Rood Screen

by Michael Begley, 2007

All commentators point to the prominence of the rood in the late medieval church. Eamon Duffy calls it, 'the largest and most complex single piece of furniture in the late-medieval parish church... a feature of every parish in the land '. MacCulloch speaks of the rood as 'one of the most spectacular pieces of furniture ' and another writer calls it 'the most important single focus of imagery in the people's part of the church'.

We need just to be certain what we are talking about when we speak of the rood. There were three elements to it. First, the rood screen, set across the chancel arch, dividing nave from chancel, and standing at a height of say ten or twelve feet. Its lower section, or dado, stood about four feet high, was panelled and the panels usually decorated with painted images of the saints, or, where funds obviously didn't run to it, with a simple stencilled pattern. The upper part of the screen was open and the heads of the openings often decorated with wooden tracery in the style of windows. Above the screen was the rood loft or gallery. This would be about six feet wide and was usually jointed into the screen. The front of the loft, facing into the nave, might be decorated with carved images of the saints or a further series of paintings. Above the loft the big rood beam stretched across from side to side, and into this were morticed the rood figures - the crucifix, and the standing images of Mary and S. John.

So, clearly, a considerable structure. It's possible to recapture something of the medieval experience in those Anglican churches where the rood was restored in the last century, and in Roman Catholic churches where it has survived. But even so, today it remains a furnishing, and may not immediately draw the attention of the visitor or worshipper on entering the church, in the way I think the medieval rood probably would have done. That's because the medieval rood figures were the focus of devotion in a way that they no longer are.

A great deal of effort and expense went into maintaining a lamp or a row of candles perpetually burning at the foot of the cross. The figures themselves seem often to have been quite finely clothed. And each would probably have had a number of changes of costume. During Lent the images were hidden from view behind a veil which was dramatically drawn aside during the great Palm Sunday liturgy as the choir sang, 'Ave Rex Noster, Fili David Redemptor'. Throughout the year, and not just during passiontide, the image of the suffering Christ with his bloody wounds was the object for contemplation, sorrowful reflexion and soul-searching. [I will say more of this late-medieval development when we consider the separate panel painting of the wounded Christ.] The reformers would say it went further than this, and that the rood became an object of devotion or even worship. It was for this reason that roods did not survive the religious changes of the middle years of the 16c. However the story of their removal has one or two twists and turns which explain why the different components of the rood complex have had different survival rates.

Screens at the Reformation

Roods did not fall under Henry VIII's injunctions of 1538 which ordered the removal and destruction of images together, of course, with the lights and lamps that individuals and gilds kept burning in front of them. The rood with its row of lights was allowed to remain, to the disappointment of the more fervent evangelicals who regarded them as the prime objects of superstition and idolatry in the parish church. There are reports from the late summer of 1538 onwards of sporadic attacks on rood figures. In the Canterbury parish of S. Andrew archdeacon Edmund Cranmer, the archbishop's brother, took the lead in the destruction of the rood by himself breaking the arms and legs of the figure of Christ.

These attacks occurred in only a handful of parishes and there was to be no wholesale destruction of roods until the accession of Edward VI, and then not immediately. Edward succeeded his father in January 1547. Edward's injunctions giving effect to the reformed religion appeared later the same year. Injunction 28 calling for the removal of shrines, images, candlesticks etc. was to apply to all painted images and pictures on walls and elsewhere and even included images in the stained glass windows which no one had ever suggested were regarded as objects of devotion. Indeed the smashing of windows was a step which even the continental reformers - Luther, Zwingli and Calvin - disapproved of.

The government appears to have proceeded with a certain amount of caution. In February 1548 Cranmer noted that the people everywhere doted on their roods. The general destruction of roods by government order began in London with S. Pauls in the autumn of 1548, and was then carried to the rest of the country.

It was the group of rood figures that attracted the reformers' anger and their axes. The rood beam on which they stood was not always demolished, and neither were the screen with its loft. In calling for the churching of women to take place at the 'quire door', that is the door in the screen, the new prayer book of 1549 obviously required the screen to be left. However, this would have been the time when the paintings on the screen dodo were defaced - their faces and particularly their eyes scratched out - and whitewashed over.

