There are thirty-two surviving lead fonts in England. The northernmost is at Barnetby-le-Wold in Lincolnshire near the Humber Estuary. It also happens to be the largest. This is very much an “outlier” with the majority being located in the southern England and the Midlands. The thirty two are found, however, in no fewer than fourteen counties. This is a considerable geographical spread and suggests that the surviving fonts may be a small fraction of the original corpus. Derbyshire, for example, has just one such font at Ashover. Yet lead was mined in the Peak District from at least the Roman period. We must surmise that many more have been lost. Why should this be so? Well, I have already touched upon the known depredations of Roundhead soldiers in the Civil War. I don’t quite know why Royalists are not in the frame for this as well, but Cromwell’s blokes are an easy target and with their Puritan views they certainly had little respect for fripperies in churches. That, however, is just one aspect of the fundamental threat to the such fonts over the centuries - the recyclability of lead.
Brian Harris in his “Harris’s Guide to Churches and Cathedrals” gives a splendid and comprehensive review of the lead font. He had discovered that as late as Victorian times lead fonts were being melted down and re-used for purposes such as repairs to lead roofs. Then there is the issue of iconoclasm. An “idolatrous” stone font might be smashed, disfigured or relegated to use as an animal trough but many were eventually located and restored. A lead font, however, was much easier to destroy totally. Even a fire in the church would inevitably lead to the loss of a lead font. So we simply have no idea of the original numbers.
I would suggest that another reason for their loss might be that they really were not very attractive. As stone-carving skills became more sophisticated it would be hardly surprising if a parish decided that a nice octagonal stone font with carvings of - for example - the Seven Sacraments would be preferable to a dull industrial-looking font with rather crude decoration. Again, it would not be difficult to re-use the old one in order to defray the cost of the new. One cannot help wondering how many Gothic style fonts replaced lead ones. Even Norman stone fonts were often treated with disdain by later generations. Many is the Norman font that was found serving in some capacity on a farm or discarded in a churchyard. At Ingleton in Yorkshire the font was found in the river having been apparently rolled down the steep hill from the church. Lead fonts have similar stories. Harris recounts that Barnetby’s was found in the church’s boiler room!
Nevertheless, even allowing for uncertainty about the original numbers I believe that lead fonts were no more than an experimental technology that even in the short term was doomed to failure. It is hard to imagine that any parish would prefer the material over stone so it seems likely to me that the market (forgive the neologisms) was producer-led rather than consumer-led. Lead was being used to line stone fonts and it was a short step in the imagination for the manufacturers to start thinking that with a bit of modification and decoration the lining might constitute the actual font.
The pages on this website show, I hope, that nothing in our parish churches was as variable in quality or subject matter as the Norman font. Look at Eardisley or Castle Frome in Herefordshire for examples on the Norman font at its sumptuous best. Look at Stone in Buckinghamhire or Sculthorpe in Norfolk for the most sophisticated in symbolism. Then look at North Grimston and Kirkburn in North Yorkshire for the crudest of religious imagery. Some were clearly carved by real master craftsmen with religious guidance from local monks. Others were apparently carved by men more used to just laying one block of stone on top of another. It depended on who was available.
There is no shortage of stone in the vicinity of Long Wittenham. There are many wonderful stone fonts in the vicinity that demonstrate the availability of master craftsmen. The adoption of a lead font then seems likely to have resulted from either shortage of money or from having swallowed unrealistic claims about what was achievable. Whether the font is better or worse than the worst of the stone Norman fonts is a matter of opinion and our artistic values are anyway very different from those pertaining nine hundred years ago.
I am no expert on the technology of crafting in lead but one shortcoming of using it for this purpose jumps out at me: the difficulty in creating designs with depth. If you look at most of the lead fonts on these pages you will see that the decoration is of uniform shallow depth and therefore rather lifeless. Painters, of course, can give an illusion of depth on a flat medium but metallurgists cannot. Moreover, even the best of the fonts - see Brookland in Kent - are often a patchwork of comparatively small designs. Even the best of the craftsman were unable to create anything on a sweeping scale such as at Eardisely and Castle Frome.
If I am right in my surmise that lead fonts were mainly a result of lead miners and smelters seeking more profitable avenues for their industry then we would expect to see a degree of uniformity in design, demonstrating mass rather than bespoke manufacturing techniques. A corpus of thirty-two surviving fonts is an unpromising base for demonstrating this but, rather surprisingly, we see just that in Gloucestershire. The county has nine of the surviving lead fonts. The Forest of Dean was one of the foremost lead producing areas in England so we are not talking here of coincidence. We might speculate that originally there were many more. Of the nine, no fewer than five are undoubtedly cast from the same mould. They are also of a decent quality and their survival surely owes something to that.
If you feel I am being too hard on the concept of fonts made of lead, consider this: there are hardly any later than the early part of the thirteenth century or any earlier than the mid-late twelfth century. The envelope is actually probably narrower than that. Whatever the popularity or otherwise of the lead fonts and whatever one thinks of their attractions, it is a fact that their production was short-lived. It is quite possible that the lead producers were simply pursuing a (by historical standards) short-term opportunity when demand for decorated fonts in stone outstripped supply.
For today’s “church crawler” a lead font is, of course, an unexpected delight: a curiosity. It’s a bit like those cars from the nineteen fifties. With their chrome and leather and their lovely paint schemes I love to see them. Just don’t ask me to drive one!