The Parish Chest

Chests were were some of the most important pieces of medieval furniture and our oak chest, carved out from a solid tree trunk, is a survivor from those days.  We don’t know when it was made, though there are hopes that we can find out using dendrochronology (that’s tree-ring dating in ordinary language)

These chests provided a secure place to keep vestments (clothing), church plate (silverware – or cheaper metals), documents (births, deaths and land transfers), or alms for the poor – or to collect funds for crusades.  In a learned tome, we read that “In 1166 Henry II ordered that ‘money trunks’ should collect relief for the Holy Land as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket”.  This would be a remarkable event, seeing that Thomas Becket  was actually murdered on 29th December 1170!  The history of Henry’s relationship with Thomas is convoluted and acrimonious.  The Pope excommunicated Henry – and there is great evidence of his contrition.  I am sure that the order for money trunks is plausible.  On 21 May 1172, Henry performed a ceremony of public penance at Avranches cathedral, where he swore to provide money for 200 knights to crusade in the Holy Land.  That fits rather better than a date of 1166!

Over 100 years later in 1287, another edict came from the Synod of Exeter ordering chests for the storage of books and vestments in churches.  That may not refer to this chest however as it specifically forbade slots for collecting money.

Of the four main types of chest, ours is the most basic “dug-out” design.  More sophisticated designs followed but it does not necessarily follow that dug-out chests are older because all types seemed to co-exist  between the 13th and 16th centuries. It is probable that the choice of design was influenced by other factors, such as the level of skill available.  Could ours be from the 13th century, or even the 12th?  If so, did it survive the 14th century raids of the Scots?  I’d love to know!

Chests were normally fastened with three locks and three keys.  All three keyholders had to be present to unlock the chest.  Were these three local people, such as the priest and two leading laymen?  Perhaps one was the Prior of Bolton Abbey (whose church we were)?   You can see the evidence of our three locks though the central one is broken and one hasp on the left is missing.  I wonder who broke into the chest?  When did he do it?  Why did he do it – and what did he find?  We’ll probably never know.

We can be pretty certain that the chest did not stand where it is now, at the back of church.  Holding sacred items of the church possessions, it would probably have been kept near the altar in the sanctuary, the holiest part of church.

Our chest may have survived the raids of the Scots and it certainly avoided the fate of many such chests during the Reformation of the 16th century when many chests and their contents were destroyed or sold to raise money for the crown.

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