Monday, 21 March 2011


It constitutes a lie, sitting there under the massive stairwell, unobtrusive despite its size. Most if not all, pass it by without a second glance. It's a nice piece of furniture but there is nothing special about it to attract attention, it's just a sideboard, cabinet, call it what you will.

No flash photography allowed so apologies for the quality here
You may be somewhat astonished, therefore that Fine Art auctioneers, Christie's has placed an insurance value of £3 million on it.....that's $488 million in USA currency.
Not something to be sneezed at perhaps?

Why so special? You could pick up a  look-alike model for under £1000 at any half decent auction house. The clue lies in its Warwickshire's Coughton Court, family seat of the Catholic Throckmorton family, it is known as "The Mass Cabinet".

Aha....the penny/dime is dropping....this has links with the Reformation, Catholic recusancy, undercover priests and the rest. If you speak kindly to one of the guides they may consider opening the doors for you but, after careful consideration they say: "No". So then if you speak particularly obsequiously in a wheedling fashion to the top guide (no, not Arkela) she may relent and yield to your flattery by carefully, oh so carefully, opening the cabinet doors.

Be warned, this is a jaw dropping event. What is revealed within is not what one would expect to find in a cabinet; instead the eye is treated to a display of drawers and doors all crafted exquisitely by some Tudor craftsman or men in a manner that would be hard to reproduce  even using computer aided technology today. It is, of course, not a cabinet but an altar, hidden from prying eyes.

As I am a person who has difficulty in even nailing together a bird nesting box for the garden, I am impressed beyond words. Each minute set of drawers, intended to house patens, palls, purificators and other small altar items. The cupboards perhaps to house amices, chalices and the like.

But glory of glories, the centrepiece is worth a post just to itself. Behold a small tabernacle with a glass front, again precision crafted: just imagine exposition taking place with a 12" high monstrance behind the glass.

The centrepiece, a tabernacle in miniature
The wood used in the construction (that seems too clumsy a word for such a divine object) is, so we are told, a Caribbean softwood that requires carving immediately, more or less. It then hardens to a mahogany type density. I am not sure that this rings true. For my money, carving in fine detail requires a hard wood to start with in order to achieve sharp delineation. My guess is that it is teak or, more likely, mahogany.
It does not really matter.
What does matter is that this cabinet duped the pursuivants, those who would spy and track down our priests and their supporters. It is better really than a priests' hole which were built to totally deceive the eye by their very invisibility.
The Mass Cabinet is a shade, dare I say, magical as first you see it and then you don't.
It is Father Brown's postman; so commonly seen and such an accepted part of the scenery that he escapes notice altogether.
How the Throckmorton family must have held back their chortles as the pursuivants marched to and fro within the house, tapping on the panelling, peering up the fireplaces and looking behind the portraits hanging on the wall.

If they only knew it, what they were seeking was under their very noses - there is a metaphor lurking there somewhere!

Coughton Court (pronounced Co-ton) is a National Trust property in the English Midlands. It is well worth a visit. Many members of the Throckmorton family emigrated to Boston, Virginia and other parts of the USA to escape the persecutions...but more of that in a post to come.


  1. And not one of the craftsmen told. Wonderful.

  2. Fascinating and inspiring. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Absolutely beautiful ... and I don't suppose any home woodworking magazines have plans for one of these gems.

  4. Hope they kept the plans. We may need one of those here in the USA some day. (Exterior must be streamlined a bit.)

  5. I'm sorry I missed this. Is it another example of a justified lie?

  6. L-F - yes indeed. I thought we had lied that one to rest (sorry).