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Baptismal Fonts in the Medieval Church

Baptism was (is) the sacrament that brought the fresh initiate into the bosom of Christendom and made him/her one of the church community.  As such, baptismal fonts were, obviously, as vital a part of the church as were the shrines and chapels. 

In the book English Church Furniture, J. Charles Cox and Alfred Harvey did a survey of church fonts from the Saxon, Norman, and Early English eras.  To offer you a glimpse as what these old fonts looked like, I've excerpted photographs and information from their work.

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Images below come from English Church Furniture by J. Charles Cox and Alfred Harvey,
Published by Methuen & Co., 36 Essex Street, W.C. London, 1907.

Medieval English Baptismal Fonts, the Basics.

Cox and Harvey categorize the fonts they encounter as coming from three particular eras, the Saxon era (after the Romans but before the Conquest of 1066), the Norman era (which seems to be from 1066 sort of though the reformation), and 'early English' (by which I believe they mean post-reformation, or even post- Elizabethan). 

Of the fonts mentioned, the lion's share are put into their 'Norman' category.  But fewer remain in either the Saxon or Norman category than should.  The puritanical zeal of the Reformation caused many medieval church fonts to be lost, defaced or destroyed.  Whatever could not be melted down or sold to enrich Henry VIII and his "visitors" was treated with callous distain.  Reformer fundamentalists forbid the use of the beautiful fonts many of which were subsequently destroyedand demanded that a simple basin be used instead.

A Norman font from Huttoft, Lincolnshire that escaped destruction during the reformation.  Animals representing the four apostles are carved into the pedestal base, and in each of eight panels in its octagonal shape there are images that represent religious scenes.

[Photo from Lincoln and Notts.
Archaeological Society.  Cox and Harvey, facing page 208.]
[Download 2,284KB JPG of this image.]

Considering the tumult from the Conquest, and the ages before the Reformation, it is not so surprising that few Saxon fonts remain.  Of those Cox and Harvey mention, three are particularly interesting.  The font at Wilne, for instance, was made from an old Saxon cross (those large, ornate church-yard crosses particular to the Saxon churches), and two other fonts were inscribed with pre-Norman lettering which helped to date them (from page 166):

"In two cases the pre-Norman characters used in font inscriptions prove their Saxon date. The inscription on the circular  font of Little Billing, Northants, engraved  by  Paley, runs round about a  third of the circumference of the bowl, with two horizontal lines of Anglo-Saxon lettering ; it reads as follows :

Wigberhtus artifex atque cementarius hunc fabricavit,
Quisquis suum venit mergere corpus procul dubio capiat.

Wigbert the artificer and mason made this (font),
Whoever comes hither to dip his body, let him take it (Baptism) without doubt."

This Norman era font, from Great Kimble, Buckinghamshire, is of the chalice shape.  Salamanders are among the organic-shaped carvings that decorate it.

[Photo by Guy Le Blanc Smith, Cox and Harvey facing page 196.]
[Download a 812 KB JPG of this image.]

A number of old fonts bear images of salamanders and dragons, including this Norman era font from Thorpe Arnold in Leicestershire which depicts St. Michael dueling with a dragon.

[Photo by Guy Le Blanc Smith, Cox and Harvey facing page 194.]
[Download a 890 KB JPG of this image.]

Font types and materials, excerpts from pages 160-1:

"The early fonts may be divided into two types.  In the East they were generally small square or circular basons, but occasionally elongated on four sides, and so make the shape of a Greek cross.  In the West [Europe] they are for the most part octagonal or circular, forming a wide shallow bason.  Their normal depth is under 3 feet ; in some cases the utmost capacity of the bason was only 15 inches."

"In England the use of a baptistry separate from the church never prevailed.  In Cornwall there are a few interesting instances still extant of Holy Springs, possibly used as baptistries, and protected by chapels ; and the same are to be found in Monmouthshire as well as in Wales.  But the almost invariable rule in these islands [in the British Isles] seems to have been to place a font in the body of the church ; in all events this custom was universal amongst us in post-Conquest [after the Norman conquest in 1066] days."

"The font itself was as a rule [made] of stone, and it was usually lined with lead [even the wooden ones], save [except] in some of those instances where an [a water] imprevious stone, such as granite or Purbeck marble, was used.  Wooden fonts were occasionally in use in those early days, but they were always considered irregular, and in later times uncanonical [unofficial]."

