, who also wrote the related explanatory comments, were originally rediscovered in 1785 and then plastered over. The sedilia were revealed again at the time of the almost complete demolition of the church in 1788. Knowledge of this event led Schnebbelie to make a record of them on 13 March of that year. The two other, smaller figures in the upper part of plate 4 show a wider view of the demolition in progress and details of the decoration of the sedilia. Plate 5 contains two further figures illustrating sedilia from Tilty Church in Essex and from Rochester Cathedral. The purpose of these figures is to contextualize the illustrations from Chatham church by showing, respectively, a less and a more decorated set of Gothic sedilia from approximately the same period.

Plates 4-5 from volume 3 of Vetusta Monumenta are related at different levels to the immediately preceding three plates. Numbers 1 and 2 show the decayed Gothic interior of Magdalen Chapel, a former leper hospital, near Winchester. The third one is a composite plate showing the exterior, plans and details of the interior decoration of the chapel, and includes as figure H a melancholy view of a partially bricked up and overgrown medieval doorway. This figure, like figure I of the Chatham church in plate 4, which shows the progressive demolition of that church, was intended by the draftsman to elicit an emotional response in the eyes of the viewer. The sense of decay and loss evoked by Schnebbelie renders these plates a form of “rescue illustration,” which not only preserved something of their subjects, but also lent emotional support to Richard Gough’s personal mission as director of the SAL not only to study but also to protect the nation’s material and particularly medieval heritage.

Richard Gough (1735-1809) had been elected director of SAL in 1771, and soon found himself treading a fine line between those fellows who were focused on the aesthetic appreciation of classical antiquity and celebration of the British monarchy, and those who shared his own philosophy of antiquarianism, as laid out in his Anecdotes of British Topography, letters to The Gentleman’s Magazine and his private correspondence (Goddard 2016, 150-156). This tension between different factions in the leadership of the SAL led to a balanced approach in the Society’s print publications during this period, where Vetusta Monumenta took a middle path between large, prestigious standalone prints of subjects related to royalty, and the quarto format of Archaeologia with less finished engravings and many smaller objects. On its revival by Gough from 1780, Vetusta Monumenta first published a series of monuments from Westminster Abbey drawn by the Society's engraver, James Basire (Plate 2.29-35), followed in 1786 by further medieval subjects drawn by the Society’s newly appointed professional draftsman, John Carter (Plates 2.36-372.39-40). The name of Jacob Schnebbelie first appears in the context of six prints of monuments from Winchester Cathedral dated to 1789 (Plates 2.45-50), the year before the publication of the plates 3.4-5.

It seems that Schnebbelie had by 1789 already been employed for some years in traversing the country in order to take drawings for Gough’s private publication, Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain, since one of the few dated prints in this collection, the monument of Archbishop Morton at Canterbury Cathedral, is signed “Schnebbelie 1787” (Gough 1796, volume 2.2, Plate 121, p. 342). This is also the date of Schnebbelie’s first surviving correspondence with Richard Gough in SAL’s manuscript collections. Following John Carter’s abrupt resignation from SAL at the Council meeting on 19 December 1785 (SAL Council  Minutes III.14), Schnebbelie effectively replaced him as the principal draftsman for antiquarian objects and monuments as of 12 April 1788, when he is mentioned in the Council minutes for the first time (III.77). This appointment was almost certainly through the influence of Gough, for whom Schnebbelie continued also to work as the main draftsman on Sepulchral Monuments until his tragic death at the age of 31 on 21 February 1792.

Schnebbelie, like Carter, considered himself an antiquarian as well as an artist, as is clear from his explanatory notes published with these plates as well as the set that preceded them (Plates 3.1-3). The notes to Plates 3.4-5 imply that he went to Chatham on his own initiative to record the church before its destruction for the purpose of preserving knowledge of the particularly fine decoration of the sedilia, which he was able to compare to others he had viewed on his travels. One of these comprised the sedilia from Tilty Church in Essex, which he drew for the upper panel of plate 3.5. The larger panel on plate 5, which depicts the sedilia from Rochester Cathedral, is signed by John Carter. It is, however, also possible that Schnebbelie visited Chatham on behalf of Richard Gough, since his written description of the sedilia has survived among Gough’s personal papers (Bodleian Library, MS Gough Kent 22).

