15 July 2017

A processional cross in
Limerick has remarkable
links to Comerford cross

The processional cross in the Hunt Museum in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I visited the Hunt Museum in Limerick this week for the first time. I have passed it many times since I moved here, but I wanted a few hours to look around the museum rather than racing quickly through its exhibits and displays.

There are many items in the museum that I hope to return to, including a chalice and paten from Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and a replica of the Ardagh Chalice, which was found within this group of parishes in west Limerick.

But I was particularly interested on Thursday to come a across a 15th century English processional cross which bears an uncanny and remarkable resemblance to the ‘Bosworth Crucifix,’ which once belonged to the Victorian book collector and antiquarian James Comerford (1807-1881). The ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ now belongs to the Society of Antiquaries in London, and featured prominently in the exhibition ‘Making History’ (2008-2009).

The processional cross in the Hunt Museum, which is dated ca 1450, is made of bronze (the labelling in the display cabinet says gilt copper alloy) and is mounted on a modern wooden base.

The outline of the cross is decorated with projecting splays of leaves and terminates in circular medallions, each bearing symbols of three of the four evangelists – Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John; the medallion depicting Saint Matthew is missing at the base.

The cross bears geometric engraving on the front and the back, with the back of each medallion engraved with a Tudor rose. Two empty sockets at the base of the cross may have carried figures of the mourning Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist.

Processional and altar crosses of this type were made in large numbers and were exported from England. There are numerous examples from Ireland, and the finest example is said to be the Ballylongford Cross, made in 1479.

The Bosworth Crucifix, now in the collection of the Society of Antiquarians, was once the most notable antiquarian item in James Comerford’s private collection

The Bosworth Crucifix, which is similar in almost every detail, also dates from the mid-15th century, and is said to have been discovered around 1778 at or near the site of Battle of Bosworth.

The Battle of Bosworth was fought on fields several miles south of Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, on the morning of 22 August 1485, by two armies led by King Richard III and the Lancastrian pretender, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. It was the last significant battle in the War of the Roses, and the last battle in which an English king died on the battlefield. It has since become one of the most legendary battles in English history.

This 15th-century bronze processional crucifix measures 58.5 cm x 28 cm (23 in x 11 in). It is made of bronze alloy and would have been originally overlaid with gold. It has an outer frame forming a foliated border, damaged at each extremity of the transverse limb of the cross. At its centre is the figure of the Crucified Christ, crudely cast in a bronze alloy. A mark at the crown of the head indicates that a nimbus was once attached to Christ’s head.

Each arm of the crucifix ends with a roundel, decorated on the front with the symbols of the four evangelists, and probably covered with idl. From the viewer’s perspective, these symbols are arranged as follows: at the top, an eagle (Saint John); at the bottom, a winged man (Saint Matthew); to the left, a winged lion (Saint Mark); and to the right, a winged bull (Saint Luke).

On the back, the roundels are decorated with what appear to be suns or stars, with rays streaming from them, and the familiar sunburst emblem of Edward IV and the House of York.

Like the cross in the Hunt Museum, additional branches on the Bosworth Crucifix may have carried figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. Attachments for these additional branches can be seen at the base of the cross, although the branches themselves are now missing.

Philip Schwyzer suggests in Shakespeare and the remains of Richard III (Oxford University Press, 2013) that the cross belonged to a travelling chapel royal, and that it was lost and abandoned in the chaos after the battle.

Chris Skidmore, in Bosworth: the Birth of the Tudors (Hachette, 2013) suggests the crucifix was used during a private Mass for Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth. After that Mass, the cross would have been taken off its base, mounted upon a wooden stave, and fastened into place by a hinged ring of iron to be led into the field of battle.

The crucifix was discovered around 1778 near the supposed site of the battlefield, but perhaps at Husbands Bosworth in south Leicestershire, about 18 miles south-east of the battlefield and east of Coventry. Soon after its discovery, it came into the possession of a woman who has been named as Lady Fortescue.

In his paper on ‘The Bosworth Crucifix’ in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (no 78, 2004), John Ashdown-Hill, who specialises in the life of Richard III, wonders whether this Lady Fortescue may have been Lady Barbara Talbot who in 1780 married Francis Fortescue-Turville of the Manor of Husbands Bosworth. She was a sister of Charles Talbot (1753-1827), 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1787-1827), and aunt of John Talbot (1791–1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1827-1852) and patron of the Gothic revival architect AWM Pugin.

