Friday, 28 June 2013

Blackmore: Cresset Stone

Cresset Stone in Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore

Essex Review
Extract from No. 185 Volume XLVII (January 1938)

A Cresset Stone at Blackmore
By John Salmon, B.A.

Some years ago I noticed a cresset stone among several fragments (including parts of the monument to Thomas Smyth, 1594) lying loose in the tower of Blackmore Church.  More recently I took the opportunity of revisiting the church while staying with friends near by, on which occasion I photographed and took some detailed notes of this particular stone.  That it is a cresset stone no one who is familiar with these objects will, I think, deny, more especially since Blackmore was a monastic church.  A cresset stone has several cup-shaped hollows or recesses varying in number from 5 to 12.  These recesses were filled with oil in which was placed a floating wick.  Cresset stones were generally used in monastic houses.  Blackmore was a house of Austin Canons founded in the middle of the 12th century.  The present church was always parochial and so was preserved at its Dissolution.  Of the eastern, monastic half of the church, nothing remains, the gardens of Jericho covering the site.  One of the commonest uses of cresset stones was to light the night stairs down which the monks came from the dormitory to the church for the night offices.  The ‘Rites of Durham’ mention three cresset stones, one in the church, two in the dormitory.

As far as I am aware the Blackmore specimen is the only cresset stone in Essex, though other examples are to be found elsewhere.  I recently noticed several in the museum adjoining the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at York.  At Westow in the East Riding of Yorkshire is perhaps the most interesting cresset stone in England.  On its face are 12 of the usual cup-shaped hollows, but on the back is carved a well preserved and most interesting Crucifixion (of early, possible Saxon, date) with the attendant figures of the Virgin and St. John, also (at the top) the hand of God the Father and the Dove, presumably to complete the three persons of the Trinity.  This stone may have come from Kirkham Priory, only two miles distant.

To return to the Blackmore example.  As will be seen from the illustration the stone is square in shape with five recesses, one at each corner and a fifth in the centre.  The stone has been broken at two corners thus mutilating two of the recesses.  These recesses are just over three inches in diameter, the stone itself being some 13 inches in width.  The Blackmore cresset stone is more carefully worked than other examples.  Between each of the corner recesses is a slight carving in relief and the underside of each recess is capital shaped, all, however, uniting in one circular shaped base.

The term cresset was originally used to describe a metal cup filled with charcoal or other material for burning.  The was either attached to a pole and so used as a kind of portable lantern or it was placed in a fixed iron frame.  A cresset of the latter type was often placed in a framework on top of a church tower so as to guide travellers after nightfall.  A modern reproduction of such a beacon may be seen on the tower of Monken Hadley church in Middlesex.  A similar beacon with cresset cup is carved on the south porch of Sutton Courtney church in Berkshire, and four are also engraved on an early 16th century brass formerly in Netley Abbey Church, Hampshire, but now in private possession.  A fire beacon was a badge of the Compton family, two members of which this brass commemorates. 

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