The Devil's in the Detail

The Devil's in the Detail

Religion and superstition were crucial in daily life in sixteenth and seventeenth century England; people’s deeply held beliefs about the importance of living a pious and godly life infiltrated how they furnished their home and how they interacted with material objects. This exhibition will shine a light on how superstition, fears about the threat of evil spirits, and how people’s beliefs were revealed in household objects. You will leave this exhibition with an understanding of the power of religion and superstition in Tudor England through the setting of Selly Manor, and its collection.


This exhibition is split into sections to help you navigate the text with images to help you to visualise the subjects and the objects. It is helpful to think of this exhibition in two parts.

The first half of this exhibition immerses you in the confusing world of Tudor superstition and religious turmoil to help visualise how the yeomen owners of Selly Manor navigated this world. The Protestant Reformation 1520 (the change of England from an officially Catholic country to a Protestant country) introduced major changes in daily religious practice. You will learn how despite this wider official religious change, catholic iconography and old beliefs in superstition and mythology continued to influence thought. This wider context will be considered on a specific scale of the middling-sort (middle class) home like Selly Manor with an introduction to previous owner Phyliss Setterford.

The second half of this exhibition delves into specific items from the Laurence Cadbury Collection to illustrate how beliefs in mythology and superstition infiltrated the home. This is split between three main objects: the Achilles Tapestry, the Grotesque Chest, and the Daisy Wheel Chest.


Religion in 16th and 17th century England

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Fig.1 Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Catholicism was the dominant religion in Europe with Rome as the centre of Christian authority. For many rulers in Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was a powerful player in European politics and religion often featured as a key matter in Tudor politics. This long-standing authority of Rome made Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England even more shocking. King Henry’s motives for breaking from Rome, changing the religion of England from Catholic to Protestant, were deeply political. The Pope held a powerful political position in Europe, he even had authority over granting divorces and annulments. After being refused an annulment of his twenty-four-year marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt), Henry VIII made the decision to create his own Christian church which he would govern to give himself his divorce. And so, the official protestant Church of England was created around 1532.


Protestantism and Catholicism – branches of Christianity in England

The contentious topic of the correct practice of Christianity existed before Henry’s break from Rome. The Reformation bought religious practice into question, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses identified the problems within the Catholic Church and encouraged a critical discussion of how Christianity should be practised and the shortcomings of the established Catholic Church. Protestantism offered an alternative to the iconographic – focused on images of saints and Christ - ceremonial approach of Catholicism. Protestantism’s focus on private prayer and the simplification of Church decoration made it easier for the laity (‘normal people’ - not members of the clergy) to practice Christian worship without relying on members of the Church. The Book of Hours and the Book of Common Prayer were written in English and expanded the scope of religious learning. Religion was always a central part to peoples’ daily lives, but Protestant practices gave them freedom to explore religion in new independent ways.


Continuance of old beliefs

Officially the people of England were members of the Church of England and therefore Protestant. However, the official break from Rome did not mean people completely left Catholic beliefs behind – this is shown through the levels of recusancy fines. Catholic Recusants paid fines to be able to practice Catholicism in private; this had to be a private practice as the Church of England was intertwined with the monarchy – Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I were the heads of this new church so refusing to become a member would be rejecting the authority of the monarch (treason). This contrast between old and new ideas and the continuance of the old is put into the context of superstition and mythology in this exhibition. We will explore how mythology and superstitious belief in the supernatural are reflected in material culture (objects).


The Setterfords at Selly Manor

Selly Manor has had many different owners but we’re going to focus on the Setterford family, specifically the widowed Phyliss Setterford. Phyliss died in 1608 leaving an inventory of her belongings that give us a rare insight into the possessions of a yeoman (middling-sort) woman. In this detailed inventory we get a glimpse at Phyliss’s attitudes and beliefs through the objects she owns or does not own.

