The castle and its furniture—Early influences upon craftsmen—Symbolism and legend—Some examples.
IN tracing the ancient furniture which once served the needs of the people we are brought face to face with the materials they had at hand. We have to realise that in all the early trades of this country local supply sufficed for local demand. It is true there were travelling pedlars, and merchants who sent their wares long distances from the seaboard inland by a packhorse train on mere track-ways over hill and dale. Such methods of supplying the commercial requirements of village traders, and isolated dwellers in castle and hamlet were, however, practically useless to the workers in wood, and especially to the makers of furniture. The materials for such things were at hand, and woodworkers had access to the forests of Britain, which gave a plentiful supply of oak—the chief wood employed. Rooms were panelled, and furniture was made of well-seasoned timber as time went on, but not until years after the days of the accession of the Norman kings.
It is difficult to point out the exact time when the carpenter and joiner separated, for they eventually became two crafts, and the cabinet-maker no longer took part in builders' wood-work. In quite early days men would differ in their abilities as craftsmen just as workmen do now. The carpenter who hewed the beams for the wooden framework of smaller dwellings, and for the flooring of the upper rooms of castle towers, built the chest which was destined to be carried from place to place in mediaeval migrations. He built it strongly to resist joltings over rough roads and forest tracks, but he probably called to his aid one who was more skilled than his fellows to carve those curious devices upon it. The panelled work and the smaller divisions in the coffer would be relegated to the joiner, the prototype of the man who was destined to become a cabinet-maker. The decoration of these early chests or coffers differs, according to the ability of the local craftsmen. At times it was merely a few almost meaningless cuts, or at most a fantastic symbol, at others it was really decorative. The artist in wood worked for his feudal lord, and sometimes very cleverly depicted the scenes with which he was familiar, and not infrequently represented episodes in which the chest was destined to figure (see chapter xxi.).
Some early examples of store chests and movable cases, which have been facetiously referred to as the prototypes of the modern pantechnicon van, were elaborately carved. Some of the scenes depicted represented knights with their men-at-arms on the march. Others the forest tracks then common in rural England, and in a few instances women are shown accompanying their lords, and the chest containing much of their house-hold goods—the latter always finding a place in the caravan or cavalcade. The smith's art does not appear to have been applied in conjunction with that of the wood-worker (with the exception of wrought iron hinges and hasps) until the thirteenth century. There are, how-ever, a few earlier examples of iron-bound coffers which legend has it are of still earlier date, such, for instance, as the treasure trunk in Knaresborough Castle reputed to have been brought over to this country by William the Conqueror. It is an ancient box with arched top and heavily banded, there being no less than eleven hinges with straps on the cover. There is another chest at Knaresborough known as the Castle Records chest, said to have been made originally for Queen Philippa, to whom the castle was presented in 1333. Most of the early mediaeval furniture, of which there are any authentic records, has in some way or other been associated with feudal times, and in most instances probably belonged to the feudal lord.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )