Our way back home from the forest of Dean took us via Herefordshire and the village of Kilpeck, long ago Welsh, now a mile or two from the border. What had drawn us here was the church and the exquisite Saxon-Norman carvings that adorn it – probably the finest surviving examples of their kind. It was recently featured in an episode of Richard Taylor’s excellent BBC 4 series, Churches: How To Read Them, programmes that have made me, though an atheist, appreciate churches as repositories of history and art.
This is how Simon Jenkins describes it in his 1000 Best Churches:
Kilpeck is widely regarded as England’s most perfect Norman church….Nothing appears to have been added or subtracted over the centuries, apart from the furnishings. This means that the carvings are in situ and in context. They cover the south and west doorways, the chancel arch and the corbel-table that runs round the entire church. Dating from the mid-12th century, they are masterpieces of the Herefordshire School, ranking with the fonts at Eardisley and Castle Frome. For their survival we must thank the durability of Old Red Sandstone, salvation of Herefordshire architecture, which seems impervious to weather.
The Kilpeck carvings demonstrate the vigour of the Saxon-Norman sculptural tradition. Themes and styles are drawn from the pilgrim routes across northern Europe, from Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards, the entire Northmen diaspora. The south doorway has a Tree of Life tympanum. Oriental warriors peer through the foliage in the shafts and the dragons in the jambs. No less intriguing, if less accomplished, are the grotesques of the corbel- table, best preserved round the apse. Some are abstract, some figurative, some mythical. Here is an explicit sheela-na-gig of a woman holding open her vagina, a pig upside down, a dog and rabbit, two doves, musicians, wrestlers and acrobats. All the life of a busy and bawdy Herefordshire village is depicted on its church, with no respect for decorum or piety.
This slide show of the carvings starts at the south door and works its way around the church, anticlockwise.
The Herefordshire School were a group of master-masons working in modern Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the twelfth century A.D. Their distinctive carvings are found also at Eardisley, Shobdon and Castle Frome in Herefordshire, and Rock, Worcestershire. Their work depicts both religious and mystical images: Norman military figures, Saxon animals and Celtic abstract patterns combine in a bewildering synthesis, at least to the modern eye. At Kilpeck we can see images of a recognizably religious nature, alongside playful, occasionally bawdy pagan or Celtic imagery.
On the outer columns of the south door there are snakes; at the top of the right hand column is the Green Man. Some of the figures on the inner arch over the door and amongst the corbels are taken from the The Bestiary, the medieval text in which real or imaginary animals were described and moral lessons drawn from their characteristics. When they appeared carved in stone or wood they served as a visual language for the illiterate public, who would know the stories from preachers’ sermons, and would remember the moral teaching when they saw the beast depicted.
For example, here is the Mantichore, very fierce, with the body of a lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth like a shark, and the tail of a dragon or scorpion. It had the sting of a scorpion, delighted in eating human flesh and with the voice of a Sibyl, could seduce a man from the the virtuous life.
The corbel heads exhibit a wide variety of imagery – Celtic abstract designs, warnings against sin, horrors showing animal eating human, and the natural world of beast, bird and fish, amongst them a Disney-like dog and rabbit. None of these figures have any religious significance today.
For an interesting essay on representations of the human head in architectural decoration, go here.
Most bewildering to devout Victorians must have been the Sheela-na-Gig, a depiction of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva. The origin and meaning of these figures is debated; some suggest that they were used to represent female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting, others that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or Mother Goddess religion. They are found in many English churches and are common in Ireland. There is a tentative theory that the etymology derives from the Irish, Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘the old hag of the breasts’.
The first mention of a church on this site is in the Book of Llandaff, the oldest history of the Marches, which records that a church at Kilpeck was given to the diocese around 650. But the raised form of the churchyard suggests that the site is very old indeed; there is speculation that megalithic stones may lie beneath the present church.
After the Conquest, Kilpeck was given by the Conqueror to his kinsman William fitz Norman who was the builder of the castle, first of timber then of stone, the remains of which lie buried beneath the large mound to the west of the churchyard. It was William’s son Hugh, Keeper of the King’s Forests, who built this church around 1140.
The interior of the church is whitewashed and Norman in style. The apse contains a fine early example of rib-vaulting , with four mysterious heads (above) carved at the top intersection. The font is Norman, made from a huge piece of stone probably from around Hay, but, oddly, not in the style of the Herefordshire School. It is so big it could be used as a bath.
A notice in the churchyard explains that just to the east is the six-acre site of the medieval village, established in the 8th century as a dry-moated and stockaded enclave in what was, at that time, part of Wales. This original village was an important centre judging from its size, though, remarkably, it has never been surveyed. It could have housed as many as 600 people. Clear indications of the homesteads, and possibly their strips of land, are visible from aerial photographs. There may also be remains of a large Roman courtyard and of a Saxon church. To the west are the remains of the Norman Keep and the extensive earthworks of the Castle, built in the 11th century by William fitz Norman, the first Lord of Kilpeck. It contained both an inner and an extensive outer bailey and though little of it now remains – it was reported as being in ruins as early as 1520 – it was an important place in its heyday. It was one of 40 castles in Herefordshire established to keep out the Welsh.