Of wooden fonts, Cox and Harvey say that in 1297, the West Lee church in Essex had a wooden font. A font carved from a single, solid block of wood was used at Efenechytd in Denbigh.

Fonts could also be made of cast metal, such as bronze, or gilt [given a thin outer layering] with silver. Precious metals were rare, though.  Of the metal cast fonts, most were made of lead.

According to Cox and Harvey, in Cornwall many Norman era fonts were preserved.  A number depict dragons and salamanders, and at Tintagel, serpents entwine the pedestal shaft under carved crosses.

Granite and Caen stone are at times used, but in the northeast of the county, three types of stone predominate in font construction:  Catacleuse, Tintagel green-stone, and Polyphant (from the moors near Bodmin).

[Illustrations by J. Charles Wall.  Cox and Harvey, page 190]
[Download a 1536KB JPG of this image.]

On Cleanliness, excerpted from pages 164-5:

"Fonts were ordered to have covers and to be kept locked for the double purpose of cleanliness and for checking the use of the water for superstitious purposes.  The Bishop of Exeter, in 1287, ordered that each parish church was to be furnished with a baptisterium lapideum bene seratum [a cover].  Archbishop Winchelsea, in his visitation of 1305, inquired  whether there was a fontem cum secura [lock].  A provincial English Synod, held in 1236, provided that the water was to be changed every seven days.  The rubric of the first English Prayer-book provided for the change being made once every month ; the Scottish book, of 1604, ordered the fort-nightly renewal of the water..."

Font covers were in use from early times, and were originally flat with notches in the lid and basin to hold the cover in place, then later were likely a pyramid shape, with eight sides to match the panels of the font itself.  Cox and Harvey mention an interesting font cover in Terrington, St. Clement, Norfolk, which features

"paintings of the baptism, temptation and fasting of our Lord, with the inscriptionVoce Pater, Natus Corpore, Flamen Ave—that is, 'The Father (revealed) by the voice, the Son by the body, the Spirit by the bird.'"

The necessity of a font cover provided the opportunity to create something breathtakingly elaborate.  While simplicity can be beautiful, the care and intricate detail on many font covers (which were raised and lowered by a pulley and hung from the ceiling) was to draw attention to the significance of the holy sacrament of baptism.  I would guess that this octagonal font from Ewelme, Oxon, was designed sometime after the reformation, perhaps during the 18th century.  A kneeling bench is visible on the font step.

[Photo by H. W. Taunt, Oxford.  Cox and Harvey, frontispiece.]
[Download a 1400KB JPG of this image.]

On Ornamentation:

Prior to the reformation, a style of font ornamentation became common, and that was to depict the seven sacraments of the medieval Catholic church.  Fonts at the time were generally octagonal, so each of these sides featured an image of the sacrament, with the eighth side often carved either with the image of the penitent donor, other a depiction of Christ's crucifixion.  These fonts could also be elaborately painted in bright colors. Other subjects also could be depicted, including images of the four apostles, Christ's baptism, the Last Judgment, the martydom of a saint, Communion, Mary and child, the Trinity, and "Our Lord in Glory (page 169)."

Other fonts could feature heraldry, with carvings of the heraldic arms of important local patrons, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries.  For instance, the arms of Archbishop Arundel, who lived from 1397 to 1414, are carved on the font in Sittingbourne, Kent. 

Some fonts had protruding edges or carvings, such as a rams head.  These may have had some practical purpose, perhaps to support the head of the person being baptized.  Other fonts had kneeling benches made of wood or stone.


Donors and craftsmen hoped their gift of a church font would solicit the prayers of those who passed it by or used it.  Prayers for the dead were common, as prayers were thought to limit the time a soul would suffer in purgatory before they could enter heaven.   Cox and Harvey give a number of inscriptions demonstrating this, including these two, following.  The first is written on a font from Goodmanham, Yorkshire.  The construction date is contemporary to the reign of Henry VIII, and each line appeared on one side of a total of eight (an octagonal font) panels:

"Wyht owt [doubte a]ll [sic] may be saved
Of yor charete pra for them yt yis font mayd.
Robert clevying pson.
Robert Appilton.
Ave maria gra plena dns tecu bndicta tu in mu.
lade help.  Ihs."  (from page 181)

Translation (mine): 
Without a doubt all may be saved
be charitable and pray for those who made this font
Robert (perhaps the name of his trade?)
Robert  Appilton
An abbreviated line from the prayer 'Ave Maria'
Lady Mary help.