All five of the drawings for plates 4-5 seem to have been financed privately, probably by Gough, as they were only specifically mentioned in the Council minutes and the Audit Book of SAL in the context of these engravings. James Basire, the Society’s engraver, had quoted the following costs to engrave these drawings at the Council meeting on 27 March 1789 (SAL Council Minutes III.100): the large panel depicting the sedilia at Chatham (8 guineas); the demolition of the chancel of the church (4 guineas); the details of the first eastern sedile (2 guineas); Tilty Church (3 guineas); and the “Rochester confessional” (3 guineas). These estimates give an idea of the relative complexity of the five panels from the perspective of both engraver and draftsmen.

“Sedilia” is now the recognized term for an architectural feature which eighteenth-century English antiquaries found difficult to identify, since these monuments seem no longer to have been used after the Reformation and many of them had been covered up during this period or during the Commonwealth. This unfamiliarity explains the appending to Schnebbelie’s explanatory comments of a letter to the SAL from David Wells, a fellow of the Society who is not otherwise known for his antiquarian publications and is best known for the Dutch water garden at his estate in Burbage, Leicestershire. In this lengthy communication, Wells refuted the notion that these seats were “confessionaries or confessionals,” and correctly concluded that:
…these Stone Seats were originally designed for the three officiating priests at solemn mass or vespers; and these priests were of three different dignities, to wit, the celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon, who sate there in at certain intervals of the public worship, or during the performance of some musical anthem; consequently I think they might be called the stalls. Moreover, their use must be obvious to any one who has been present at the church ceremonies in catholic countries; where to this day moveable chairs are employed with more conveniency for the same intention. (Wells 1790, 5)
The term "stalls" was retained by SAL here and in later publications to refer to sedilia, for example, in the article and illustration of the “Stalls in the Church of Upchurch, Kent”, published a few years later in Archaeologia  (Denne, 1796, Plate 11, p. 101). The term "sedilia" only came to be used with this specific meaning from the late eighteenth century (Cameron, 2015a).

Although the illustration of the exquisitely decorated triple sedilia from Chatham is the centerpiece of plate 3.4, the eye is first attracted to the much smaller figure I. This is not only because of its position, but also because it contains five human figures in action. Three of these figures represent workers smashing up the roof of the chancel with pick axes. This deliberately contrasts with the two gentlemen below, one of whom is pointing to the sedilia. These figures are most probably imaginary, but they are nevertheless evocative. The viewer of the plate can envisage the feelings of two antiquarian gentlemen, such as Gough and Wells, discussing the decoration of the sedilia and the rib-vaulting and chancel arch with its lozenge motifs above their heads, and deploring their imminent disappearance.

The demolition of old Chatham church was arguably not an act of wanton vandalism or insensitive modernizing, as subsequently resisted by Gough in the cases of Durham and Salisbury cathedrals. It was rather viewed by contemporaries as a practical necessity, as described in the fourth volume of the octavo edition of Edward Hasted’s The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent:
The east end of the church was all that remained lately of the above mentioned building; the north and south isles being of a more modern date, for the dock and navy establishments here having been so greatly enlarged, the inhabitants became so numerous, that the old church was by no means capable of holding them…. those who resorted to it were much straitened for room, insomuch, that in 1788, the whole of the church was pulled down, excepting the steeple part, and rebuilt with brick on a much larger scale. (Hasted 1796, 4.202-203)
Schnebbelie’s view of the demolition could nevertheless serve in the context of Vetusta Monumenta as an unspoken symbol of the continuing destruction of medieval building fabric throughout the country.