Lady Fortescue, or Lady Barbara Fortescue-Turville, was originally from Hoar Cross, Yoxall, about 12 km north of Lichfield and 30 km north of the Bosworth battlefield. She is said to have given the crucifix to one of her workers, John Brown, who owned the crucifix when he died in 1791 ... perhaps the same John Brown of Kenilworth whose will was proved in the Consistory Court of Lichfield in 1793, although his will does not mention the crucifix.

The crucifix and many other Catholic relics passed from John Brown to Joseph Carter, the sexton of Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry (later Coventry Cathedral) by 1793. This Joseph Carter had married Elizabeth Brown in Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry, in 1778, and she may have been related to John Brown. He died in June 1808, and his will was granted administration in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield on 7 October 1808.

The crucifix then passed to his widow, Elizabeth Carter, and remained with the Carter family of Saint Michael’s Parish, Coventry, and presumably it was she who sold it to the Comerford family – probably James Comerford’s father – ca 1808-1810. However, it is still unclear how the crucifix passed from the Brown family to the Carter family and from the Carter family to the Comerford family.

The Bosworth Crucifix was owned by the family of the antiquarian and book collector James Comerford from around 1810. James Comerford was born in Holborn in 1807, probably the son of James Comerford, a Notary Public of Change Alley in Cornhill, London, who died on 11 August 1833. He appears to have been of Irish descent, although Ashworth-Hill, in his paper on the Bosworth Crucifix, wonders whether James was related to the Comerford family who lived in Saint Michael’s Parish in Coventry in the first half of the 19th century.

James Comerford first practised as a notary public in partnership with TS Girdler as Comerford and Company at 27 Change Alley, Cornhill, London, from December 1827. Later, he practised from 7 Tokenhouse Yard, Lothbury, London. He was also a magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP). In 1833, James Comerford was secretary to the Society of Public Notaries of London. In December 1840, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians (FSA).

Between 1841 and 1851, James Comerford and his family were living at No 7 Saint Andrew’s Place, Regent’s Park, London. By 1872, he was living in Framfield, Sussex. He died on 8 March 1881. His son James W. Comerford shared many of his antiquarian interests.

James Comerford is best remembered as a book collector and antiquarian. He amassed a library that included a large collection of county histories, local topographies and books of Catholic religious piety. His heraldic bookplates, with the motto So Ho Ho Dea Ne, are much sought-after collectors’ items. After his death, Sotheby’s sold his library at auction on 16-20 November 1881, realising a sale total of £8,372 13 s. His books occasionally come back on the market, but more often they are valued for his heraldic bookplates than as antique books.

The ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ was the most notable object of antiquarian interest in his private collection. In December 1881, James Comerford’s son, James W. Comerford, exhibited and presented the Bosworth Crucifix to the Society of Antiquaries ‘in the name of his late father, James Comerford, Esq., FSA.’

James Comerford’s bookplates have become collectors’ items … they perpetuate the claims of the Comerford family in Ireland to descent from the Comberford family of Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Bosworth Crucifix is an important historical English artefact, and may have been one of the inspirations for the Crucifix on the reredos in the Church of the Holy Angels in Hoar Cross, built in the 1870s by the Hon Emily Charlotte Meynell Ingram, who, like Lady Barbara Fortescue-Turville, had lived at Hoar Cross Hall.

The processional cross in the Hunt Museum was bought at auction in Christies in 1961 by John Hunt for £130. Dr Colum Hourihane of Princeton University attributed it to Ireland, ca 1460-1480, and says it was possibly made for a Dominican foundation. He identified it with two other crosses by the same maker, one in Multyfarnham and the other in the National Museum of Ireland, from a Dominican foundation in Sligo.

Nevertheless, the similarity of this cross with James Comerford’s ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ is so striking it would be interesting to know how Dr Hourihane came to his conclusions 20 years ago, and how the Limerick Cross came to be sold by Christies in the 1960s.

Leaving the island and
returning to the city

From the island to the city … walking along the Shannon in Limerick shortly after returning from Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

I am back from the island and have been to the city.

I have returned from the island of Crete, and already I have spent some time working at Church meetings in Limerick.