In a number of parishes the rood figures were destroyed, but in most it seems likely that they were taken down and simply stored or hidden. This made their re-erection, after queen Mary's accession in the summer of 1553, relatively easy.

The death of Mary on 17 November 1558 heralded the final destruction of the rood. The Elizabethan injunctions of 1559 and the countrywide visitations that followed unleashed a great wave of destruction. Roods, images, vestments and anything remotely connected with the old religion were stripped out of the churches and now publicly burnt in great bonfires. This time there was to be no hiding of images, in the anticipation of a future restoration.

So keen, and one might say fanatical, were the extreme evangelicals that in some parishes and cathedrals they began to turn their attention, and their axes and hammers, to the monuments and effigies of the dead. Since these 'virtuous and noble persons deceased', as the Queen called them, had once been the rulers of society and were likely to be the ancestors of the contemporary elite, the Queen quickly stepped in to put a stop to the activities of these 'partly ignorant, partly malicious or covetous' people whose activities were seen as 'barbarous disorder'. The social order was not to be challenged.

The Queen was also becoming concerned by the forlorn, not to say semi-derelict, look that many churches and cathedrals were taking on. As early in the reign as 1560 instructions were issued for the repair of windows, and among other things ' tables of the commandments may be comlye set or hung up in the east end of the chauncell, to be not only read for edification, but also to give some comlye demonstration, that the same is a place of religion and prayer '. Bare walls were to be adorned with passages from the scriptures. It was a core belief of the reformers that it was through the Word that man might be brought closer to God and might gain salvation, and not through the intercession of saints. So passages of scripture replaced the images of the saints on the Binham screen. It seems likely to me that this took place in the 1560s rather than earlier. Had it happened during Edward's reign would it have survived the Marian restoration?

Once the rood itself had gone for good there would have been little use for the lofts that gave access to them, and by the 1570s most of them had probably been taken down. Removal was certainly encouraged by the ordinary. The stair to the loft was to be blocked and the doorway plastered over and, again, decorated with sentences from scripture.

In many places, it appears, things didn't stop there. Screens also were destroyed. But this had not been demanded by the authorities. Indeed the reverse was true : it had been their intention that screens should be retained to serve as a partition dividing nave from chancel, and giving emphasis to the two distinct functions that these two parts of the church were to fulfil in the reformed liturgy. The communion service had replaced the mass and both priest and people were to assemble for it round a wooden table in the chancel. The chancel thus became the sacrament chamber. In the medieval church the parish mass had been sung by the priest at the high altar in the chancel whilst the people gathered in the nave on the west side of the screen. Incidentally, this is an arrangement very familiar to most older Anglicans since the Victorians restored it in the 19c.

However, the new liturgy of the 16c. contained what the old never had, services of the Word - morning and evening prayer, the litany, the commination and the homilies. These would take place in the nave, and the furniture needed for them was pulpit, reading desk and seating for the congregation. Nave and chancel divided by the screen, now often boarded over, would each be a separate and self-contained chamber.

Returning to the 1560s : where screens had been destroyed they were to be restored, and where the tops of screens had been left jagged and damaged as the result of the removal of the loft they were to be made good with a decorative cresting. Munroe Cautley argued that the medieval screen would have stood slightly to the west of the chancel arch, and that its present snug fit between the pillars of the chancel arch results from the time of the Elizabethan refit and the creating of the two separate chambers as described above.

Survival of parts of Screens

The pattern of change just outlined accounts for the different survival rates of the various components of the screen complex. The rood itself, that is the figure group, was totally destroyed and not one has survived anywhere in the whole country. Here and there the rood beam has survived probably because it made a convenient anchor to nail the boarding that would have run from the head of the screen to the apex of the arch in order to complete the partition between nave and chancel. Lofts have made it through to the 21c in a number of places. Some particularly fine ones survive in Wales. Screens and parts of screens survive in number. The loss of screens is due not to the reformation changes but rather to neglect and the passage of time, or to over-enthusiastic restoration usually in the 19c.

Figures for the number of surviving screens in England proposed by various sources are hard to reconcile. All agree that East Anglia and the West Country have the highest number. Cautley reckoned 154 screens and remains of screens for Suffolk, and 202 for Norfolk.

