Anglo-Saxons at War

I am an art historian whose main speciality is British Romanesque sculpture. My period, to be clear, is normally taken to extend from the mid-eleventh century to the end of the twelfth. In England, another term with a similar meaning is Norman. The start-date for this is defined by the Battle of Hastings, when the Normans took the country by conquest, succeeding the House of Wessex which had ruled since Egbert came to the throne in 802 (with a brief interruption in the early eleventh-century reigns of the Danish kings, Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut), and the end-date by a series of changes in architecture and the visual arts in which Romanesque gives way to Gothic.

Traditionally the period between the departure of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century and the Norman Conquest has been called Anglo-Saxon because early sources stated that Germanic invaders, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, conquered most of eastern and southern England in the fifth century and either drove out the native Romano-British population or killed them.  More recent research has suggested that this was not what really happened, and evidence from burials, DNA and archaeology points to a continuity of occupation throughout the period in question. There is no doubt that there was a series of bloody battles, but also that the invaders had no interest in any kind of mass immigration programme.

Peoples of Britain c. 600 AD. Image Hel-hama

This is one reason why many modern scholars question the label Anglo-Saxon for the period. Another is that the term itself is a translation (from Latin), and that what the people called themselves was either Angli (which is what Bede (672/3-735) used) or Saxones (a term used by Gildas (c.500-70)). Anglo-Saxon as a descriptive term for the people did not appear before the 8th century, for example in the historical works of the Lombard Paul the Deacon, as a means of distinguishing the Germanic inhabitants of Britain from Saxons in mainland Europe.

A study of royal charters from the ninth century to the eleventh demonstrates that the terms Angli, Saxones and Anglosaxones had precise meanings in this period, and were used in royal titles depending on the extent of their area of rule, so, for example, Alfred was King of the West Saxons (rex occidentalium Saxonum) until he entered the ruined city of London and began to rebuild it in 886. His kingdom then included all of England except the areas held by the Danes in the east and north east, and he began to style himself Rex Anglosaxonum, or Rex Anglorum et Saxonum (king of the Angles and the Saxons).

From this it seems obvious that the position in the fifth to eighth centuries was rather different from that in the ninth to eleventh (as pointed out by Susan Oosthuizen). To be brief, the immigrants who arrived in the fifth and sixth centuries came from a very wide geographic region and spoke many different languages. To call this population Anglo-Saxons might give the impression that they were a more coherent group than they were. After the eighth century, as we have seen, we are on firmer ground. At this point in what is becoming a rather complex argument, I should say that I do not believe that what the people of England called themselves should necessarily determine what we call the period, and that we are at liberty to use a period name because we find it useful. I raise these issues simply to provide background to the controversy and to explain my own position.  Anyone who is tied to the idea of using the term in the way it was used by the people themselves, and for the whole of England, would probably be obliged to limit it to the period after the unification of England under Aethelstan (927-39), but the difficulty with this is that Aethelstan called himself Rex Anglorum after he unified the country.

hereward Fraser

Hereward the Wake by Eric Fraser,  from the cover of a 1961 edition of Charles Kingsley’s 1866 novel

There is a third reason that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a descriptive term for these people and their period of ascendancy in England has been questioned, and that is on account of a perceived appropriation by white supremacist groups, largely in the United States of America.

It is important here to distinguish between the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’. The latter may refer either to an academic studying the Anglo-Saxon period, or to a belief about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, which I shall examine below. In the light of this, it was probably a mistake to give the title, International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) to the U.S.-based society founded in 1983 for ‘scholars interested in the language, literature, history and material culture of England and the English between the fifth and eleventh centuries CE’ . In a statement issued in September 2019 the Advisory Board of ISAS admitted that the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’

has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.