But I was transported back to Greece immediately on Thursday afternoon when I visited the Hunt Museum for the first time and came face-to-face with a number of classical Greek objects in the collection, including an earthenware water jar from 4th century BC.

Earlier this week, I mused that spending time on a Greek island, enjoying the sun, the sea, the scenery and evening meals might be compared to the crew in the Odyssey who are enticed to linger on the island with the lotus eaters and to forget the purpose of their journey.

But sometimes, I find, times spent lingering on the island is also time for reflection and thinking about future problems ahead.

But sometimes there is a danger of becoming isolated on holidays like this, and beginning to think that problems and solutions can be arrived at without reference to their context in the city back home. How often in discussions and conversations in abstract and distant locations like this, do we often think we can solve all the problems of the world?

So often I allow myself the luxuries of standing on the high moral ground without considering the dilemmas of those who have to make immediate decisions on their feet, on the ground below.

Sometimes in discussions on island holidays or on retreats, or on away days, the temptation is not so much to end up lingering on like the Lotus Eaters, but to hold onto what I see as my own high principles in exile, like I am less like Philoctetes in the Greek classical play of the same name by Sophocles.

Philoctetes (Φιλοκτήτης), the son of King Poeas of Meliboea in Thessaly, is a skilled archer and a participant in the Trojan War. He is the subject of four Greek classical plays, although Philoctetes by Sophocles is the only one to have survived. The other lost plays are Philoctetes at Troy, also by Sophocles, Philoctetes by Aeschylus, and Philoctetes by Euripides.

Philoctetes is also named in Homer’s Iliad (Book 2), which describes his exile on the island of Lemnos, his debilitating snake-bite, and his eventual recall by the Greeks.

The play Philoctetes by Sophocles is one of his seven surviving tragedies and was written by Sophocles during the Peloponnesian War. It won first prize when it was first performed at the City Dionysia in Athens in 409 BC.

Philoctetes is one of the many Greek suitors who competes for the hand of the beautiful Helen of Sparta and he is required to take part in the Trojan War to reclaim her for Menelaus. Philoctetes gains the favour of Heracles and is rewarded with his bow and poisoned arrows.

But Philoctetes is stranded on the island of Lemnos by the Greeks on their way to Troy because a wound on his foot festers and give a terrible smell. Sophocles says Philoctetes has been bitten on the foot by a snake on the island of Chryse (Χρύση) when he unwittingly trespasses into the shrine of the nymph who gives her name to the island.

The bite causes Philoctetes constant agony and emits a horrible smell. For 10 years he lives alone in forced exile on Lemnos, and becomes increasingly angry at the treatment he has received from Odysseus.

But when the Greeks find they need the bow and arrows of Heracles in the siege of Troy, Odysseus and a group of men rush back to Lemnos to recover them. The Greeks are surprised to find that Philoctetes is still alive, and they wonder what to do next. Odysseus tricks the weaponry from Philoctetes, but Diomedes refuses to take the weapons without the master archer, who is still angry with Odysseus.

The fate of the entire Greek expedition hangs in the balance. Heracles finally persuades Philoctetes to go to Troy, promising he will be cured and that the Greeks will win. Philoctetes obeys and back at the siege of Troy a son of the physician Asclepius heals his wound permanently.

Because Philoctetes is not suffering the war-weariness of the previous 10 years, he is among the Greeks chosen to hide inside the Trojan Horse, and during the sack of the city he wins glory, killing many Trojans, including Paris.

Sophocles does not offer a simple morality play, nor does he provide any easy answers to the perennial problems of why we suffer or why we feel abandoned by those closest to us.

Instead, he offers a way to discuss the conflicting values of the good of the nation and justice or the common good, between political expediency and integrity in the demand for justice. Should a dishonourable action be carried out for the sake of the common good? Both Philoctetes and Odysseus represent extremes of each set of competing values, and both become the subject of criticism by Sophocles.

This is not a play of action and doing, but a play about emotions and feelings, a study in suffering. Sophocles appears to suggest that deception is unjustifiable in a democratic society, no matter how high the stakes may be, and that common ground outside politics must be found if conflicts are to be resolved.

The earthenware water jar in the Hunt Museum may be contemporaneous with the play Philoctetes by Sophocles. When we return from our islands to our cities, how do we retain our values without neglecting the need to pursue the common good and without losing personal integrity?

The Greek earthenware water jar in the Hunt Museum in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)