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‘Observing by the way’: the story of Canterbury Cathedral’s font

‘Observing by the way’: the story of Canterbury Cathedral’s font

‘Observing by the way’: the story of Canterbury Cathedral’s font
“The Antiquities of Canterbury: or A Survey of the ancient citie with suburbs and Cathedral containing principally matter of Antiquity in them all”
printed by John Legat for Richard Thrale, London, 1640
Canterbury Cathedral Library W2-Q-4-3

The book from which this month’s image is taken not only resides in Canterbury Cathedral library, but is also about the Cathedral itself. In 1640 William Somner published his work “The Antiquities of Canterbury: or A Survey of the ancient citie with suburbs and Cathedral containing principally matter of Antiquity in them all” (printed by John Legat for Richard Thrale, London, 1640). This work is an example from the genre of antiquarianism. In simple terms, books were produced that gave historical and anecdotal information about an area and picked out artefacts and works of art for notice. These books were, in many ways, a mixture between travel guides and local history books.

Following in the footsteps of previous antiquarians such as Stowe and Lambard, Somner gives information about Canterbury in what historian William Urry describes as “…the best and most scholarly [book] in that age among historical accounts of an English provincial borough and of its great ecclesiastical monuments.” Somner, in his proof copy of the first edition of history and topography of Canterbury, introduces the Cathedral font with the following paragraph:

Observing, by the way and that in the next place, one more piece of novelty, which because it hath been hitherto omitted and is so worthy as I may not altogether balk or utterly passe it over in silence, I must afford a place here, and that not altogether improperly, since it is a monument not of the dead, I confesse, but (which is much better) of the operative and exemplary piety of the living Donor.

He is referring to the font that was commissioned in 1637 and presented in 1639 by John Warner, a long-serving canon of the Cathedral (1616-1638) who was later promoted to become the Bishop of Rochester. Peter Munday, at the time of its consecration, described the new font erected in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral as “The fairest, ritchest and neatest font that I ever saw.”

As can be seen in the accompanying picture, the shallow fluted marble font is supported on a pedestal made up of four Roman-Tuscan styled marble columns. In the four niches between these columns stand the carved marble figures of the evangelists: St Mark facing the viewer, identified by a carving of his lion emblem behind his legs; St Luke facing towards the right of the picture, identified by his bull emblem, the bull’s horns are just visible; and St John facing towards the left of the picture seen carrying a book – the Word of God. St Matthew is not visible from this view of the font. All this is erected on an octagonal stepped plinth. The highly ornate wooden domed font cover has a four tier conical octagonal design with six winged angels on the lower tier. Christ is at the apex with two children, a girl and boy, standing with him. It seems likely that this drawing was inspired by an illustration of the font by John Christmas for John Warner; Christmas’ version is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The font, illustrated in the first edition of William Somner’s Antiquities of Canterbury, neither remained unspoiled nor in situ for long. William was a supporter of the Crown and he did his best to protect the furnishings and archives of the Cathedral from the destruction of the Puritan supporters of Parliament. However, in 1642 the font was broken up, and the figures of the Evangelists were for a time hidden in mockery in a disused pulpit by Cromwell’s parliamentary soldiers. Somner collected the remains of the font and, according to John Duncombe (1785), he had to purchase some of the pieces from “destitute soldiers”. He hid them in the attic of his own house until the restoration of the Crown. In 1660 William returned the pieces to the Cathedral and the font was re-assembled, re-consecrated and restored to its position in the nave in 1663, again at the expense of John Warner. It seems only fitting that Somner’s daughter Barbara was (or at least it is claimed) the first to be baptised at the restored font. At its original reassembly it may have been very similar to the form shown in the accompanying illustration. However, the re-assembled font that is currently situated in the Cathedral has a much more ornate and complex wooden cover. The original shallow fluted font is in situ but a noticeable difference is the order that the four evangelists are placed around the column support: St Matthew faces towards the West, St Mark faces towards the North, St Luke faces towards the East and St John faces towards the South; in the same order as the New Testament’s four Gospels. This re-ordering of the evangelists may have occurred after the font was restored to the nave in 1895/6 after a period 125 years during which it was placed in the Cathedral’s Water Tower, referred to at that time as the baptistery.

William’s obvious love of Canterbury comes from his close connection to the city. William Somner was born in 1606 and was educated at the King’s School and at the age of about thirteen he became apprenticed to his father’s occupation; William Somner (Senior) was Registrar of the Canterbury Consistory Court. In his daily tasks William, the son, would have been able to study the Consistory registers dating back to 1396. This exposure to old records may well have been the stimulus and inspiration to his study, research and authorship of the Antiquities. William Somner’s Antiquities is a detailed description of Canterbury’s six wards and its suburbs, the walls, gates, churches, hospitals, all based on primary sources. In the appendix there are a number of transcriptions of the charters and other documents that Somner used in his research of the many buildings and ancient institutions that are included in the book. He lived in Canterbury all his life and is buried in St Margaret’s church.

P.M. Mayhew: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.
Editor: Jayne Wackett

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