The centerpiece illustration of the triple sedilia at Chatham in figure II of plate 4 depicts both their already damaged state and the significant amount of surviving carved bas relief decoration, which Schnebbelie correctly identified in his explanatory comments as both important and unusual, especially for a church of that size. Sedilia had first appeared in the British Isles in the twelfth century as a utilitarian feature for seating officiating clergy on the south side of the chancel. The number of seats generally ranged from one in small churches to five in large churches and cathedrals, with three being the most typical number. In the course of the thirteenth century, they increasingly became part of the decorative architectural scheme of churches, where they can be viewed as a development in a practical, three-dimensional form of the blind arcades which had already been used to ornament blank walls in the Romanesque period (Cameron 2017).

Schnebbelie described the originally brightly colored bas reliefs in such detail in his explanatory comments that it is unnecessary to add more than two points here. The first point may explain the differing decoration in each of the three seats, since it has been suggested that “the lavish carving of the east set, which had swirling vegetation with animal motifs,” and so contrasted with the diaper ornament of the western seats, “may reflect how sedilia were set up with hanging fabrics to emphasize the priest’s place” (Cameron 2015, 55). The second point is the art historical context, which has been described as “almost certainly related to the London court of the late thirteenth century,” and, in the case of the diapering, as finding “its ultimate source in Westminster Abbey” (Cameron 2015, 131). It can finally be noted that Schnebbelie subtly signed his drawing on a stray brick in the bottom right-hand corner. This is highly unusual for such an illustration, and therefore a sign of the artistic value attached to this work by the draftsman.

The composition of plate 5 like that of plate 4 is also unbalanced for a reason. The upper panel showing the sober decoration of the triple sedilia at Tilty in Essex is half the size of the panel depicting the extravagant sedilia from Rochester Cathedral. The parish church of St. Mary the Virgin at Tilty derives from the capella extra portas of a Cicestercian Abbey which formerly stood nearby. The chancel has been dated to around 1340 (An Inventory 1916, 320-322), which approximately corresponds to the style of the tracery. The arches of the Tilty sedilia have much simpler head molds than those at Chatham, where each sedile has a triple arch with a central quatrefoil roundel. They are, however, ornamented with some tracery of unusual design. There is no visible decoration on the backs of the sedilia at Tilty, although they may have been painted. In the contemporary church, they are whitewashed, together with the remainder of the wall. There is a niche with a piscina on the east side of the Tilty sedilia. This basin was used for disposing of the water used in the ablutions, and is frequently found in this position. There may originally also have been a piscina in the same position at Chatham, as speculated by Schnebbelie in his explanatory comments.

The larger panel in plate 5 shows the triple sedilia located in the third bay from the east on the south side of the presbytery of Rochester Cathedral in Kent. They were the sedilia for the cathedreal's main altar. They remain in situ and are in good condition, except for the paintings of bishops on the back of the seats, the last traces of which were lost in the course of the nineteenth century (Palmer 1897, 94). The sedilia were drawn by John Carter at an unknown date, but it is likely that this drawing was commissioned by Richard Gough specifically for Vetusta Monumenta in order to provide a contrast with the Tilty and more specifically the Chatham sedilia.

The differences between the Rochester and the other sedilia illustrated in these two plates are explained not only by the higher status Rochester Cathedral compared to the local churches and chapels, but also by their date. The sedilia at Rochester have been dated as “late-fourteenth-century Perpendicular, corroborated by the arms of Bishop Brinton (1373-89) over the west seat” (McAleer 1999, 148). They therefore probably date to approximately a generation after the Chatham and Tilty sedilia. The choice of these three sedilia effectively illustrates the Geometric, Decorated and Perpendical styles of Gothic architecture.

