Here be Dragons

You might think it strange that a witch would want to venture into churches but as you may have already gathered, I love going into churches. Well …. so long as there aren’t any people in there lol. I love finding all the grotesque carvings and the occasional pagan symbols still being used by the church when it was built. However, it was quite a surprise to find a church full of dragons.

Recently I visited a lovely old Lincolnshire town called Stamford, with 17th and 18th century stone buildings and no less than five medieval churches. How fabulous! Especially when I find one that has pews with the most wonderful carvings on the pew ends. Pew carvings are quite common and they often depict harvest plants, saints, flowers, real people or just fanciful animals, which are lovely but a bit mundane for my tastes. To my delight the ones in this church were mainly of Dragons and Lions.

People were originally expected to stand, kneel or sit on stone benches or low stone shelf that ran along the side walls of the building. Those who sat here were usually too weak or ill to stand. As time moved on these stone “benches” were later moved (or new ones created) close to the centre of the church, first as moveable furniture and later fixed to the floor. They were now thought of as a privilege and not just for the infirm. When seating was first introduced, it was only for those of high status, many bought their own chairs. Wooden benches, usually made from oak or pine, replaced the stone ones from the fourteenth century and became common in the fifteenth, as the type of pew we know today.

The congregation were seated according to social rank. The highest ranking pews or chapel chairs were close to the pulpit, the lowest furthest from the pulpit. Those that could afford it would often buy or rent prominent pews to show or enhance their status.

Enlargement and rebuilding of churches throughout England and Wales in the 15th century included the provision of permanent bench seating or pews, which until this time had not been customary. The designs of the pews varied in different parts of the country as did the carved decorations.

The carved pew ends are usually all different, even in the same church. They may have been a way for the many craftsmen to show off their abilities or perhaps they were carved by apprentices to hone their skills. The woodworkers were often illiterate and are believed to have got their ideas from the clergy.

The Dragon, a fabulous animal, generally represented as a gigantic winged serpent, crocodile or lizard, usually with huge claws, and considered as very fierce and powerful. In the western world the Dragon represents evil and Satan and in the Middle Ages the word was the symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular. Dragons were not just used to represent evil though, as their images were also used by kings and their armies on their war standards, to represent power and strength.

The Lion is associated with strength, courage, and the ability to overcome challenges. It is often seen in heraldic art and symbolises honor, loyalty, bravery, strength and leadership. Lions can also represent the intense emotions that are difficult to master such as fear, anger and aggression.

I can only guess at what the original thoughts behind these carving were but I would imagine that they were meant to show strength and inspire awe and wonder into the congregation.

I do love finding these unexpected little treasures in our old medieval churches and who could have guessed this one would be hiding dragons Happy days!

You may also like: The fascination with Graveyards

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