Wakefield Cathedral’s unique Choir Stalls & Misericords
On a recent tour my corporate guests had a three hour meeting in Wakefield, so after dropping them off I had time to kill. As well as exploring the city I headed to Wakefield Cathedral for a look around.
Wakefield Cathedral is built on the site of a Saxon church with an old Saxon preaching cross found beneath the church during some renovations in 1900 (it was installed again inside the Cathedral in 2016) . The first church was built on the site in 1086 and was mentioned in the Domesday book. A new Norman church was built in the 1300’s and the spire added in 1400’s, with various additions over the years.
It is a fascinating building but I had read before arriving about the unique Misericords, and was delighted when one of the volunteers who I was chatting too took me down to the choir stalls and showed me some of the unique carvings.
Before I go any further, I perhaps should explain for those who don’t know – what a Misericord is?
Back in medieval times there were a number of services held on a daily basis including Matins, Lauds, Prime, Vespers and Compline. The services including prayers were held standing up. Eventually kneeling for prayers became acceptable but sitting down was still actively discouraged.
Eventually it was granted that the weak or elderly could use a leaning staff or crutch but in the late 1200’s the Misericordae Act was passed – allowing a sort of ledge which people could rest against to be used during church services.
The word Misericord translates as “Pity of the Heart” or “Act of Mercy”, so the seats became known as Mercy Seats.
Seats were created in the Choir stalls rather like theatre seating today. The seats all folded up and on the underside there was a small wooden structure or shelf or ledge where people can rest their backsides and lean against, greatly reducing the discomfort of standing during a complete service.
As the Misericords were tucked away, the carvers were given more freedom of expression so they are often highly decorated. This is the case in Wakefield Cathedral with some wonderful carvings by highly skilled craftsmen.
In Wakefield Cathedral there are 39 Misericords, 11 of which date to the 1500, 22 from the 1860’s and 6 more Edwardian additions from 1904. It’s amazing to think that all the seats were carved out of one piece of oak.
Perhaps the most famous of the Misericords is the medieval tumbler – known by the church volunteers as “the rude one” – the tumbler is looking through his legs in an awkward position and apparently the fig leaf on his bottom was added at a later date in Victorian times as an act of modesty!
It is not just the Misericords that are worth a look, but some of the carvings on the choir stalls are superb artworks. Including a very detailed “Green Man”. There are also green men carved on the misericords – one from Victorian times and the other from the first misericords from 1500. The image below is the version from the 1500.
It is believed that the green man is a formerly pagan symbol that was integrated into the Christian religion and can now be seen in many churches and religious buildings.
Other Misericords of interest include an Ox among oak leaves and acorns from the 1860 iteration - the Ox is the religious symbol for the evangelist St.Luke.
The Eagle displaying its wings, again from the 1860’s and the religious symbol of St John the evangelist.
A geometric flower from the 1860’s which maybe an attempt at a Yorkshire/Tudor rose?
I would recommend taking a look yourself. They are quite fragile and the Cathedral do ask for you to ask a member of staff before attempting to view them.