The most notable physical aspect of the Rochester sedilia is that they are built separately against the wall in front of a window bay, compared to those at Chatham and Tilty which are embedded in the wall of the chancel. There are also no steps up towards the east end as in the smaller churches. The canopies of the Rochester sedilia are particularly highly decorated, with trefoil arches under ogee crocketed gables with foliate finials. Within each of the three arches, there is a coat of arms within a quatrefoil roundel with three lengthened trefoil spandrels. The arms are those of the diocese of Rochester, of the historic deanery and chapter of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Canterbury, and of Bishop Brinton (Hope 1898, 310-311). Behind the gables, there is a carved superstructure resembling the wall of a great church with crocketed pinnacles in place of buttresses, and between these are alternating larger and smaller lancet windows. This wall is surmounted by a double entablature, with spaced rose plaques under continuous quatrefoil plaques, as if under a roof. The actual cathedral wall and window are visible behind the sedilia.

The extent and the style of ornamentation of the sedilia from Rochester are not dissimilar from the wooden sedilia from the south side of the chancel of Westminster Abbey which were illustrated in Vetusta Monumenta Plate 2.32. The Westminster sedilia have four trefoil arches with crocketed straight-sided gables and embedded double-trefoil roundels. There are also pinnacles between the arches, with additional, longer crocketed pinnacles at each end. Two of the paintings at the back of the sedilia at Westminster survived destruction during the English Civil War and are still visible today (Wrapson 2006). Joseph Ayloffe did not recognize the function of the Westminster sedilia for a number of reasons. First, they are a unique case of a surviving wooden example. Second,they were considered to be a monument to King Sebert, legendary founder of the Abbey, as they are situated over his tomb (Cameron 2016, 142-143). The sedilia at Rochester are also flanked by monumental tombs in the two bays on either side. Finally, it seems that it was only as a result of the work of Schnebbelie and Wells that the importance and range of Gothic sedilia in England were recognized and documented.

Works Cited:

Cameron, James Alexander. 2015. "Sedilia in Medieval England." PhD diss. University of London (The Courtauld Institute of Art).

------. 2015a. "'Sedilia in choro sunt fracta': The Medieval Nomenclature of seating in churches." Journal of the British Aechaeological Association 168.1, 2015, 111-130.

------. 2016. "Competing for dextra cornu magnum altaris: funerary monuments and liturgical seating in English churches," 137-154, in Fifty Years after Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture, ed. Ann Adams and Jessica Barker. London: Courtauld Books Online.

------. 2017. “The Englishness of English Sedilia.” British Art Studies 6 (June).

Denne, Samuel. 1796. “Observations on a Triple Stone Seat at Upchurch in Kent, read on 19 February 1795.” Archaeologia 12: 101-06.

Goddard, Richard. [2016]. “Drawing on Copper": the Basire Family of Copper-plate Engravers and their Works. Maastricht: Maastricht University Press.

Gough, Richard. (1768) 1780. British Topography. London: T. Payne & son, and J. Nichols.

------. 1786-96. Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain applied to illustrate the history of families, manners, habits, and arts, at the different periods from the Norman Conquest to the seventeenth century. 2 vols. London: Nichols.

Hasted, Edward, 1796. The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent. 12 vols. Canterbury: W. Bristow.

Hope, W. H. St. John, 1898. “The Architectural History of the Cathedral Church and Monastery of St. Andrew at Rochester.” Archaeologia Cantiana 23.

“An Inventory.” 1916. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, volume 1, North West. London.

McAleer, Phillip, Rochester Cathedral, 604-1540: An Architectural History. Toronto.

Palmer, G.H. 1897. The Cathedral Church of Rochester. A Description of its Fabric and a brief History of the Episcopal See. London. George Bell.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Manuscript Audit Book (financial records).

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

------. 1754-. Minutes of the Council of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Wrapson, Lucy. 2006. "The Materials and Techniques of the c. 1307 Westminster Abbey Sedilia." In Medieval Painting in Northern Europe: Techniques, Analysis, Art History: Studies in Commemoration of the 70th Birthday of Unn Plahter, edited by J. Nadolny, 114–136. London.