The village church pulpit, sometimes referred to as a lectern has, it seems always been a feature of the English village church. But, amazingly, they have only been in use for 700 years.
Three-decker Jacobean pulpit with overhead sounding board at Ashby-St-Leger village church, England
It is widely recognised that the village church pulpit became commonplace from around 1340, due to the popularity of travelling preachers such as the Franciscan Friars who regularly visited the churches in villages and towns across England promoting Christianity.
The design of the early pulpits was similar in shape to that of a wine glass supported on a slender stem, and constructed of either local stone or oak timber. The majority were then carved or decorated with likenesses of the Four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
From a purely historical perspective it is fortunate that at least sixty medieval stone pulpits have survived the centuries, and over one hundred wooden pre-reformation pulpits can still be seen in English churches today; notably in the churches of Devon and Norfolk.
By the year 1603, it became compulsory for all churches in England to possess a pulpit. However, this dictate was not solely for the benefit of the clergy, it was also to ensure that a suitable place was always available to the King’s messenger to read proclamations to the community.
From the 17th and 18th centuries onwards, pulpit design began to take on a new look. In essence they became more sophisticated in style. Two and even three-decker pulpits appeared that incorporated a ‘tester’, or sounding board, similar in design to that of a five-sided wooden canopy at the top. The addition of this sounding board greatly improved the quality and volume of the priest’s oration. Some excellent examples of a tiered pulpit can be seen at Kedington (Suffolk), St. Mary’s church Whitby (Yorkshire) and at Minstead (Hampshire).
The 17th century saw village church attendance become compulsory throughout England. Those who did not attend church were in real danger of being punished through the Church courts, and to make matters worse for the congregations the duration of the services became longer.
The minimum time for a church service was one hour. However, many over-zealous priests far exceeded the one-hour minimum. In order for the timing of a service to be as accurate as possible, hour glasses filled with sand and supported by a bracket were fixed to either the pulpit itself or on a nearby wall within arms reach of the priest.