Object of the Month

Dr Agata Gomolka, Assistant Curator: Royal Palace Reborn

An elaborately-carved oak chest from the parish church of St Margaret in Norwich.

The new medieval gallery at Norwich Castle will be like a treasure chest full of rare and beautiful things. One of the largest treasures to be on display in the gallery will in fact be an oak chest from the parish church of St Margaret on St Benedicts Street, Norwich. It is a beautiful example of medieval carved furniture. It is also an exceptionally rare survival, in fact one of the few oak chests to survive from late medieval England.

St Margaret’s Church on St Benedicts Street, Norwich, from where the chest originated.
This 1815 drawing by Joseph Stannard is titled ‘St. Margaret’s Church, Norwich’

What is especially remarkable is that this ornate wooden chest survives almost entirely intact. It still has its original lid and iron hinges. The rich decoration of the chest was inspired by the Gothic style of architecture. The façade, for example, has a double register of Gothic tracery arcades, a line of Gothic buttresses, and a set of quatrefoils. The lid displays two large and very elegant foliate motives inscribed into its surface.

Inside the chest, we now find two lockers with lids. These replaced the original till boxes fixed to either side of the interior. The lockable till boxes would have been used to store small items—to prevent them from getting lost in the vast chest, and to provide additional security. The chest would have been used to store a whole variety of items, from documents and books to fabrics, jewellery, and bags of money.

The chest in our stores, preparing for its grand redisplay. Note the detailed tracery which borrows heavily from Gothic architectural features.

The chest belongs to a small family of chests surviving in Norfolk and Kent. Ours is the smallest member of this family, but is important for the state of its preservation and for the quality of its decorative and functional features. All the chests of the group have lost their original locks and now have replacements made at some point in the Renaissance period or later. Only the lock on the chest from St Margaret’s Church, however, follows the design of the original. The good condition and preservation of our chest makes our it arguably one of the most important and valuable examples of this family of chest furnishing.

The post-medieval lock plate from the chest follows the design of the medieval original.

Learning about the past through objects remains a compelling adventure. We are working towards a greater understanding of this remarkable chest, to learn more about its origin and fortunes. As part of our efforts, we are launching a campaign to raise funds to conduct dendrochronological analysis. This analysis will help us fix essential, but still unknown, facts in our object’s biography—the date of its construction, the origin of its timber, and the processes behind its construction.

A large, heavy chest made of dark oak. It is elaborately carved on the sides and the lid, and is equipped with a strong lock.

Dendrochronological work on the other members of the family of chests from Norfolk and Kent, for instance, has revealed that the tested chests were constructed from Baltic oak, probably in a single workshop in northern Germany or Poland between 1390 and 1420, and were all very likely brought to England through the trade networks of the Hanseatic League. A similar dendrochronological examination of the chest from St Margaret’s will help establish whether this chest, too, was made in the Baltic region in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century or whether this was made locally by English artisans influenced by the style employed in these German-Polish workshops. The results of our investigation will be an important contribution to the study of this wider family of chests—and, by extension, help broaden our knowledge of the artistic and mercantile connections and wealth of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich.

This oak chest from St Margaret’s is a perfect example of how pursuing detailed knowledge about one object can shine light on a wider part of a history of a city, a region, and a country.

The chest – and many more stunning medieval objects – are available to adopt at adoptanobject.co.uk 

Every adoption of artefacts ranging from medieval curiosities to arms and armour or precious jewellery will help to restore the Castle Keep back to its medieval heyday, protecting and sharing Norfolk’s history for generations to come.

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