Why is this exhibition in Selly Manor

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Fig.2 Selly Manor

Using Phyliss Setterford as a focal figure brings this wider context of changes in thought into the setting of a middling-sort manor. We can imagine what a yeoman-class woman would consider necessary and important in her home and how material objects can represent the beliefs and concerns of their owner. In the inventory, there is no fireplace in the kitchen which suggests Phyliss’s meals were cooked over the fire in the hall. This was old-fashioned by early 17th century when cooking over a fire in the kitchen was popular. It is seen that despite general habits and fashions changing, individuals’ personal beliefs still remain unchanged in daily practice. This links to the wider exploration of the extent to which superstition and religious beliefs infiltrate a residence like Selly Manor. Considering the objects in the Lawrence Cadbury Collection within the context of a middling-class manor helps us to understand how owners like Phyliss may have viewed the world and rationalised their outdated beliefs.

The Setterford and Pritchett families who lived in Selly Manor were buried in St Lawrence’s Church which is Church of England which is a display of their faith. However, this somewhat public display of faith does not mean catholic iconography and older pagan mythology were never seen in the home in subtle ways, the Laurence Cadbury Collection reveals this.


Greek Mythology and belief

The Achilles Tapestry

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Fig.3 The Tapestry depicting Achilles being presented with his armour c. 17th century; Laurence Cadbury Collection.

Although the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were times of change and questioning established religious practice, many people still made connections between their world and that of the ancients. This is seen through objects such as the tapestry at Selly Manor that depicts the story of Achilles, a popular Greek myth which formed part of Homer’s Iliad (fig.3). Achilles refused to fight in the Trojan wars after being dishonoured but changed his mind after his mother gave him new armour made by the god Hephaestus. This tapestry is likely to have been originally connected to Packwood House’s tapestry. Made in the southern Netherlands this tapestry offers simple biblical and mythological motifs. Having this tapestry in a household says a lot about the owner; it suggests that people in seventeenth century England valued bravery, taking responsibility, and overcoming hardship and often found these ideals in classical mythology. This also reflects how the owners wished to demonstrate their education and knowledge of classical mythology. This fine tapestry would have been too grand for a house like Selly Manor. However, the Setterfords would have been aware of the significance of the beliefs and values the tapestry reflected in seventeenth century England.

The Grotesque Chest

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Fig.4 The Grotesque Chest c.1580-1600; Laurence Cadbury Collection. 

Another item in the Laurence Cadbury Collection that has mythological imagery is the Grotesque Chest (fig.4). This oak, carved chest is dated to 16th century and is one of the most interesting pieces of wooden furniture in Selly Manor because of its bizarre mythical carvings. The Green Man is a figure in pagan mythology that symbolises the cycle of life, death and re-birth and he also heralds Spring and the return of lush vegetation after winter. The Green Man image was seen in many different Tudor objects and architecture such as the pew ends on the Church of the Holt Ghost, Crowcombe Somerset dating to 1535. (Fig 5)

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Fig.5 Green Man face on the pew end on the
Church of the Holy Ghost, Crowcombe Somerset c.1535.

The floral, foliage detailing on the chest complements the idea of the beauty of nature seen in the Green Man legend. This beauty is starkly contrasted by the grotesque animals featured across the chest. The bizarre part-man part-animal figures show how Tudor people conceived the natural world in combining realistic foliage with unworldly, imagined creatures; we see how the lines between an imagined world and real life blurred. This combination of the real and imagined may have been a form of escapism for Tudor people; we can consider how people used the objects in their home as a gateway to an imagined world. 

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Fig.6 Book of Hours grotesque figure with bow and arrow compared to similar figure on the Grotesque Chest.

An interesting comparison can be made with the grotesque creatures and floral images in the Book of Hours and those on the Grotesque Chest (fig.6). Here we can see how the mythical figure holding a bow-and-arrow is seen on the chest and the book; this suggests that this image could have been inspired by the Book of Hours prayer book, highlighting the influence of formal religious devices on Tudor thought and creation of objects.

The combination of the grotesque and the beautiful shows the complexity of Tudor thought, it shows that people chose to see both sides of the world and could also suggest underlying fears about how beliefs about unworldly beings affecting their world. The Changeling Law proposed that fairies took peoples’ babies and swapped them with your own; it was a way people rationalised challenges like having a baby with birth defects. We see how Tudor people tried to make sense of their world, the things that were harder to deal with, by relying on mythology and imagined beings as guides in life or culprits for hardship.


