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Chairs - Fifteenth Century And Earlier

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Another long spell, and historians have little to tell about chair-making. In the four hundred and some odd years which elapsed between the Norman Conquest (an epoch - making landmark in British history), until the close of the fifteenth century, only a few, a very few, chairs of historic fame were made destined to remain to the present time. Yet there is one chair that can never be left out of the story of British history and furniture making, for it is closely allied to the great changes in Royal houses, and is a part of the crowning ceremony of our kings. The worm-eaten shabby old chair now in Westminster Abbey, in its place of honour near St Edward's tomb, is visited by many who travel miles to gaze upon the relic, beneath the seat of which is the stone shrouded in mystery, yet one which Englishmen have treasured for many centuries. The Coronation chair was made for Edward I. in the thirteenth century ; it has a gabled and crocketed back, panelled with tracery work, and it rests on a stand flanked by gilded lions. The chair itself contains under the seat the Coronation stone, which, according to legend, is itself a seat, a relic of far-off times when the ancient kings of Ireland were crowned seated upon it. Fabled history tells of this inaugurative seat of stone having been carried from Ireland by Fergus, the son of Eric, who led the Dalrieds to the shores of Argyleshire. That may be a myth, but accredited history tells of its removal from Scone by Edward I., and of the stone being the rude seat of the Kings of Scotland, who, prior to its removal, swore fealty to their country's laws upon it. British sovereigns are Kings of Scotland as well as of England, and the old chair, and the still older stone seat, in Westminster Abbey, will be preserved as long as Britain's rule :

"Unless the Fates are faithless found
And Prophet's voice be vain
Where'er this monument be found
The Scottish race shall reign."

A stone seat was the Coronation " chair " of Saxon days, and now exposed to wind and storm, the crowning place of many Saxon monarchs, that ancient seat may be viewed in the main street of Kingston-on-Thames surrounded by iron "spears" to protect it.

It is not all English kings since the time of Edward I. who have been crowned upon historic seats of honour. A plain unpretentious oaken chair long preserved in Plaxstok Castle, near Coleshill, according to a brass plate upon it, was a chair in which Henry of Richmond was crowned King on the battlefield of Bosworth, after the defeat of Richard III.

In the Middle Ages chairs were few. They were still the seats of honour coffers and benches and stools were used by others. At that time there was, however, a gradual inclination to add to the number of chairs of state, and less decorative and smaller seats modelled on the form of the larger ones were provided for guests and those who held high positions in the household of the baron. Panelled chairs became lighter and some turned or thrown chairs were introduced, several of which may be seen in Hereford Cathedral (see also Fig. 7). The travelling outfit still included furniture, but folding chairs were freely introduced. Leathern cases for furniture were not infrequently used at that time during household removals.

From Continental history we learn much about the furniture of the period earlier than the year 1500. In Italy velvet-covered chairs were being made, but there was not much change in the solid wood-work of the Middle Ages, during which the chair remained a seat of honour, of authority, or of justice. In every household the Master's chair was placed between the bed and the chimney, with its back to the wall. It frequently stood on a low dais, and the seat was often hinged, a useful box being provided under it.

Many graceful and yet substantial chairs of Gothic design were made in Germany in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the carving being usually in low relief. There was an improvement, however, a century later, when the carving was better executed. During the Middle Ages some of the German seats were sexagonal and even octagonal. The folding wood chair, however, retained a strong hold. One of the greatest relics of that period is the folding wood chair of Salzburg claimed to be the oldest piece of furniture in Germany, It is a quaintly decorated chair painted red, and enriched with ivory lions' heads and feet serving as supports ; it was given by Eberhard II., Archbishop of Salzburg, to the Abbess Gertrude II. (1238-1252). Human figures and animals were often carved and served as ornaments, relieving Gothic tracery and floral relief. Biblical scenes were chosen for such decorations.



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