Montacute House is a rare survival from the late Elizabethan moving into the early-Jacobean period. In this post I wish to examine an aspect of decoration in the great hall that tells of how local villagers would deal with a particular transgression of a neighbour.
Upon entering the east entrance to Montacute house and turning right from the screens passage, the visitor arrives in the great hall. The visitor may have initially admired the ornamental elaboration of the screen itself before turning their attention to the hall.
The visitor’s eye is likely to be drawn towards the plasterwork frieze on the facing wall at the end of the hall. It dominates the upper section of the wall. However, it is not a work of fine, sophisticated Renaissance ornamentation. It fits more in the category of local, naïve craft.
Montacute House (completed circa 1601) was built by a successful lawyer, Sir Edward Phelips (c. 1555-1614). At the time Montacute was being constructed Phelip’s career was on the rise. Although, it wasn’t until James I’s early reign that he gained significant political appointments (from 1603 onwards). Then he became speaker of the House of Commons, King’s Serjeant and Master of the Rolls.
So why would a lawyer on the rise place a plasterwork frieze of a local scene of villagers implementing their own form of justice?
First of all, the image and its meaning need to be examined. The subject matter deals with a custom that was known by several names such as ‘Skimmity-Ride’, ‘Skimmington Ride’ or ‘Charivari’. In the southwest of England the event was normally called ‘riding skimmington’ (Ingram, Ridings, Rough Music and the “Reform of Popular Culture”, p. 82).
The scene is of two frames depicting the story. In the first scene the wife hits her husband over the head with a clog in her left hand. In her right hand she is holding something. It maybe the handle of a ladle which has broken off? The husband has taken out the plug from one of three barrels (or kegs or tuns) to pour himself some ale into a bowl. He is deftly balancing the swaddled baby in his left arm. A startled neighbour, carrying his gloves, witnesses the scene.
The neighbour is alert to the transgression. The problem is not necessarily the minding of the baby or the drink. The offence is that the husband has allowed himself to be beaten by his wife. The fact that he is minding the baby also brings up questions as to whether men actually did such tasks or was it another indicator that his wife was dominating him?
The neighbour is holding his gloves which may suggest he is on his way to church on Sunday or making a visit. The scene he witnesses is taking place inside a simple, wooden structure with a thatched roof.
The second scene moves the story along. Neighbours have gathered for the ‘skimmity-ride’. The man ‘riding the stang’ (the ‘stang’ being a stout pole) in the image could be the husband, a neighbour imitating him or an effigy. If a substitute rider was used it was customarily ‘the neighbour nearest the church’ (Ingram, p. 86).
Sitting astride a pole must have been extremely uncomfortable. It does look like the husband. The rider plays a wooden flute and drum which would have provided the ‘rough music’ that usually accompanied such a procession. The leader of the troop may be the neighbour who witnessed the transgression. Equally the witness could be the man at the rear, pointing his finger at the scene. The accompanying neighbours have the role of mocking the man who has allowed his wife to dominate him. The stylised, naive plants and trees suggest the time of year could be late spring or summer. The day of the week is likely to be a Sunday as they head off to the church.
A bird merrily flies overhead. The bird does resemble a cuckoo, with its fan-like tail. The cuckoo is the symbol of a cuckold. In early modern moral values, it was assumed that a man who allowed himself to be beaten by his wife was a cuckold (Ingram, p. 87). Direct sexuality immorality was a behaviour forbidden by law and could be dealt with in the church courts. However, a wife beating her husband was not an offence for the courts.
The majority of skimmington rides in early-modern England occurred because a wife had dominated a husband, often by physical assault (Ingram, p. 86).
Behind the punishment is the attitude towards men and women. A wife who dominated her husband threatened the order of the patriarchal ideal. Husbands were supposed to ‘govern’ their wives and other females in their household. Women’s natures were believed to be weak in reason and needed men to dominate them. In theory women were supposed to be chaste, obedient and silent. Although this ideal was not in reality practical and the balance of power in a marriage varied. In fact, able, strong, active wives were prized. (Ingram, p. 97)
Such women would not necessarily conform to meekness. In village life running a successful household required practical, capable, hard-working women.