Religious superstition and fear of the supernatural

Similar to how people used mythological and imagined creatures to expand their reality, they also held a deep fear of how supernatural beings could torment and harm them in a very real way. It is important to consider that our ideas of reality are very different to those of a Tudor person; although some have a fear of, or belief in, the supernatural many people today do not consider the supernatural a real threat in daily life.

With the strong influence of Christianity in society many people relied on a comfort in God’s divine power and guidance in their lives; this reliance on the comfort of God’s will and power in maintaining worldly order can reveal why supernatural beings like witches who disrupted this natural order were so feared in Tudor society. A common unsettling image in sixteenth and seventeenth century England was of the ‘world turned upside down’. Witches caused a complete reversal of what is good and right in the world, people feared these people, primarily women in England, who recited prayers backwards and ate children’s flesh. We know that these were imagined beings, there were no women eating children’s flesh, but the fear they created was very real – Tudor people genuinely believed that these demonic creatures were real (fig.7).

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Fig.7 Witches handing over babies to the Devil - Woodcut from the 17th century.

This fear makes sense when we consider that if there was a God, the all-powerful figure of good, then the Devil could be just as real and just as influential on daily life. Man’s role in original sin, Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise, can also help us understand why people used objects in their home to protect them from demonic corruption. It was the homeowner’s duty to discipline their household and protect the family from sin and shame, objects and furniture were tools to sanctify the home and fortify it against malevolent forces.

The Daisy Wheel Chest

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Fig. 8 The Daisy Wheel Chest c.1630 ; Laurence Cadbury Collection.

The Daisy Wheel Chest in Selly Manor is a brilliant example of fears of the supernatural infiltrating the home (fig.8). The Daisy wheel is a six-petaled flower, a mark of consecration in churches, was a symbol commonly used in Protestant objects to ward off evil spirits (fig.9). The fact that the owner wanted this symbol displayed clearly in the centre of an uncrowded panel of the chest suggests the significance of the symbol. Unlike the Grotesque Chest, the Daisy Wheel Chest is more understated which could reveal its practical and protective purposes compared to the decorative focus on the Grotesque. These understated ritual protection marks were seen in other places in the home like burn marks on timber doorframes or hidden cats built into the walls themselves! (Fig.10)

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Fig.10 Mummified cat displayed on the wall of the 16th-century Stag Inn, 14 All Saints Street, Old Town, Hastings, East Sussex, England.

The Daisy Wheel chest shows ritualistic action of Tudor people protecting themselves from evil, the fact people took practical steps shows how pervasive fears of the supernatural were in Tudor thought. We can see the active role of the home in spiritual life. This understated design can also be explained by religious ideas about seeing. Although some Protestants believed idols and images were corruption of pure worship, others considered them ok outside of religious practice – acceptable in a home environment. Protestant beliefs about the dangers of indulging the senses, particularly sight, is reflected in the plain decoration on the Daisy Wheel Chest; considering this belief the combination of the Grotesque Chest and the Daisy Wheel Chest can be confusing. Although this collection is not from the same home, the chests are dated to the same period (late 16th early 17th century), therefore it is appropriate to consider the pair in relation to each other. The variety of decorative style shows how Tudor beliefs, often rooted in religion or superstition, were complex and contradictory and were expressed through conscious choices in household objects.

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Fig. 9 Daisy Wheel Symbol also known as a Hexafoil - symbol supposed to ward off evil spirits. 


This exhibition reveals that material culture and objects within the home function on multiple levels. Beyond their practical purpose, these objects represent deeper held religious beliefs, superstitious neurosis, familial ideals and more. People made conscious choices to purchase household furniture and objects which had some level of meaning or ideological purpose. The features of these objects reflect their owners’ values and beliefs and are more than just things, they are tools for establishing someone’s beliefs and reveal their fears. It would be interesting to look at your household objects and assess what they say about you, you may find a deeper meaning in your favourite shirt which shows your outgoing nature or the sentimental value in your child’s first shoes.

Liz Pardoe - University of Birmingham Student Placement