Constable gave numbers for painted screens as follows:

Norfolk 165
Devon 75
Suffolk 53
Cornwall 20
Beds. 19
Cambs. 19
Northants. 18
Lincs. 14
Oxfordshire 10

The overwhelming number of screens that have survived date from about 1400 onwards. There are a few from the 13c. including some stone ones. I believe the screen at Thurcaston in Leicestershire dated to about 1220 is reckoned the oldest. So the question arises : were all these late-medieval screens replacements of earlier pieces or were they innovations? As you may imagine the absence of hard evidence leaves ground for plenty of speculation. Some have suggested that early chancels may have been screened with some sort of curtaining, and that it was only in the 13c. with the increased emphasis on the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament that any need was felt to emphasize the sacred 'apartness' of the sanctuary, and for the priest at the altar to be distanced from the people gathered in the nave. This line of thought has led to the argument that the medieval church became intent on excluding the laity from the sacred mysteries, and that it only regained its rightful place in the polity of the church at the reformation.

I think this may be countered by three observations. First, screens were open (in East Anglia most carried no doors either) and it was always possible to see what was going on at the altar.

Secondly, although the parish mass would have taken place at the high altar in the chancel, all the daily masses, paid for by gilds or individuals, or provided by testators, were said or sung at altars on the west side of the screen or at altars ranged down either aisle. People clustered so closely at these altars that priests complained they were being jostled.

Thirdly, it is clear that screens were not put up by the church authorities. In all cases they were the gift of members of the laity, either individuals acting alone, or family and fraternity groups.

The woodwork of the screen, the carcass if you like, was made in the carpenter's workshop presumably in regional centres. As far as I know we have no information about where these workshops were. The prefabricated screen was then assembled on site, and the panels of the dodo fitted. If a number of benefactors was involved it might be many months or even years before the next stage - the painting and gilding - was completed. Clearly painters would have to be on site to decorate the main structure, but what seems rather surprising is that the artists who painted the images also worked on site, crouching down in front of the dodo. This discovery was made a few years back by the conservationist Miss Pauline Plummer whilst working on some of the Norfolk screens. The only Norfolk exception seems to be at Cawston where some of the figures were painted in the studio on paper which has been cut out and glued to the panels.

Saints and Figures on Rood Panels

Requests for prayers for the souls of donors were usually painted either on the rail or perhaps on the bottom of the panel and give us the names of donors. At Burnham Norton, Fritton and Salthouse images of the donors occur. It is clear from this evidence that, often, many donors were needed to complete the usual set of twelve panels. Cawston has sixteen panels with images, with a further four on the doors of the screen. Who designed the screen and who chose which saints should be depicted on it, or who may have guided the choice, are unknowns. In quite a few instances the donor shares a name with the saint so that is one answer, and twelve panel spaces obviously invited representations of the twelve apostles. Harpley has sixteen Old Testament prophets.

The so-called helper saints make very frequent appearances. These were saints whose prayers were thought to be particularly effective in the needs of everyday living - sickness, miscarriage, childbirth, fire, plague, sudden and unprovided death. Prominent among these was. A group of early Christian martyrs, young female virgin saints who had suffered torture and extreme humiliation in defence of their faith and of their virginity. Among these were SS. Agatha, Agnes, Apollonia, Barbara, Catherine of Alexandria, Cecilia, Dorothy, Faith, Margaret of Antioch and Ursulla. All were thought to be especially dear to God and therefore powerful intercessors, and all are commonly to be found on East Anglian screens. Among the male saints SS Laurence, Roche and Sebastian make frequent appearances.

Only fragments and faint shadows remain of the Binham screen paintings. So far as I am aware the first person to attempt a description and a tentative identification was M.R. James in 1930. He suggested:

1 S. Michael
2 S. Katherine of Alexandria
3 Traces of a jug with a towel nearby
4 A figure holding a rich gold cross
5 King Henry VI crowned, holding orb and sceptre standing with an antelope at his feet
6 ? S. Mary of Egypt
7 nothing
9 S. Christopher
10 S. Helena with cross
11 A king
12 A lady
13 A beardless figure in a gold robe holding a golden horn
14 S. Alban - described by Dr James as holding his special cross with a disc on top given to him by the priest Amphibalus who converted him. Alban held it at his martyrdom. It was recovered by S. Albans Abbey in 1230 and preserved as a relic.
15 A bishop in gold cope
16 Young man in gold armour

I see that the present labelling makes a number of different attributions from those proposed by Dr James. I doubt whether the visual evidence alone is strong enough to support these new attributions.

