Historians stumble across rare find in King’s College Chapel
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen have made an extremely rare find in King’s College Chapel, which has shed new light on the University’s founding father, Bishop William Elphinstone.
Two ‘new’ misericords, which are small wooden shelves underneath folding seats in churches used to provide comfort for people standing for long periods, have been discovered recently in the late 15th century Chapel.
The two new ‘seats’, that were not thought to be in existence, have offered researchers a new insight into the life of the Chapel, which was built when Bishop Elphinstone officially established the University. The misericords were found by postgraduate student Dan MacCannell during a recent examination of the Chapel’s original 1506-9 choir stalls.
The first ‘seat’ features a previously unrecorded carving of Bishop Elphinstone’s arms. This contradicts previous research findings that have deemed it remarkable that no heraldic reference to the founder bishop can be found in the Chapel.
Of the approximately 3,500 British and more than 8,000 worldwide total of pre-Reformation misericords thought to exist, a mere 18 (including Elphinstone’s) feature the arms of bishops or archbishops; while fewer than 160 are thought to feature heraldry of any kind.
Mr MacCannell, who is currently studying for an MLitt in Early Modern Studies and who will be entering a PhD programme in History and History of Art in October, explained: “This remarkable misericord panel is an amazing find and we are very excited to have made such an extremely rare discovery. It’s amazing what you can still find with determination and a torch!
“The panel clearly displays the Bishop’s arms and his motto, Non Confundar (Do Not Confound Me), positioned above the shield as was usual in Scotland and France.”
Mr MacCannell said the panel’s placement within the chapel is also curious. He said: “It lies beneath one of four tiny choir stalls which – even in a time of generally shorter statures – could only have been intended for children. Less than 14 inches in width, and 12 in depth, these four seats seem to have escaped the close attention of all previous investigators, predictably, since misericord seating is universally accepted as being ‘for the sake of the elderly and infirm’, hence its name.
“Given that Elphinstone paid for the choir stalls himself, it would shed an interesting light on his character if he chose to make his own mark on this child’s seat, in some respects ‘the worst seat in the house’.
“Elphinstone might have been unaware of where his arms had been carved, or indeed that they had been carved, but either way his modest nature is obvious.”
The second ‘new’ misericord, according to Mr MacCannell, represents the Chapel’s original patron saint, Mary: the letters being ‘AM’ for Ave Maria. The ‘AM’ misericord’s position – directly in front of the College Principal’s seat – makes it unlikely that any minor figure is being represented. The Bishop Elphinstone misericord, in contrast, was placed in front of the seat assigned to the professor of canon law, a position that carried considerably less prestige.
“The Bishop’s 1505 seal depicts the Virgin Mary twice and the last words he spoke were also of her,” said Mr MacCannell.
Despite the historical significance of misericords, studies of these unique objects are still at a very early stage. “The role of historical persons and families as misericord subject matter has been another notable blind spot in research.
“Due to this long-standing lack of scholarly attention, a comprehensive study of misericords’ heraldic and religious content is probably long overdue.”
For a full copy of Mr MacCannell’s report on his findings in King’s College Chapel, contact him on: firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on the history of the University of Aberdeen is available by logging on to: www.abdn.ac.uk
Notes to Editors:
Mr Dan MacCannell is available for interview. Please contact him direct on 07914 627 431.
· Founded in 1495 by William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and Chancellor of Scotland, The University of Aberdeen is Scotland's third oldest and the UK's fifth oldest University.
· William Elphinstone established King's College to train doctors, teachers and clergy for the communities of northern Scotland, and lawyers and administrators to serve the Scottish Crown. Much of the King's College still remains today, as do the proud traditions, which the Bishop began.
· The university opened with 36 staff and students and, in 1497, boasted the first chair of medicine in the English-speaking world. But the college also looked outward to the wider world of Europe and beyond, taking the great European universities of Paris and Bologna as its model, Elphinstone's college embraced all the known branches of learning Arts, Theology, and Canon and Civil Law.
Issued by the Communications Team, Office of External Affairs, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen. Tel: (01224) 272014.
Issued on: Monday 7th of August 2006