The word misericord comes from the Latin misericordia, meaning pity or mercy. These hinged oak seats in the chapel tip up to form a ledge on which the monks could lean for support while standing for long periods during services. The vivid and mostly non-religious subjects which appear on these up-turned seats were normally out of sight so the carvers were free to depict everyday scenes, animals and monsters. Each misericord has two supporting scenes either side of it. They are common in many English cathedrals and parish churches as well as in Europe. The building accounts for Henry VII’s chapel in the early 16th century do not survive so we do not know the names of the wood carvers. Henry VII had intended his tomb to be in the centre of the chapel, occupying a considerable space. To make sufficient room to pass either side of the tomb the stalls originally only occupied the first two western bays and the upper row of the third bay. But Henry VIII eventually sited his father’s monument further east, leaving the centre of the chapel free.

In 1725 George I revived the ancient order of knighthood known as the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Henry VII’s chapel was designated the Chapel of the Order and more seats were required for knights and their esquires. Therefore a lower row in the third bay and extra rows of stalls in the fourth bay were added, although probably not until the middle of the 18th century. The carvings in these stalls are inferior to the original 16th century scenes.

Descriptions

NORTH SIDE – UPPER ROW, from the west

Return stall: a group of men in a vineyard, one seated on a barrel, another trying to push him off with his foot while two others look on. Bunches of grapes at either side.

  1. A malignant-looking devil carries off a monk. At the side another devil is beating a drum. On the left a woman lifts up her hands in horror.
  2. Seated male and female figures dressed in 16th century costume, the former searching his waist pouch for money. Flanked on the left by a dragon, on the right by a sow playing a pipe.
  3. Male and female nude figures playing musical instruments (damaged). At the sides are clusters of water flowers.
  4. Large winged dragon, magnificently carved. On the left a smaller wingless dragon and on the right a reptile gazing at a serpent.
  5. Two monsters chained and padlocked to a stump on which sits a falcon. One resembles a dog, the other has a long tail and is covered with scales. On one side a fox is riding a goose, on the other a goose rides a fox. Both of these are defaced.
  6. Forest scene with a group of apes whose heads have disappeared. One sits in a cooking pot and another holds a rose. On the right a man rides a unicorn and on the left is a man riding a goat.
  7. Forest scene with figures of a man (possibly Balaam) with an ass, almost totally destroyed. On one side a beast holds a winnowing fan and on the other is a windmill with a beast sitting on the steps.
  8. The Judgement of Solomon. The king sits under a canopied throne with two mothers at the sides and a dead child in front. Three councillors stand beside the throne with a soldier about to cut the infant in half. At the sides, in a small house, a woman exchanges a dead baby for a live one and on the left two women hold a live baby with a dead one in front.
  9. A vigorously carved bearded man with the body of a monster grasping a club attacking a dragon whose several heads are now broken off. Clusters of foliage and flowers at the sides.
  10. A mermaid combing her hair and holding a large mirror, with rocks and coral for a background. Clusters of foliage at the sides.
  11. Foliated corbel springing from a moulding, with water flowers at the sides.
  12. Foliated corbel with circular bosses of holly leaves at the sides.
    The following five carvings are 18th century:
  13. Foliage in the shape of a face, with animals surrounded by oak leaves and acorns at the sides, one possibly a squirrel and the other a wild boar.
  14. Foliage in the shape of a face with headless clawed animals at the sides.
  15. A dragon breathing fire among foliage, with snake-like figures at either side.
  16. Foliage in the shape of a face with flowers and defaced figures at the sides.
  17. A grotesque face formed by foliage with ivy at the sides.