S. Barbara is suggested for number 6; S. Roche for number 9; S. Apollonia for number 13 ; S. Zita for number 15; and S. Sebastian for 16

The top rail carries a mutilated inscription that Mitchell has suggested might begin, 'Orate pro bono fratru ' this would indicate that at least one or more panels may have been a gift to the parish from two of the monks.

So far as the godly texts are concerned we have no pointers to indicate who may have chosen those particular passages. They may have been favourite texts of the reformers, but of that I'm not certain. They were taken from the Great Bible. This had been ordered by Thomas Cromwell and was to be set up in every parish church. It had been the great ambition of the reformers to make the bible available in English, and this was a great triumph for Cromwell. Martin Coverdale's translation was used, and it appeared in the early summer of 1539. The king asked Cranmer to write a preface for the second edition which came out in 1540. Because of this preface it is sometimes known as Cranmer's Bible although he had nothing to do with either the translation or the commissioning. It is also known as the Treacle Bible from Coverdale's rendering of the verse 'There is no more treacle (balm) in Gilead '. The Great Bible was not officially replaced until the reign of Elizabeth. The screen texts are all that survives of what was probably an extensive series of texts covering not only the other half of the screen but the walls as well. They seem to be the work of a skilled hand but again one is left to wonder where the artist came from and who commissioned him.

MacCulloch gives a vivid picture of the interior of our reformed and reordered church. He writes: ' The greatest visual impact came from words : words in painted plaster, boards or on printed posters stared down from the whitewashed walls, turning the church interior into the pages of a giant scrapbook of scripture.'

The screen images

S. Michael, archangel and warrior saint, is usually portrayed in one of two poses, thrusting his spear down the dragon's throat, or weighing Christian souls on the Last Day. At Binham he appears with spear or lance. He was appealed to for strength in the Christian's daily battle against the devil, and was an assurance that good would finally triumph.

S. Catherine of Alexandria was a very popular saint. With S. Margaret she flanked the image of the Virgin in the shrine at Walsingham. Her feast on 25 November was suppressed by the Holy See in 1969, but reinstated for local use in 2001. Her martyrdom took place in the 4c. She refused marriage on the grounds that she was a bride of Christ. She successfully routed the fifty philosophers who were brought in to persuade her out of her Christian beliefs. She protested against the persecution by the emperor Maxentius of her fellow Christians. She was tortured on a wheel which broke and the splinters of wood injured the onlookers. She was finally beheaded. She was protectress of the dying, patron of young girls, students, nurses, and of craftsmen whose work was associated with the wheel. Her cult flourished in England where it was probably introduced by returning crusaders. As well as having many churches dedicated in her honour her name appears on 170 medieval bells.

Although never canonized by the church Henry VI takes his place among the saints here at Binham and on the screens of three other Norfolk churches. He was born in 1421 the only child of Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, and the French princess Katherine. All English hopes for a successful conclusion to the Hundred Years' War centred on him. He would inherit one throne from his father, the other through his mother and unite the two kingdoms under English rule. But fate played a cruel hand. Henry V died in 1422. Henry was crowned king of England aged eight and of France in Reims cathedral aged ten. The young king showed no interest in either war or government but devoted himself to the founding of Eton and Kings College. The English court was torn apart by faction and disaster befell the armies in France. In August 1453 the king suffered a complete mental collapse. e communicated with no one and had to be fed and led about as a child. He did not recover until Christmas 1454. It was during this time that his only son, prince Edward, was born. The crown was bankrupt, the country lawless and civil war broke out. In 1461 he was deposed by the Yorkist Edward IV and put in the Tower. Henry was restored in 1470. It now fell to the seventeen year old prince Edward, who had inherited something of this grandfather's military skills, to lead the Lancastrian army. He was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, Edward resumed the throne, and within days Henry VI was murdered in the Tower. Very soon after his death his tomb began to attract pilgrims and miracles were reported. Richard Ill had the body taken to Windsor the better to control the cult. The succession of the only Lancastrian left, Henry VII, in 1485 saw the encouragement of the cult, and moves were made to secure Henry's formal canonization. This collapsed with the reformation, but was revived very briefly early in the 20c.

