It was, quite literally, the seat of the second Earl of Zetland. A Freemason’s throne, hand-carved from the charred and fallen timbers of York Minster but then abandoned to its fate in an old barn, is perhaps Yorkshire’s most unusual and uncomfortable armchair.
Now rescued and restored, but with a history shrouded in secrecy, it has emerged in the south of England and is about to go under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Yet despite its provenance, Freemasonry is a niche market, and the starting bid is expected to be little higher than £3,000.
Auctioneer Matthew Coles was led to the chair following a tip from a client in 2002.
He said: “I went on a job just south of York, and was led outside to an old farmhouse – and in the barn was this old chair with a plaque on the back. So I started to research its history.”
The inscription on the plaque revealed that the ceremonial chair had been carved from wood and bell metal rescued from York Minster after the disastrous fire that destroyed its belfry, in May 1840.
It was the second time in 11 years that the building had been engulfed – a disaster that would not re-occur until the lightning strike of 1984. In 1840, the cause had been a candle, left burning in error by a mechanic from Leeds called William Groves, who had been repairing the cathedral clock.
Mr Coles said: “The date ties with the coat of arms on the front, which belongs to the second Earl of Zetland,. He held the most senior Masonic post in York – Provincial Grand Master – at the time of the fire.”
The second Earl, Thomas Dundas, was a politician who had been elected, 22 years before the fire, the Whig MP for his father and grandfather’s old seat of Richmond. A decade later he became MP for York.
His use for the chair is uncertain, but records indicate that within four years, he would become Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England, a position that stands today and which is held by the Duke of Kent.
Mr Coles said: “It’s not what you would really call a typical Masonic chair – they usually have some more height to them.
“This one is very much a throne, a presentation piece, rather than something you would use in a dining room.”
He believes the chair would have been gifted to the Earl by junior Masons repairing the damage to the Minster.
“There may have been Masons working at the Minster who asked whether they could use the fallen timbers to create the chair,” he said. “All we really know is that the silver plaque tells us.”
The absence of records from the secretive Masonic lodges means little is known about the chair’s onward use.
But there remains the intriguing possibility of its involvement in the celebrations that followed the 1850 Epsom Derby, at which Zetland’s horse, Voltigeur, triumphed. His tenants were said to have bet heavily on the animal, which also won the St Leger and the Doncaster Cup in the same year, and had faced ruin if he failed.
Mr Coles had been working in Leeds when he recovered the throne from its barn, and it passed into the hands of a collector in Harrogate, who restored the wood and leather and is now selling it.
He traced Mr Coles to his new job at Martin and Pole in Wokingham, Berkshire, to conduct the sale, which will take place there on April 25.
“The vendor brought the chair all the way down from Yorkshire to Berkshire, so it is an honour to be offering it for sale,” he said.
“It felt very personal to me. It is one of the most memorable items to have passed through my hands.
“I am hoping it will go to another appreciative owner. But the restoration hasn’t added significant value. We expect it to fetch between £3,500 and £5,000.
“The interest lies in the history that surrounds the chair, rather than the condition of it.”
The secretive initiation ceremonies carried on by lodges of Freemasons have sometimes earned them ridicule and condemnation.
Earlier this year, Dr David Staples, chief executive of the United Grand Lodge of England, broke cover to launch a public relations offensive in the face of claims that Masonic cliques had blocked police investigations against their members.
Around 10 MPs and some 200 judges and policemen are said to be paid-up Masons. They are joined by hundreds of civil servants and councillors at ritualistic events in historic buildings across England, up to eight times a year.
Dr Staples said the lodges had raised more than £33m for good causes during the past year, and added that he had written to the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission to make the case that members “shouldn’t have to feel undeservedly stigmatised”.
Lodges would also hold “open evenings”this year, he said.