A numerical oddity in Cornwall

TRERICE HOUSE IN Cornwall was built mainly between 1570 and 1573. It is one of the loveliest National Trust (‘NT’) properties in the county and one of my top ten. In one of the upper rooms there is an ornate bas-relief above the fireplace. The top of this bears the following:

“ANNO: DOMINI: M : CCCCC : LXX3”

It is clearly a date in mostly Roman numerals, (i.e., 1573). However, this date has several odd features.

‘CCCCC’ is 500, but usually abbreviated to ‘D’ in Roman numerals. There is a surplus of colons (‘:’) and instead of ending in a Roman numeral, there is the Arabic numeral ‘3’.  Or is it the symbol for a serpent, rather than a ‘3’? It is a curiously shaped 3: it is widest at the top and tapers towards its lower end.

The NT volunteer offering information in the room with this curious date suggested three possible explanations for this peculiar form of the date above the fireplace. One is that the creator of this date miscalculated the amount of space, and instead of ending the date in ‘: III’, used the Arabic ‘3’ to fit in the last part of the date. Had he used ‘D’ instead of the unusual ‘CCCCC’, there would have been plenty of space to fit in the entire date using only Roman numerals. Another explanation offered is that the ‘3’ is really a stylised serpent, a symbol of wisdom often associated with Queen Elizabeth I, during whose reign the house was built.

3 or a serpent?

The last explanation was provided by a builder, who had visited Trerice some weeks before us. He suggested that the ‘3’ was added to indicate that the building works were supposed to have been completed in 1570, but had finished 3 years later than expected; the builders were running behind schedule.

Whatever the explanation of the curiously written date, and you might have another theory, Trerice is well worth a visit.

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