The Pilgrims Plinth

The Pilgrims Plinth – Oct 2016   I would like to start by thanking everyone involved, both professionally and personally, in bringing this relief commission to life.

The Chaucer Monument celebrating the poet known as the ‘the Father of English Literature’ is composed of two works, my 7m relief of the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales and Sam Holland’s 3D figure of Geoffrey Chaucer.  The sculpture was gifted to the City by the Canterbury Commemmoration Society on the 12th of October 2016 and unveiled by Simon Armitage, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, following his wonderfully funny and erudite Opening Introduction to Chaucer’s Life and Works.

Lynne O’Dowd  2016


It was lovely to finally meet and thank everyone personally.  You are all such Good Sports! – especially those who took on Chaucer’s more outrageous characters and extreme poses.  Most of the questions asked during the Opening were about the imagery on the plinth.  Full Circle briefly introduces all the characters and elements, followed here by more detailed descriptions of the Still Life, Relief, The Tales, Symbols and Objects.


Miller piping

Bumcheeks scorched

Hoop and Chequer – Host – he gestures

for the Knight’s Tale first – Emelye’s prayer.

Doc, Merchant, Lawman, Franklin – striding out

Fluted Squire glancing back

between the Reve and brothers – Plowman and Good Parson

Trailing a Tale of Seven Deadly Sins.

Yeoman, bowed and peacock arrowed

charges through the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

of Chanticleer

falling Sainted Cecelia’s garland-ringed musical misnomer.

Amor Vincit Omnia


Scholar’s books and Shipman’s dagger

The White Crow whispers – the Manciple’s story

and Chaucer weighs – astrolable, pen and rosary.

A cupped ear, straining to hear

the Wife of Bath keeps tight rein over five spurs.

Pardons sold

and gynglen chimes herald

a hunting Monk

and the Summoner’s fury

against the sated Friar.

Fraternity Guildsmen cast their Becket badges into the river for luck

Shielded by – three black crows.

Miller’s dog, startles steed – tumbling cook

his pal, dodging hooves below  the –

Miller piping

buncheeks scorched

Hoop and Chequer – Host – he gestures

the Merchant’s second  Tale – of Beryn.



On and Off the Page

The Still Life on the new Beaney Library side of the plinth represents the history of storytelling from the oral tradition to the mass-produced printed book.

Chaucer initiated this with his first manuscript, the Hengwrt  illustrated here surrounding the names of the Donors re-enacting the characters from the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales.

Professor Linne Moonie at the Center for Medieval Studies in York identified Adam Pinkhurst as the scribe by his distinctive calligraphic flourish, the knotted tremolo in 2004.  Pinkhurst was also responsible for writing other Chaucer manuscripts including the Ellesmere, the first illustrated Canterbury Tales.

The Caxton/Pynson woodcut of the Tabard Inn meal records the start of the pilgrimage when the Host of the Inn offers a free meal on return, to the best storyteller on the journey.  Woodcut printing allowed the first mass-production of the written word.  (Rubbings can be taken from this as a souvenir).

Typeset metal blocks, here bearing Geoffrey Chaucer’s name in ‘Times’ the first ubiquitous font, later enabled a much wider dissemination of Chaucer’s works.

The quill, curving into the bridle of the Miller’s horse, begins the journey ‘On and Off the Page’ as the characters move from drawn illustrations into the imaginary world of the relief – taking a Full Circle to return to the surface of the manuscript.


The Plinth Relief portrays the 30 characters from The Prologue, on their pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn in Southwalk to visit the Shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.

In the Beaney library, Thomas Stothard’s painting of ‘The Pilgrimage to Canterbury’ provides the arrangement for the merry band, with design elements (ie stylised horses) taken from Blake’s etching and some costume details from the work of the two Ellesmere illustrators (distinguished by some having a mound of earth below the horse’s feet).

(Stothard and Blake’s friendship was broken in the quarrel over who had initially been commissioned to illustrate the Prologue.  Stothard’s design won and Blake struggled to show and sell his vision of Chaucer’s pilgrims.  I was surprised to discover that Blake earned a living by illustrating crockery catalogues for a while!)

The shape of the plinth, an offset truncated cone, emerged from a plan view of Chaucer’s astrolabe (the Sat Nav of his day).  Raising the smaller circle created the horse’s hoof silhouette of the plinth – very luckily!

Hoof shaped patterns can be found hidden throughout the relief.


The Canterbury Tales survive as an unfinished work of 24 stories in 10 linked ‘fragments’ (except between fragments 2 + 3).  Although the 82 to 84 manuscripts propose a variety of arrangements, Chaucer’s final intention remains unknown.

Incorporated into the design are symbols introducing six stories, chosen to represent Chaucer’s three sources – classical, religious and folktales – plus one original invention attributed to Chaucer himself – The Canon Yeoman’s Tale and the Tale of Beryn written by a monk of the Shrine of St Thomas Becket in 1410 or 1420 which takes up the baton and continues Chaucer’s story with an account of the Pilgrim’s HOLI-day in Canterbury and the beginning of their return journey to London.

I chose three with human heroes and three with animals.