Proverbs from the early 17th C demonstrate the concern of what a good wife was – is it ‘better to marry a shrew than a sheep’ or ‘better to marry a sheep than a shrew’ (Ingram, p. 98). Shakespeare explores the idea of the virtues of a wife in his The Taming of the Shrew. It is a complex area. However, one aspect to the early modern mind was the concern over the actual physical beating of a husband by a wife. This was considered a transgression of a husband not keeping his household in order.
The custom of the Skimmington Ride has its roots further back in history than the early modern period, Images of wives hitting husbands with items such ladles or distaffs can be found in medieval manuscripts and misericord carvings. Forms of the tradition occurred in other parts of Britain and Europe. The custom continued through into the 19th C. Although, the transgressions which warranted the practice changed over time, as evidenced in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – effigies of Lucetta and the mayor are paraded when rumours of their previous liaison surface.
What it does represent was the belief in the right of ordinary folk to supplement the law by shaming their transgressing neighbours. Presumably this would be overseen by the village elders.
The Church in the Image
The church is interesting as it looks like a typical Somerset parish church of the area. The battlements and crocketed pinnacles on the tower can be found on the churches in south Somerset and across England. The nearest I can connect without further investigation is Kingsbury Episcopi parish church (about 7 miles away from Montacute). However, it is not that similar and may represent another church I am not familiar with in the area or further afield. It does not look like Montacute parish church.
Sir Edward Phelips & The Skimmington Ride
So why did Sir Edward Phelips put the Skimmington Ride in pride of place in his great hall?
Frustratingly there are no records that help to draw any answers or conclusions, so some guesswork is involved.
Phelips wasn’t just a successful lawyer, he was one of the new, aspirational gentry, looking for wealth, opportunity, status and establishing a validated position in society. He was devoted to ensuring governmental order was maintained (More, ‘Phelips, Sir Edward (c.1555–1614)’). He also established himself in local politics and presided over the Courts of Quarter Sessions held in Somerset (county courts that sat 4 times a year – Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas).
With a career at court he was often in London. Montacute would have been infrequently visited but represented his family seat. The Skimmington Ride is an image of local villagers policing their own morality. The ‘crime’ was outside of the legal system, but it represents the perceived immorality or transgressions recognised by the elders of a community. It sent the message that all members of society have a responsibility for upholding social order. The punishment in this case was targeted at shaming the individual in a particular way and involved the community. It is a warning to husbands to keep order in their households if they want to avoid the chastisement that awaits them.
It also recognises and validates local tradition and custom. Maybe it was a family legend that Phelips wanted a representation of. Perhaps he was exercising some humility in a house presenting the latest taste and class distinction. Maybe he was appealing to the village elders in Somerset that they have the responsibility and right to keep their communities in order and implement their forms of justice.
Parochial control had certainly been high on the agenda of William Cecil as he implemented reform under Elizabeth I following The Elizabethan Settlement of 1559.
Phelips’s great hall strangely represents social inclusivity. At one end is the elaborate screen with the latest Renaissance ornamentation designs which would have appealed to his peers and those higher up in society. At the other end is the primitive art likely to have been created by local craftsmen. It does represent the policing of neighbours by neighbours – a useful tool for governing the behaviour of the population by the elite. The plasterwork frieze is a reminder that ordinary folk were considered in this reforming, cultured and intellectual world of early-modern England.
More, Rebecca, S., ‘Phelips, Sir Edward (c.1555–1614)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22089> [accessed 10 January 2020]
Ingram, Marin, ‘Ridings, Rough Music and the “Reform of Popular Culture”’, Past & Present, No. 105 (Nov., 1984), pp. 79-113), (Oxford: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society, 1984) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/650546> [accessed 7 January 2020]