Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England by Marcus van der Meulen

An early Tudor lectern, typical for the period. (The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England, Amberley Publishing)

When I started researching the brass eagle lecterns of England, to my surprise there was no book about this fixture that is so omnipresent in the Anglican High church. There are books and publications about memorials, monumental brasses, organs and of course many about the English cathedrals. But about the lecterns that adorn so many these cathedrals, or college chapels in Oxford and Cambridge, there was nothing.

Churches have been a passion for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the UK, my parents would take me to cathedrals and village churches. But it didn’t take long before the roles were reversed and I planned the trips and excursions.  A young lad using his parents as personal chauffeurs, to explore the churches of the Peak district and the Yorkshire moors. During summer holidays, my Batsford Books were my companion as I traveled the country ticking off the English Cathedrals.

The early sixteenth-century eagle lactern once in Pugin's Cathedral of St Chad, Birmingham. (The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England, Amberley Publishing)

A few years ago I was asked by Julian Litten FSA to give a talk at a symposium about brass. The passion for churches I had as a kid has matured and I have grown to become an expert of the ecclesiastical interior. Professionally I study the adaptation of underused or disused churches for reactivation, to put it simply: adaptive reuse. A special concern is how the interiors of these buildings can be saved when no longer in use as a house of worship. In the spare time I have been researching the pre-Reformation church interior, or perhaps more correctly the pre-counterreformation church interior in modern day Belgium. So I was asked to give a talk about the brass eagle lecterns in medieval Belgium.

When giving a talk, it is most interesting to connect your topic to the location where you give the presentation, in this case King’s Lynn. As it happens, there are two brass eagle lecterns of the pre-Reformation period in this medieval port. Reading about these lecterns revealed some interesting facts and stimulated me to do some more research. There are the articles by Charles C. Oman, a remarkable man, but re-reading his first article – Medieval Brass Lecterns in England, Archaeological Journal, 1930 - I soon realized recent research had progressed on several points. First, there is the material, brass. The industrial revolution had changed the production of objects such as the lectern on a scale hardly imaginable today. Not only an industrial production in masses, also in ways producing the material itself. The production of brass had changed only marginally from the twelfth-century onwards, until the process of production was completely transformed in the early nineteenth-century. So I thought about looking at all pre-industrial brass eagle lecterns in England, as Oman had done before, and work from there.

In Christian iconography a bird picking its breast is called a pelican and is a symbol for Christ's sacrifice. (The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England, Amberley Publishing)

I started drawing a map, cataloging the locations, and drafting a chronological list. That helped revealing some interesting understandings of the lectern. First, the clear division between pre- and post-Reformation. Only a dozen were made after the English Reformation, mostly in the years before and after the Commonwealth, and predominantly for college chapels and cathedrals. Both at Canterbury and Lincoln, the lectern was quite literally a restoration; the replacement for the brass eagle lectern destroyed during the Civil War. These lecterns were all made in England, either in London or in the English capital of brass, Bristol.

For the pre-Reformation lecterns, the list revealed a very different stance. These were mostly, but not exclusively, located in the eastern counties, in parish churches in towns and even villages. Often these lecterns were engraved, in Latin, revealing the names of benefactors. Especially the large number of early modern lecterns, those made between 1470 and 1540, were remarkable. Hardly surprising Charles Oman had devoted an article to this group of lecterns, which he argues were made in England. His arguments, however, can no longer be supported. Combining insights I developed a thesis about the origin of these brass eagle lecterns, possibly over-identifying with these beautiful objects.

The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England is the result of these researches. With this book I hope to interest people for their religious heritage, the stories behind fixtures and fittings that can reveal so much of the history of our community.

Marcus van der Meulen's new book The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England is available for purchase now.