MILLER’S TALE  Folktale (French Fablieux)   The combination of the Miller’s portly frame and bagpipes discretely parody bumcheeks.  Here, the musical end of the instrument is round relief while its other extremity is modelled flat, as the branding iron – that inflicted sore punishment on the devious Nicholas, after Alison’s behind had been kissed by the ever hopeful Absolon.

KNIGHT’S TALE  Classical (Boccaccio)   On the Knight’s ‘goode hors’ Emelye prays in the Temple of Diana (Hunter Godess of the Moon), for reprieve from her impending arranged marriage.

GOOD PARSON’S TALE  Religious (William Peraldus)   VII marks the top of a long scroll unfolding beneath the Squire’s horse with medieval animals representing the Seven Sins- snake/envy, frog/avarice, goat/lust, lion/anger, snail/sloth, peacock/pride and boar/gluttony.

(Wrath, a sin to depict, would be symbolised either by the lion, a grimace or by biting a shield or stretched cloth.  There are three quarrels in the Tales – the Miller and Carpenter’s, the Host and Pardoner’s and the Sumoner and Friar’s.  The latter were close together in the Stothard Order and could be orchestrated to portray ‘wrath’ in this way).

NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE  Folktale (Roman de Renart)   Chanticleer is seen here below the Yeoman’s horse.

NUN’S TALE  Religious (Legenda Aurea, Jacobus de Voragine)   St Cecelia, originally represented by a garland of roses and lilies was later appropriated as the Patron Saint of Music – so I’ve added an organ to the design.  An ironic coupling.

MANCIPLE’S TALE  Classical (Ovid)   The White Crow whispers news of infidelity only to pay for this by being plucked, turning him black.

CANON YEOMAN‘S TALE  at Boughton under Bleane   This is told by a late arrival to the group as they were nearing Canterbury.  An Ogilby map of the Pilgrims’ route, reproduced by permission of The Chapter of York, decorates the Yeoman’s horn identifying this meeting point.  The horn announcing this tale, is deliberately separated from the Squire’s Yeoman as they are distinctively different characters despite their similar job title.

(Mapping the Pilgrims’ route, using references from the available Tales, has inspired much debate amongst scholars as to Chaucer’s intended arrangement of these stories – The Bradshaw Shift being one of the most well known and controversial).

TALE OF BERYN  Noted very simply with the Merchant as it would have been his first on the return journey.


Symbols and Objects

 with historical references to real places and thingsstrip

Hoop and Chequer/Cheker – sign on the Host’s horse, was designed to link the Host’s Tabard Inn in London and The Cheker of Hope in Canterbury, the latter being mentioned in the Tale of Beryn.  The game of Alquerques preceded Draughts (Chequers).

Crowned A – Amour Vincit Omnia – The Lady Prioress’.  Melvin Bragg’s Illustrated Canterbury Tales pictures this artifact from the Guildhall Museum, London.  “Love Conquers All.”  While Chaucer helped to popularise Valentines Day, his is believed to be held on the 3rd of May commemorating the engagement of his patron Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1381.

Astrolabe – Chaucer’s.  This elegant instrument, cited in JB Priestly’s ‘Man and Time’ as the inspiration for the ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’, represents Chaucer’s life of travel and access to rare private manuscripts and purveyors of Tales on his diplomatic missions for the Crown.  It is speculated that Sercambi’s pilgrimage tales influenced Chaucer’s collection.

Pen – Chaucer’s, taken from the Hoccleve portrait.

Rosary – Chaucer’s, taken from a 16c portrait.  Men’s rosaries were short while women’s were long, doubling as jewellery.

Mary Veil – the Pardoner proffers a fake relic to the worldly and deaf Wife of Bath.   ‘For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer, which that he seyde was Oure lady veyl.’  Its m-shape mirrors the 7Sins scroll.

Becket Badges  the five Guildsmen throw their pilgrim’s souvenirs into the river for luck.  Canterbury was famous for its foundries in this period.

(The Carpenter and Tapicer were depicted as a Goldsmith and Tapestry Merchant in Stothard’s painting – Why?)

Coat of Arms of Thomas Becket – his shield with three black crows is recorded on the Tapicer’s tabard.  In Greek myths Choughs, known as sea-crows are sacred to Cronus, and in heraldry they’re known as becketts after the Saint.

or mentioned in the Prologue

Bagpipes – the Miller leads the pilgrimage to Canterbury

Flute – the Squire

Bow and peacock arrows – the Yeoman

Little Dogs playing – the Lady Prioress (note her side-saddle board)

Books – the Oxford Scholar (see his Ellesmere illustration)

Dagger – the Shipman (the handle being a Becket silhouette).

Five spurs – records the Wife of Bath’s succession of husbands, (see her foot-mantle)

Bells – the Monk  (‘gynglen bells’ – a lovely chiming word).


From oral stories and rare books read out loud – to today’s inclusive libraries,  From the cacophony of this boisterous crowd and the Wife of Bath’s gestured deafness – to the ‘Retraction…and…legacy of the Manciple’s Tale’s injunction to silence’, Sound and Silence inform this visual interpretation of the Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


The Riverside Chaucer – Oxford University Press, is the current text book.

Larry D. Benson (General Editor)   F.N. Robinson (Editor)