Charles Blount’s fireback

Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy (unknown artist)

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has, in its metalware collection, this boldly detailed armorial fireback on which are depicted the shield, Garter, supporters and crest of Charles Blount (pronounced Blunt), 8th Baron Mountjoy and, from 1603, 1st Earl of Devonshire. Born in 1563, he was a courtier and soldier, having a distinguished career in royal service, serving successfully as Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I and Lord Lieutenant there under James I. Previously he had been an MP before inheriting the barony in 1594. Somewhat usually for the time, Mountjoy openly had a mistress who was the former Penelope Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex. She had been unwillingly married to Robert, Baron Rich whom she left for Mountjoy, and she and Mountjoy had six children. Eventually, Rich divorced Penelope though she and Mountjoy were forbidden to marry. However, in 1605 they did so secretly, causing them to be banished from court. Mountjoy died the following year and Penelope the year after. As none of his children were legitimate, his titles died with him.

The Garter stall plate of Walter, 1st Lord Mountjoy (1420-1474), in St George’s Chapel, Windsor

The shield on the fireback shows quartered arms: in the first quarter, Barry nebuly of six Or and Sable (Blount); second, Argent, two wolves passant Sable on a bordure of the first eight saltires Gules (Ayala); third, Or a tower Azure (Mountjoy); and fourth, Vair (Gresley). Mountjoy was created a Knight of the Garter in 1597. I have not found an image of his Garter stall plate but the one for his ancestor, Walter, 1st Baron Mountjoy, shows the same arms, albeit with the quarters in a different arrangement. Above the helm the crest is ‘Out of a ducal coronet a crescent gold’. The supporters are not as described in Burke’s General Armory but are male and female figures, the male in armour but wearing a cap and the female dressed with a cloak and wearing a coronet. The fireback is slightly unusual in that the armorial is incomplete, the strap-end of the Garter being missing, indicating that either the strap-end was cut off before being used as the pattern for the fireback, which could suggest that the armorial was a pre-existing decorative carving, or that the fireback itself had been cut down from a larger original.

Badge of Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
The Clandon fireback (photo courtesy of The National Trust)

Recently I received an enquiry about another fireback with the same armorial on it that had been discovered in an outhouse at Clandon Park in Surrey. This National Trust property had been badly damaged by fire in 2015, but the outhouse had not been affected. Although clearly the same design as the casting in the V & A there was more to this fireback than on that version. Above the crescent crest is another Garter enclosing a sun charged with an eye, and above it another coronet. This appears to have been a badge of Charles Blount for it is noted on the website of the library of Toronto University where there is a collection of armorial insignia on the bindings of books. The badge had apparently been stamped on a book bought with money Mountjoy had given to the Bodleian Library at Oxford while he was in Ireland.

The next question was why was a fireback with the arms of Blount at Clandon Park in the first place? The probable answer is that in 1636 Sir Richard Onslow, of Knowle in Cranleigh, who was to acquire Clandon five years later, had purchased the manor of Dedisham, between Slinfold and Rudgwick in Sussex, from the heiress daughters of Sir Richard Blount. He had inherited Dedisham from his father in 1564 and the connection with Charles, Baron Mountjoy was that Richard Blount was descended from Thomas, the younger brother of the Walter Blount, 1st Lord Mountjoy, whose Garter stall plate is illustrated above. Also, included in the manor of Dedisham was an iron furnace and forge, one of many in Sussex at that time, making it possible that the Clandon fireback was cast at Dedisham. A distant connection with an aristocratic branch of the family could explain the presence of the Clandon fireback there, and it could have been removed to Clandon by one of the Onslows at a later date.

The Mountjoy armorial on the Clandon fireback is poorly defined and lacks the sharp detail seen on the V & A casting. However, the crowned Garter and sun badge are somewhat sharper. This suggests that the Clandon casting was made by using a worn casting of the V & A version as the pattern for a new casting to which an extension was added bordered by a flowing design in low relief and including the crowned Garter and sun badge. An easy thing to carry out if you happen to have an iron furnace and ironworkers in your employ.