The second inscription is from a 13th century font at Keysoe, Beds., in Norman-French (from page 182):

Trestui ke par hici passerui
Pur le alme Warel prieu
Ke Deu par sa grace
Verrey merci li face.  Am.

Translated by Cox and Harvey as:
"(Pause, whoever passes by this spot, and pray for the soul of Warel, that God by His grace may grant him true mercy.  Amen.)"

This metal font, of lead, from Ashover, Derbyshire,
is a prime example of late Norman craftsmanship.

[Photo by Guy Le Blanc Smith, Cox and Harvey facing page 194.]
[Download a 910KB JPG of this image.]

Cox and Harvey classify this font from Mellor, Derbyshire, as Norman and date it to the 11th century.  The authors refer to the image as a "hunting" scene.

[Photo by Guy Le Blanc Smith, Cox and Harvey facing page 194.]
[Download a 915KB JPG of this image.]

The Lenton Font:

This "literally incomparable" font from Lenton, Nottinghamshire (pictured below) is best described by Cox and Harvey, from pages 212-3:

"The cubical Norman font of Lenton  measures 2 feet 10 inches by 2 feet 6 inches, and stands (exclusive of its modern pedestal) 2 feet 6 inches high.  The interior of the bowl, which is hollowed in quatrefoil shape, is 18 inches deep, and the top is ornamented with foliage, after the fashion of those in the west of England of Belgian marble....  On one of the narrower sides is the Crucifixion, the arms of the large cross foliated. The scene is most curiously represented.  There are censing [incense carrying] angels at the upper corners, and the Manus Dei appears on the cross just above the head of our Lord [Christ], who is represented with a cruciform nimbus [cross shaped aura around his head].  The two thieves [crucified on either side of Christ] are shown on much smaller crosses ; the soul of the good thief (a tiny little human figure) is shown going up to heaven, whilst the soul of the evil one is plunging into hell, represented as usual by the open mouth of a ravenous serpent.  The opposite side of the font simply bears a large foliated cross.  One of the two longer sides is divided into four compartments by another cross.  The two upper compartments represent the raising of Lazarus [from the dead] after a realistic fashion [in a realistic way] ; the details and the grouping of so many figures in a small space are most ingeniously worked.  Lazarus is lying down in a stone coffin swathed in grave clothes ; at each end is an attendant raising the lid ; above is our Lord (with cross nimbus), having His right hand raised in benediction and holding a book in the left ; whilst Martha and Mary stand close to the Saviour.  The scene in the other compartment seems to be the wonder of the multitude when they see Lazarus coming to life.  Below is depicted the Three Maries at the Sepulchre.  The front side of the font, which is the most remarkable, is divided by arcade work into eleven compartments, six in the upper row and five in the lower.  In the centre of the lower line, two of the arcades are thrown into one to give greater space, and here is the representation of the Baptism of our Lord.  Christ is shown standing in the water up to the middle with hands uplifted in prayer, the Manus Dei appears from the clouds, and [John] the Baptist places his hand round His waist.  The other compartments on this side are all filled with adoring angels and demi-angels."

See notes on this font, above.

[Photo by Guy Le Blanc Smith, Cox and Harvey facing page 194.]
[Download a 123KB JPG of this image.]

An interesting story and inscription shows up on page 185, and though the story doesn't concern a medieval font, it's worth mentioning anyway:

"The quaintest English font inscription--probably the quaintest in all Christendomis the one to be seen at Tollesbury, Essex, an interesting church retaining much pre-Norman work.

"The small octagonal font, 2 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, bears round the margin of the bowl, in very plain lettering

"Good people all I pray take care
That in ye church you doe not sware
As this man did.

"An entry among the baptisms of the parish register explains the mystery

"'August 30, 1718.—Elizabeth, daughter of Robert and Eliza Wood, being ye first childe whom was baptized in the New Font which was bought out of five pounds paid by John Norman, sen., who some few months before came drunk into ye church and cursed and talked loud in the time of Divine service, to prevent his being prosecuted for which he paid by agreement the above said five pounds.  Note that the wise rythmes[sic] on the font were put there by the sole order of Robert Joyce then churchwarden.'"

Richenda Fairhurst

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