It was this that led to the campaign by a group of scholars, mostly based in the U.S.A, to rebrand Anglo-Saxon studies as Early English Studies. One of the main advocates of this change was Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department of the University of Toronto since 2019. Before that she had been a member of the Advisory Board of ISAS, but she resigned from the Board in early September 2019 during that society’s discussions over whether they should change their name. Later that month, following a vote of all the members, the ISAS did announce a change of name, to International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME), although one suspects that the name change was not seen as a priority because their website has still not been fully revised, and the former name still appears in the text.


Old and new logos of the ISAAS/ISSEME. Both still appear on their website.

Objections to the term Anglo-Saxon are summarised in Dr Rambaran-Olm’s three-part paper, ‘History Bites: Resources on the Problematic Term “Anglo-Saxon”’.  In brief she has argued that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been misused to mean ‘white’ since the sixteenth century, and she objects to its use in a historical context, on the grounds of laziness and oversimplification. For Dr Rambaran-Olm the main problems with the term are that its imperialist connotations have tainted it, so that it cannot be divorced from the nineteenth-century racial belief system that  advanced the argument that the civilization of English-speaking nations was superior to that of any other nations. The other meaning of Anglo-Saxonism, in fact. It is important to note that she has no objection to its use in citing previous scholarship or old texts where it appears, although she does suggest that old schoolbooks could be updated in new editions or replaced in rewritten curricula.

Screenshot 2021-01-26 122743

Mary Rambaran-Olm announcing her resignation (Washington Post, 19 September 2019)

It has been argued that the contamination of the term Anglo-Saxon extends beyond the  the U.S.A., but like many Europeans I see little or no evidence of it in my own field. It is certainly true that the Anglo-Saxon period has a mythical status as a kind of golden age of English learning, heroism and fairness, and this theme was taken up by the eighteenth-century Whig historians, especially Catharine Macaulay (1731-91), who wrote her History of England as the story of a struggle by the English to win back the rights that had been crushed under the ‘Norman Yoke’.  She found support for her ideas among the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, including George Washington, Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee, whom she met on a year-long visit to America in  1784-85.  In English-speaking countries, the idea of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, or more broadly the Teutonic races, persisted throughout the nineteenth century in the writings of Carlyle, Thomas Arnold, Robert Knox and a few others, but while the racial issue was topical in the mid-nineteenth century, opinions varied as to the nature of the master-race, so that Disraeli, for example, gave the title to the Caucasians, because he did not wish to exclude the Jews.  Knox could not accept as valid a grouping that included Jews and gypsies alongside Scandinavians, so denied that Caucasians constituted a race at all.  Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge in 1860-69, was also a novelist, and his role in disseminating Anglo-Saxonist ideas to a broad middle-class public through popular novels like Westward Ho! (1855) and Hereward the Wake, Last of the English (1866) is well known.  Today we find these novels almost unreadable on account of their embedded racist ideas, and even at the time Kingsley’s stance was not generally popular. Kingsley’s opposite number at Oxford, William Stubbs, stated in his inaugural lecture in 1866 that ‘early medieval England was remote enough to be politically uncontroversial and close enough to teach students of modernity instructive lessons’.


Cinema poster for Birth of a Nation (1915)

Popular culture was also involved in the mythology of white supremacy in the United States of America. D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, is a three-hour long epic dealing with the Civil War and the subsequent rebirth of the country in terms that demonise black Americans and present the Ku Klux Klan as heroic (the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman).  The film was the first to be screened in the White House, at a special viewing attended by President Woodrow Wilson and his family before its general release. It became a box-office success; the highest grossing film until 1939, when it was overtaken by another Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. 