NORTH SIDE - LOWER ROW, from the west

  1. Two savages, one wearing a helmet, fighting with clubs. Bosses of acanthus leaves at the sides.
  2. David and Goliath. David stands beside the headless body of the giant and an elaborate, but damaged, scene probably showed him returning in triumph bearing the head of Goliath. On the right side Goliath is shown peering over the walls of a castle and on the left David discharges his sling with a man and woman looking on from a castle.
  3. Grotesque head with foliage issuing from its mouth, with bosses of foliage at the side.
  4. The Tudor Royal arms surmounted by a crown. The left hand supporter, a dragon, is perfect but its companion has disappeared. On the right side a Tudor rose, and on the left a pomegranate.
  5. Various types of foliage springing from a moulding.
  6. Various types of foliage springing from a moulding.
  7. Various types of foliage springing from a moulding.
    The following ten carvings are 18th century:
  8. Two seated children with a tree between them. One possibly holds an apple.
  9. Damaged image, possibly a female monster, with headless dragons at the sides.
  10. Two winged dragons fighting.
  11. Two bearded lions springing from foliage.
  12. A lion’s head formed by foliage.
  13. A lion’s head formed by foliage with two dogs on either side.
  14. A phoenix rising from the flames, with serpents at each side.
  15. Two fire breathing dragons with heads entwined.
  16. A snarling bear and another, now headless, animal.
  17. Foliage flanked by open flowers.

SOUTH SIDE - UPPER ROW from the west

Return stall: a savage family, two parents and four children, all nude, with vines in the background.

  1. A winged devil seizes a tonsured clerk for the sake of the money bag he carries. Coins spill out of the bag. On the right are fighting cocks and on the left a monkey beating a drum.
  2. A woman gives a man a box on the ear for grasping her dress. Clusters of flowers are shown at either side.
  3. Samson forcing open the lion’s jaws. On the right is a lion licking itself and on the left a lion slays a lamb.
  4. In the centre a large winged dragon. On the right a beast gazes at a serpent and on the left a wingless dragon is coiled up.
  5. Cluster of foliage springing from a moulding.
  6. Wild man in a doublet, with scales on his arms and legs, wielding a club to fight off dragons, one now headless. Serpents emerge from rocks below. On the right Samson sits astride a lion, tearing asunder its jaws. On the left is a small boy with three birds, possibly cranes.
  7. Naked and bearded savage attacked by a bear. Flowers at the sides.
  8. This misericord, a cluster of 13th century foliage, is of the greatest interest, being one of only two fragments that survive from the original Henry III stalls in the Quire. How it came to be inserted in the middle of this late 16th century woodwork is a mystery.
  9. Couchant lion flanked by arum lilies.
  10. A boy being chastised by another boy wielding a birch, with a third boy holding him down.
  11. Battle between two winged dragons, flanked by clusters of foliage.
  12. Grotesque face with foliage issuing from its mouth. Fruit and foliage at the sides.
    The following five carvings are 18th century:
  13. Foliage, possibly including an animal.
  14. A face formed by foliage with a bearded face at one side and a clean-shaven one on the other.
  15. An animal in foliage.
  16. Serpents in foliage with flowers, fruit and berries at the sides.
  17. A winged dragon and possibly a serpent.

SOUTH SIDE - LOWER ROW from the west

  1. A woman knocking down a man with her distaff (a staff on which wool or flax was wound for spinning). The man tries to protect his head. On the right is a boy pulling a face and on the left is a jester wearing an eared cap.
  2. A man is thrashed by a woman with a birch rod, apparently for having broken her distaff.
  3. Man and woman seated. A boy on the right holds a bird. On the left is a naked child.
  4. A savage with a shield protecting himself from another savage who is shooting at him with a bow and arrow. Large flowers on either side.
  5. Two boys cock fighting. On the right a boy rides a hobby horse. On the left a boy holds a shield and a “whirligig” toy.
  6. Two monsters, one winged. Nuts and foliage at the sides.
  7. Group of monkeys, one feeding a female who holds her baby. On the right a chained monkey drinks from a flask and on the left a chained bear plays the bagpipes.
    The following ten carvings are 18th century:
  8. Serpents in foliage with clawed monsters with human heads at the sides.
  9. A winged beast, with flowers at either side.
  10. A grinning lion, with flowers at either side.
  11. A face with foliage issuing from the mouth.
  12. A large globe shaped flower with open flowers at the sides.
  13. Possibly a serpent attacking a bird in a tree.
  14. A wild boar attacked by a monster.
  15. A mass of serpents heads, with a bearded human head and ivy leaves at one side.
  16. Foliage and possibly serpents.
  17. Foliage with a coiled serpent on one side.

Photographs can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.

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