According to her legend Mary was born in Egypt. From the age of twelve and for the next seventeen years she worked as a prostitute in lexandria. She then joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she stayed for the rest of her life as a hermit in the Palestinian desert. Her clothes wore out and her hair grew to cover her nakedness. She was found dead.

S. Barbara is always shown as a beautiful young woman holding a tower, a reference to the place of her imprisonment by a jealous father keen to guard her from the many suitors who sought her. Unknown to him she became a Christian. He beat her and handed her to the authorities who put her to death. The father was struck by lightning. People sought her help against sudden death, as by lightning, and by subsiding mines and cannon balls. She was patron of miners and gunners. There seems to be no evidence for her existence.

The patron of those already stricken by plague was S. Roche. Unlike many of the other saints shown on screens he was almost a contemporary. He died of plague in 1380 aged thirty. The son of wealthy parents he chose the life of a hermit and pilgrim. Stricken with the plague he lived in a wood attended only by a dog who brought him food. He is usually depicted with a plague sore on his leg accompanied by a dog carrying a loaf of bread in its mouth.

S. Christopher, was the patron of travellers, and a help against the dangers of water, tempest, plague and sudden death. His great mural on the wall opposite the church door in so many parishes faced everyone on entering. Gaze on an image of the Christ-bearer and you would be spared death that day. The only record we have of Christopher is of his martyrdom in Asia Minor in the 3c. A giant of a man, he was beaten with iron rods, shot through with arrows and finally beheaded.

S. Helen was mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and converted to Christianity in 312 at the age of sixty. She died while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and was credited with assisting in the finding of the True Cross during excavations on Mount Calvary in 335.

S. Apollonia was an elderly African matron put to death in about 249. Her teeth were smashed by repeated club blows and then she was burned alive. Her cult spread very quickly in the western church where her story was somewhat modified with the passage of time. She was portrayed as a beautiful young maiden with long golden hair, her teeth being pulled out one by one by her torturers. Images show her holding an enormous molar in a pair of pincers. She was, of course, invoked against toothache.

S. Alban was the English saint par excellence, the first British Christian martyr. A citizen of Verulamium in the third century he was converted to Christianity. He was arrested while helping the priest who had converted him to escape. He was executed in the amphitheatre outside the Roman town. The town named in his honour grew up around his shrine.

Unlike so many of the early saints about whom we know so little, S. Zita (1218 - 72), like Roche, was a near contemporary and her life was well attested. She lived and died in the city of Lucca a servant, from the age of twelve until her death, in the household of the wealthy Fatinelli family. Humble and hardworking and persevering in the face of criticism by the family, she helped the poor as far as her very limited means would allow and after her death her grave attracted pilgrims and her cult spread in a remarkably short time across Europe. She was looked to as patron by housewives and servants.

Images of the young Roman soldier Sebastian, his nude body pierced with arrows, abound in Renaissance art. He was patron of archers and soldiers and his aid was sought for protection against plague. He served the emperor Diocletian as a captain in the pretorian guard, and was able to support many Christians during Diocletian's persecutions. On discovering that he was a Christian the emperor charged him with disloyalty and he was put to death.

The panel of the Wounded Risen Christ

Christ is shown standing, holding a cross. A gold cape is fastened at the neck but falls back to reveal his wounds from which blood streams. Devotion to the five wounds of Christ was a huge cult throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages. The mass of the Five Wounds became one of the most frequently celebrated masses both for the living and the dead. It was the sinfulness of human beings that had inflicted those wounds, and yet it was by the same wounds that man was saved. The bleeding wounds were seen as wells of God's grace and mercy. The wound in Christ's side was particularly venerated as it gave access to His heart.


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