The Ku Klux Klan, founded at the end of the Civil War and suppressed in 1872, was revived in the wake of the film’s success, and grew into a nationwide movement by the 1920s. It was revived again in the 1950s, and survives in  small numbers to this day. Meanwhile many supremacist groups have appeared, Wikipedia has entries on 64 of them. They often define themselves in opposition to black civil rights organisations, and their spectrum of beliefs and prejudices includes neo-Nazism, Caucasian supremacy, Christian elitism, anti-Semitism and a revival of the Confederacy. The term Anglo-Saxon is not particularly prominent in their rhetoric. Adherents of Christian Identity, for example, believe that the chosen people of the Bible were not the Jews but white Europeans, i.e. Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Nordic and Aryan people, and that non-whites are destined for damnation. As far as I know the commonest ethnic employment of the term is in the phrase White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), which was coined as a semi-whimsical epithet to denote the ruling classes in the 1950s. Before that term came into use, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was used, often derisively, by Irish and French speakers critical of the special relationship between Britain and the United States. From the 1950s and ’60s onwards, WASP became a term used to define any American of European origin, including Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and even Scottish and Irish Americans. It is fair to say that these usages are unhistorical corruptions.

The point I wish to make here is that American white supremacism has a background in a founding myth of the nation that persists today. In the United Kingdom matters are very different. There are certainly racial prejudices. As Rambaran-Olm points out, ‘all one has to do is google “racism and UK academy” to find articles that show subtle and overt racism embedded in the British academy’,  but the contamination of the term Anglo-Saxon is not involved in them. In part this must be due to the very Imperialism that is at the root of much of the criticism of Britain and the British embodied in the revisionist arguments. Since the Acts of Union in 1707 the Kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland have been a single nation, and a key feature of British expansionism was that the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were all on board.  One could not imagine the Highland regiments rallying to a cause that identified itself as Anglo-Saxon, but their contribution was notable, perhaps on account of Queen Victoria’s professed love of their country and their people.

It follows, to my mind, that it would be irrational to abandon the term on the grounds that it is being misused by those who have no idea of what it means.  Unfortunately the position in the United States is that the term’s misuse to mean ‘white’, has certainly deterred many people from entering the discipline. The problem with replacing the term, as has been suggested, is that there is no other label that bears the same meaning for medieval specialists who, arguably, are the people most concerned in its use. Various alternatives have been offered. Early English would be unacceptably confusing, because it is already a well-established term defining a period of Gothic architecture in the thirteenth century. Old English is a linguistic term to describe the language used in England during the Anglo-Saxon period. It usefully distinguishes between the people (who spoke many languages) and a language that only became dominant in the period between the ninth century and the Norman Conquest. Early Insular, also suggested as an alternative by Rambaran-Olm, has never, to my knowledge, been seen as a synonym for Anglo-Saxon because it means something quite different in the artistic and palaeographic fields where it is used. It is an Irish monastic Celtic style that was to combine with Saxon arts in script, manuscript illustration and metalwork in the sixth century, and was largely subsumed by the time of the Viking raids of the late eighth century. It is defined stylistically in terms of interlace and biting beasts, and importantly for this argument, looks very different from much else that is called Anglo-Saxon.

Arguments about this issue have become polarised, and there is a good deal of rancour between the two camps involved. In opposition to the revisionists we have the group represented as signatories of The responsible use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, This is a statement by Professor John Hines, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University that summarises arguments advocating the retention of the term. It was published online and by 3 January 2020, it had been signed by another 70 distinguished specialists in the field, mostly University academics. Half of the signatories were in British institutions (36), but there were 4 in the United States, 3 in Ireland, 2 in Canada, 7 in Scandinavia, 16 in other European countries, and single signatories in New Zealand, Japan and Sri Lanka. It is only to be expected that a British discipline should mainly be studied in this country, but perhaps more surprising that United States scholars are prepared to take a public stand against the revisionary arguments of the abolitionists.

Screenshot 2021-01-26 141545Most of the arguments I have seen come down strongly on one side or the other. Professor Michael Wood has published a popular article in which he even-handedly examines the arguments of both camps, and concludes with a call for the exercise of goodwill on both sides. There has been little of that so far, and as the debate develops the camps seem to be moving further apart. An article published last February by Jack Durand in the Independent Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity, argued that the university’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNAC) should either change its name or be closed down altogether. This brought an immediate YouTube response from an ASNAC student, who offered a closely argued defence of his department and his degree.

