In Focus: The Great Chamber Frieze

Those who have visited Godinton will almost certainly have been shown the carvings of The Great Chamber. The room itself dates back to the 1630s, when the house was rebuilt under Captain Nicolas Toke: as was the fashion of the day, the room would have been used for entertaining, often in the form of dancing, dining, music or playing games. Running around the top  of the oak-panelled walls is a remarkable frieze of militia men on a pike and musket drill. This unique frieze would have been carved by a highly-skilled craftsman, and yet there are no references to this piece of work in the accounts for the period, so this craftsman remains anonymous.

Militia men were in effect a reserve army, men who were most definitely not professional soldiers, but could be called upon to fight in a time of need. They were an important institution in 17th century England, and unsurprisingly, from time to time, they were required to train so that they would be ready for active service should they be called upon. Godinton’s frieze depicts the men at just such a moment, as they train with pikes and muskets. The ordering of the frieze makes it read almost like an instruction manual for a pike and musket drill, with each of the panels showing men in consecutive positions, practising their skills.

Pikes and muskets were indeed weapons which needed skill to use. A pike is a long thrusting spear between 3 and 7.5 metres in length, and they weigh between 2.5 and 6kg. Their unwieldiness meant that they were commonly used in a defensive manner, but an inability to use a pike properly could be seriously detrimental to an army. Muskets were a form of long gun popular in 16th and 17th century Europe, with a barrel length of somewhere between 3 to 4 feet. Drills to load and fire muskets were formalised by the 18th century as the process was far from straight-forward ad needed to be executed correctly.

The images on the frieze are believed to have been taken from Jacob de Gheyn’s ‘Exercises of Armes for Calivres, Musketts and PIkes, after the order of His Excellence Maurits Prince of Orange, Count of Nassua’ (1607), as the men depicted are almost identical to de Gheyn’s. Whilst pikes and muskets both fell out of fashion in warfare, as late as 1925, the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) formed its own company of Pikemen & Musketeers, which provides the Lord Mayor of London’s bodyguard and still participates in ceremonial occasions.