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Preaching developed during the 14th century when wandering friars delivered sermons at wayside crosses. There are the remains of a 14th century preaching cross at Cheltenham. Here John Wesley preached in 1744 and 1768. Other fine examples are the early 15th century crosses found at both Ampney Crucis (shown here) and Iron Acton.


Since they first appeared pulpits have been in different positions and faced different directions. Today many are set in the nave near to the position of the former rood screen. Their development was partly due to the increased importance attached to the sermon during the early middle ages.

Originally of stone or wood there are about 160 medieval pulpits left, mainly in East Anglia and the West Country. Of these some 100 are wooden. Both wooden and stone medieval pulpits were octagonal and decorated with panels on which were carved or painted saints and other devotional figures. All Saints' at Trull, Somerset, is one splendid example. Many pre-Reformation pulpits were tall and narrow, standing on long slender stems. A few had an inscription requesting people to pray for its named benefactors. Some pulpits had doors. An example, at Brimpsfield, has the date engraved (1658). The oldest wooden pulpit is at Mellor (Derby). Some wooden pulpits were built on a stone base, as at Elkstone and Upleadon.

Of about sixty medieval stone pulpits remaining in the country most are in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Devon. Some good examples exist in Devon, at Bovey Tracey and Dartmouth, and in Gloucestershire at Cirencester, Chedworth, North Cerney (perhaps the finest in the county) and Northleach. These have graceful canopied niches, that at Cirencester (c.1440) has a wine glass stem and was originally painted. The pulpit at Chipping Sodbury is approached by steps cut into the wall.

During the late 16th century hourglasses, to time the length of the sermon, were introduced. Looking like large egg-timers they were fixed to the pulpit, or the adjacent wall, with iron brackets. Some ironwork was skilfully decorated. Few remain today.

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries many Jacobean (post-Reformation) wooden pulpits were built, often with a large sounding board added above. Churchdown has such an example. The churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren, after the Great Fire of London, were some of the first to be built expressly for Anglican worship. In these auditory plan churches pride of place went to the pulpit, which was raised above the box pews common in those days.

During the late 17th and early 18th century the whole interior of new churches was very lavishly carved and painted with exquisitely made pulpits. Three-decker pulpits became the fashion. At their lowest level was the prayer desk, above was the lectern and at the highest level the pulpit. Three-deckers have survived at Oddington and Didmarton. The 18th century plaster ceilings helped to make the voice of the preacher more audible.

A Gothic revival in architecture occurred during the Victorian era leading to what was seen as a 'correct' style in the arrangement of the interior. Numerous three-decker pulpits were removed, or reduced, and the pulpit and lectern faced each other across the nave. Many architects designed churches during this time when an increasing population precipitated a dramatic increase in the number of seats needed. Many Victorian pulpits may seem out of place in the church of today.


Used in medieval times for the reading of the Gospel lecterns were sited in the chancel, and made of wood or metal, and were portable. After the Reformation lecterns were removed from their long-standing position in the chancel and placed in the nave.

Lecterns have two forms:

i) a simple desk supported on a pillar; a good example is found in the church at Ranworth, Norfolk;

ii) an eagle or pelican perched on a globe and supporting a book on its outstretched wings. Few old brass eagle lecterns remain but that at Ottery St Mary dates from the 14th century. From the late 15th century are the brass eagle at Chipping Campden and the oak eagle lectern in the church at Leverington, Cambridgeshire. The eagle is the symbol of St John.


Old books can still be seen in a few churches. At Upleadon there is a copy of the King James Bible residing in a glass case. This copy is called the Black Letter Bible because it was copied using black ink. It dates from 1613, when the translation of the Old Testament into English was finished. In the church at Westbury-on-Severn is a copy of the second volume of Foxe's "Book of Martyrs". It is protected in a glass case with the remains of its chain still visible.

The largest library of chained books is in Hereford Cathedral. Of its 2000 volumes about 1500 are chained. The chaining of books was done before the Reformation. Many have wonderful illustrations and carefully lettered text. Nothing could be too good for the House of God.

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The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933

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Last modified: 06 June 2015