As a specialist in Romanesque art and architecture, what I call the period immediately before my own is a matter of considerable importance. It took me long enough to decide whether to call my own period Romanesque or Norman. I have no wish to upset anyone, or to alienate my colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic, but, as I have explained above, all of the alternative terms on offer are unacceptable to me for various reasons, and I would regret the loss of a widely-used and valuable term on the grounds that it has been misappropriated. I have found it useful to examine the issue and find that while the arguments of the abolitionists I have read do not convince me at all, those offered by Susan Oosthuizen have encouraged me to exercise more care in my employment of the term. I am aware of its limitations and its possibilities, and I shall certainly ensure that I know what I mean every time I use it. I am already inclined to use time-based terms like centuries in my periodization, and will certainly continue to do this, not because Anglo-Saxon has been contaminated as a term but because I am a historian and want to be as precise as I can in my use of the technical language of my discipline.

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Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 2

The Westhall Group of doorways

A group of a dozen twelfth-century doorways in Suffolk, extending from Herringfleet, near Lowestoft, in the north to Theberton, twenty miles to the south, and all within ten miles of the coast contains clunch doorways that can be stylistically linked to a single workshop.

I have called this the Westhall group, since the church of St Andrew, Westhall, is one of the most elaborate examples and stands at the centre of the cluster. It has a west doorway and a window above it, both of clunch and both protected by a later tower, and a south doorway of limestone. The west doorway is of five orders with chevron, billet, beakhead and beaker clasp decoration in the jambs and arch, and multi-fluted and cushion capitals.

St Andrew’s, Westhall, west doorway.

The carving is well preserved except at the apex of the arch, where an overlooked water leak has resulted in the replacement of a few stones. The west window forms the central element of a triple arcade and contains similar motifs.

The other doorways of the group are clearly the output of several workshops operating over a long period. The occurrence of chip-carving and sawtooth at Herringfleet suggests that this is among the earliest of the group, perhaps c.1130, while the lozenge decoration and flat-leaf capitals at Cookley point to a date in the 1170s or ‘80s

Chevron and its variant, lozenge ornament, is the commonest motif; found everywhere except the south doorway of Wissett, which is otherwise the closest to Westhall in using beakhead and beaker clasp decoration. Both of these sites also have a second doorway that is carved from imported limestone rather than clunch.

At Badingham there are four loose or reset stones, all carved from clunch. One is a chevron voussoir and there are two more voussoirs depicting a rabbit and a hair puller (or possibly an exhibitionist). The fourth stone is a scalloped nook-shaft capital. This evidence suggests that there was a clunch doorway here with figural beakheads or beaker clasps, an order of chevron, and scalloped capitals related to the work at Westhall and Wissett.

No record has so far been found of the quarrying of the chalk cliffs in this area in the medieval period, but the distribution of the sites involved is highly suggestive.

The materials available to medieval masons and sculptors in the chalk belt were, at first glance, unpromising in the extreme, but they have left us with a built heritage that is both distinctive and a monument to their ingenuity.  They also leave us with a range of questions that merit further study.  One worry is that the received opinion about the use of clunch in building and the relationship between quarries and specific building projects depends largely on evidence from Cambridge colleges in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.  These were buildings of high status, where the use of clunch was a positive choice based, as far as we can tell, on its whiteness and ease of working, and not solely on its cheapness and local availability.  For lower status buildings in an earlier period, like the Romanesque parish churches discussed in these two blogs, the economic drivers were clearly different. Certainly the infrastructure of stone supply was less sophisticated in the twelfth century. I have been at pains to point out the geological relationships between chalk, flint, Carstone and puddingstone, but this does not mean that all were available in the same quarries. At a church like Fryerning the alert investigator cannot fail to come away with the sense that the masons were scavenging for their diverse materials, and the evidence from Corpus Christi college in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is of little help in elucidating the precise relationships between quarrymen, masons and sculptors.

