A Master Craftsman
This month our local historian, Ruth E. Richardson, tells the story of the King's Carpenter
John Abell (1577–1674) of Sarnesfield, lived during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, King James and King Charles I when Catholics were fined for non–attendance at their parish Church. However, John secretly married his first wife, Johanna, in a Catholic ceremony. Twice charged with recusancy, John's 1618 acquittal meant he was a conforming Catholic, but his name on recusancy lists from 1640 shows he stopped attending his parish Church in his 60s. His consequent fines meant he died in poverty, receiving parish Poor Relief perhaps because his son did conform. (This John was churchwarden in 1699.) John Abell wrote his own tomb inscription (see Dore Archive on Ruth's website: blancheparry.com).
In 1645, during the Civil War, Charles I and the Royalists were besieged in Hereford by Scots, who burnt corn and powder mills. When food and gunpowder supplies were affected, John built hand–mills. Sir Barnabus Scudamore said he was the only man in England who could do this. He made Scudamore a siege engine called 'the Sow' to use against the Parliamentary garrison at Canon Frome but it was captured before deployment. Neverthelesss, a grateful Charles I granted John the title of Master, or King's, Carpenter.
John's work is traced through surviving contracts. In 1625, under the terms of Lady Margaret Hawkins' Will, he was paid £240 (c. £22,000 now) to build a school in Kington, supplying all materials. In 1633 Viscount Scudamore (brother of Sir Barnabus) paid John far more to restore Dore Abbey, now the best surviving example of a Laudian Church. John's repairs included the church, the steeple with bell–frame, and the watermill (see: 'A Definitive History of Dore Abbey', edited by Ron Shoesmith & Ruth). He was paid £30 (c. £2,200 now) in 1652 to build a house extension, his plan surviving in the Tyberton Court papers (see David Whitehead in ODNB). Other commissions included a domestic screen for Monnington Court, re–roofing Vowchurch Church in 1613, and being employed by Rowland Vaughan for his waterworks scheme. He also built market halls in Brecon, Kington and Leominster.
John's carpentry work was beautifully executed. We now know from Dore Abbey's screen that his carvings were originally painted and gilded. He was educated and liked using quotations, some from St. Jerome and Cato the Elder. The same Latin inscription on Dore's screen is among those, in Latin and English, on Leominster market hall, now Grange Court (see www.grangecourt.org). He also carved the same figures in different places.
Grange Court's many carvings include naked ladies. One of these depicts Queen Elizabeth I as her face profile matches the Queen's on her tomb and her coins. Dore Abbey also has a naked lady which is extraordinary in a church. Did she here stand for evil to be avoided, or was this John's way of showing his derision of Protestantism? Another carving at Grange Court is perhaps the only surviving portrayal of John himself. Grange Court (free admission, Mondays to Saturdays) has a permanent exhibition about John Abell so do visit and see the carvings for yourself.
New Note: I am grateful to Gwyneth Guy's extensive research for showing that John Abell signed himself with two 'll's on surviving documents. Therefore, I have changed the spelling of his name here.
©Ruth E. Richardson 2014