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                          Date on a Mantlepiece at Helmdon


The Helmdon Mantle-piece

241 - Date on a Mantle-piece at Helmdon. - This mantelpiece is in the parsonage house, and is now (1886) preserved in the porch.  The date on it is one of those by which it has been attempted to show the use of Arabic figures long before the date commonly assigned to their introduction into this country – the fourteenth century.   In The Archaeologia, vol. xiii., 1797, are two papers on this carving and on the use of Arabic numerals,  by the Rev. Samuel Denne of Wilmington. In these papers are references to other disputed dates and to various works on Arabic numerals, etc.  A plate accompanies the papers, on which is a view of the mantle-piece from Professor Wallis’s paper in the Philosophical Transactions, xiii., 399.  This view is erroneous in some details.  The representation now given is reduced to 1⁄12 by photography from a drawing made to the scale of ¼ the real size for this work.  The date being the disputed part is given ¼ real size.

The block of oak forming this mantle-piece is 6ft. 6½ in. long, 11 in. wide and 11 in. deep.  The soffit is a four-centred arch of only 2¼ in. rise, of a common sixteenth century moulding. The ground of the carved part is sunk about 3⁄8 or ½ inch.  The workmanship of the whole is rude (sic).  The left half has in relief a dragon without legs, but with wings and a long tail.  The other half is divided into six panels, on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of which is the date; and on the 5th a shield with the initials “W.R” on it, in slight relief.  Dr Wallis it appears read the inscription “M° Domi An° 133,” and thus made the date 1133.  Professor Ward made the date 1233.  The mixture of Roman and Arabic figures is found in other places.  It is odd that both these gentlemen should have mistaken the letter A in the first panel for M.  The second panel contains “doi”, and about this there is no dispute.  The third panel bears apparently “M 133”, or “M135”, but there is a superfluous line in the M.  The upright character next to the M must in some may stand for D OR V or 5.  It is conceivable that the last stroke of the M acted as one side of the V or U, and that by accident or clumsiness the carver broke out the bottom of the character.  Or we may suppose the straight stroke a misconstruction of the Arabic 5, like many of that date, and as in France at the present day.  The character of the whole piece and the section of the moulding preclude an earlier date than about 1500.  Whether the two last characters are 33 or 35 matters little.

It has been mentioned that the initials “W.R” are carved on another panel.  There seems little doubt that these are the initials of William Renalde, or Reynolde, A.M., who was instituted to the living in 1523, and to whom no successor is named till 1560.  We have then strong corroborative evidence of the date 1533 or 35 being the correct one.

                             A(nn)o Do(min)i M°. V 33 or 35

In The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1800, vol. LXX., p. 1232, is an account of this mantle-piece, by R. Churton, with a plate of the date full size.  See also Baker’s History, 1. 631.  In nearly all these disputed dates the error has arisen from the second characters being misread.  In some cases 5, being almost straight, has been taken for 1, so that 1500 is taken for 1100.  In one case the 4 of the old form (said to be half of 8) is taken for 0, so that 1490 is read 1090.  In The Cambridge Portfolio, vol.II. 1840, is a notice and woodcut of one of these dates in which case 1552 was asserted to be 1112.


From Northants Notes & Queries, 1888, Vol. II, no 264, pp. 48 - 50
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