Further reading

All of the sites discussed here have entries by the same author on the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website, which also includes a bibliography for each site. The works recommended in the first blog of this series, Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 1, may also be useful.

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Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 1

England’s varied geology is an important contributor to the distinctive local character of our buildings: the golden oolitic limestones of the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire Cotswolds stand in dramatic contrast to the rich red sandstone of Herefordshire, across the Severn.  In the east there is a similar contrast between the north Northamptonshire built landscape of Kings Cliffe, Wansford and Collyweston with their yellow limestones and the flint buildings of the chalk belt that runs to the south and east.  For historians of architecture and sculpture the importance of local geology cannot be overstressed, for the local stone affects the appearance of buildings and their sculpture in a very direct way.  

The geology of southern England from Stanford’s Geological Atlas of Great Britain

The chalk belt is coloured pale green (and numbered 6) on the map above. Chalk outcrops in a broad belt running down the Lincolnshire coast from Flamborough head, covering most East Anglia and turning westwards, bounded by the chalk escarpment of the Chiltern Hills to the north, and continuing as far as Dorset. A southern branch includes the North and South Downs. Thus large areas of eastern England and the Home Counties have little in the way of local building stone beyond what can be quarried from the chalk beds.  Chalk is a soft, white, porous sedimentary rock, chemically calcium carbonate, laid down in the Cretaceous period and formed of compressed calcite shells. Chalk beds tend to be thick, and chalk itself is very porous and can act as a reservoir, holding large quantities of water which are gradually released during dry spells. Historically it has been used in agriculture for raising the pH of acid soils, and industrially to produce the quicklime used in cement and steelmaking.

Cherry Hinton East Pit. An extensive chalk quarry, possibly the one acquired by King’s College, Cambridge before 1452 for the building of the chapel.

As a building material chalk is easy to cut and carve, and as it dries out it hardens to some extent, but only the more compressed beds have enough durability to be generally useful, and even they are only practicable for use in protected situations.  When chalk can be used as a building stone in this way, it normally goes by the name of clunch or Totternhoe stone (even when it is not quarried in Totternhoe). It outcrops throughout the east of England; notably at Totternhoe, near Dunstable (Bedfordshire), but also at sites around Cambridge including Cherry Hinton, Orwell, Eversden, Haslingfield and Barrington. These Cambridge quarries were important as the source of the ‘white stone’ used in the construction of many medieval college buildings.

The medieval churches of the chalk belt are externally mostly of flint; almost the opposite of clunch as a building material. Flint nodules are hard, crystalline lumps of quartz found within the chalk strata, either dispersed or more commonly deposited in layers. Flints may wash out of the chalk strata as the matrix erodes and be deposited as pebbles or cobbles in the beds of rivers and streams. Flint is one of the most durable of building stones, but masonry in flint is technically very different from working in ashlar or even rubble.

The E chancel wall of Holy Trinity, Barsham (Suffolk) has an overall trellis decoration that covers both the window tracery and the flushwork of the wall surface

From the thirteenth century onwards, however, flint knapping grew in popularity. The nodules were split to expose a smooth, lustrous interior, of black initially, allowing the production of tracery and other designs, known as flushwork, when combined with clunch or imported ashlar, as at Barsham in Suffolk. Such external features as doorways, windows and buttresses which relied on accurate angles and smooth planes were generally built of imported and thus expensive stone.  It has been convincingly argued that the round towers typical of East Anglia were common in that area because of the difficulty of building corners in flint masonry.

