July 2018 - precious plasterwork

A view of the Magistrates Court from one end of the room
Published : 04 Jul 2018

On the top floor of the Adam Tower at Chirk Castle there is a long, narrow room with white walls and a fireplace. Being as this room is at the top of two flights of uneven steps, and a bit of a dead-end it is often overlooked by visitors. This room is known as the Magistrate's Court, and it is fascinating, puzzling and important in its own right.

As Chirk Castle was being built in the late 13th-century, the idea of delivering objective justice was still in its infancy in England, and rarely employed in the bandit lands of the Welsh Borders. Irregular, 'summary justice’ would have been meted out by Roger Mortimer and his kin, but the penalties would have been spontaneous acts rather than unbiased jury-based considerations.

This system hardly altered in the Welsh borderlands until the introduction of the Courts of Quarter Sessions after the Act of Union in 1536. Sessions were held every three months, when cases like burglary, assault, drunkenness, poaching, vagrancy and rioting would be heard, and penalties such as fines, flogging, transportation, and by then imprisonment, would be administered. These Courts also heard disputes between individuals, and were responsible for the administration of the Poor Laws.

Petty Sessions began at the beginning of the 18th-century, to lighten the load on the Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions. Held twice monthly and dealing with minor cases like drunkenness, trespassing, fraud, ale-licensing and adoption, they required the presence of at least two Justices of the Peace, but no jury.

The Magistrates Court at Chirk Castle appears to be so named because of the presence of a figure in the plasterwork over the fireplace, which has been previously interpreted to represent 'Justice'. However, the evidence is inconclusive and some features of the plasterwork may suggest that the primary function of the room may not have been the dispensation of justice...

This figure in the Magistrate's Court at Chirk Castle has been interpreted to represent Justice
This figure in the Magistrate's Court at Chirk Castle has been interpreted to represent Justice
This figure in the Magistrate's Court at Chirk Castle has been interpreted to represent Justice

The plasterwork itself is very interesting, the only existing interior decoration at the castle from before the English Civil War (1642-1651). It is believed to have been created for Sir Thomas Myddelton, a self-made merchant, Lord Mayor of London, and founder member of the East India Company, who bought Chirk Castle in 1595. The plasterwork is rich in imagery – vine leaves and the presence of a monkey, griffins, exotic birds and wolves hint strongly at the worldly connections we might associate with a successful international entrepreneur. Lets now look closer at that plasterwork figure...

Traditionally, the figure of ‘Justice’ represents total impartiality, in a blind female form, holding the ‘sword of justice’ in one hand, and ‘scales of justice’ in the other... and here is our problem: the figure in our ‘Magistrate’s Court’ is clearly male, has no obvious suggestion of blindness, and although one hand holds a set of scales, the implement in his other hand looks more like an instrument of measurement. Further, the cap worn by the figure is reminiscent of the traditional ‘merchant’s cap’ of the later Middle Ages.

Is it conceivable that instead of representing Justice this could actually be a representation of the internationally successful merchant Sir Thomas Myddelton? The period is right, the imagery fits, and the room is right next to Sir Thomas's own chambers in the castle. The Myddeltons, like many noble families, served as Justices of the Peace, but the Myddelton Accounts for the period show no evidence of Quarter or Petty Sessions ever being held here at the castle, and by this time purpose-built local courtrooms were very often used.

A figure of a wolf's head and the 'vines of plenty' in the Magistrates Court
A figure of a wolf's head and the 'vines of plenty' in the Magistrates Court
A figure of a wolf's head and the 'vines of plenty' in the Magistrates Court

Alas this is only one possible interpretation, and for the time being there is not enough evidence to say with certainty what function the room was designed to perform, so the name of 'The Magistrates Court' will remain. In time we hope to be able to find further historical information to tell us more of the story. However, the mystery of the previous use of the room doesn't detract from the historical interest of the plasterwork frieze, or how important it is that we preserve it for future generations.

For many years water ingress through the outer stonework of the castle at the top of the West Range has been causing problems with the precious plasterwork, and the detail has started to deteriorate. In order to protect the frieze from ongoing damage a major piece of conservation work in the Magistrates Court has been scheduled for this July, to be conducted by Cliveden Conservation, one of the country’s leading experts in stone and plaster heritage conservation.

Water ingress through the stonework is causing damage to the plasterwork
An image showing water damage to the plasterwork image of a bird
Water ingress through the stonework is causing damage to the plasterwork

First they will investigate to see if they can narrow down the exact cause of the water ingress. Then if necessary sections of plasterwork will be removed from the wall, whilst the stonework behind is treated for damp, and a long-term solution is found. This will also give the experts a good chance to examine the frieze in much more detail. To remove the plasterwork a silicon rubber ‘jacket’ will be made as a support, and then long saw blades will be inserted behind each panel to gently cut them away from the wall.

Our aim is to consolidate and protect the decorative detail from further damage, and to find a permanent solution so that the plasterwork can remain on the wall for many more people to puzzle over, interpret and discuss.