Mixed walling including flint, puddingstone and Roman brick at Fryerning (Essex)

Although the chalk beds provide most of the indigenous building material in this part of England, other materials must be considered. In fact there was a tendency, seen in many parish churches, to use whatever was available, and this could include Carstone, cobbles, puddingstone and Roman or medieval brick. At Fryerning (Essex) the external nave walls are of flint and puddingstone rubble with Roman brick quoins, and clunch is used for the south doorway, (protected by a porch) and the elaborately carved font. Carstone (also called Carrstone or gingerbread stone) is a red cretaceous sandstone often found in the chalk belt where it beds in strata below the chalk. Puddingstone is a heterogeneous rock that had its origins in the chalk, when flint pebbles washed out of the chalk strata were deposited in rivers beds, covered by clay deposits and compressed to form a conglomerate bound together by silica. Roman brick was reused from sites in Essex, Suffolk and Hertfordshire, notably around St Albans. The craft of brickmaking was lost after the departure of the Romans, and given the shortage of durable building materials in this area it is unsurprising to find that it was in the chalk belt that it reappeared towards the end of the twelfth century; most famously at Coggeshall Priory (c.1200), but much earlier at Polstead (c.1160) and elsewhere.

The medieval brick and clunch north nave arcade at St Mary’s, Polstead (Suffolk).

Clunch Sculpture

Clunch is ideal for fine carving that is not exposed to weathering. Within the chalk belt it is a popular choice for arcade and chancel arch capitals, and for furnishings like tombs, fonts and piscinas. Well-preserved clunch sculpture is also found surprisingly often on the capitals and archivolts of external doorways, indicating that they have always been protected by porches. The remainder of this article is concerned with two clunch workshops; one in Buckinghamshire and the other on the Suffolk coast.

The Aylesbury font group

The most celebrated of the chalk belt workshops must be the Aylesbury font group, distributed along the Vale of Aylesbury on the north side of the chalk escarpment that is the Chiltern Hills. 

Map showing the distribution of Aylesbury Group fonts. Ron Baxter using Open Street Map

The group is large enough on its own to provide valuable insights into medieval sculptural workshops and the transmission of forms and motifs. As many as 23 fonts have been associated with the group, but the core in terms of material, form and style is made up of just 7 fonts (Aylesbury, Buckland, Chenies, Great Kimble, Little Missenden, Houghton Regis and Weston Turville}, and 2 font bases (Wing and Great Missenden). All of these churches are in Buckinghamshire except for Houghton Regis, in neighbouring Bedfordshire.

The font at St Mary, Weston Turville

The fonts of the core group are all carved from the local clunch, Totternhoe, and all the core fonts are within 20 miles of the quarry. They have cup-shaped fluted bowls with deep rims decorated with a band of foliage. The bowls stand on bases in the form of inverted cushion or double scallop capitals with fat, cable-moulded neckings and shields carved in relief with foliage.  Carving is exceptionally crisp, the designs are carefully drawn, and the style is that of c.1170-90. Surrounding this main group are other fonts of a similar design that deviate from it in various ways; always, to the eyes of the present author, to their disadvantage.

The limestone font at St Nicholas, Chearsley

The fonts at Chearsley, Haddenham, Ludgershall and Monks Risborough are carved from a shelly limestone, rather than clunch, and Haddenham and Ludgershall have scalloped bowls rather than fluted ones. While the two last appear to have very little connection with the core group, Chearsley and Monks Risborough are typical in their fluted bowls and precise carving, although the more simplified designs suggest local copies by a competent workshop accustomed to limestone rather than clunch carving.

The clunch font at Bledlow
The limestone font at Monks Risborough

The Monks Risborough font is almost identical to the clunch font at Bledlow. Several of the fonts peripheral to the group are massively simplified, including Duston, which has no decoration beyond the fluting on the bowl, and Saunderton and Buckland, both with rims decorated with a band of trilobed leaves in place of the lush foliage found on the core fonts. In short, the masterworks of Aylesbury, Weston Turville and the rest of the core group, convincingly argued by Malcolm Thurlby to have been inspired by metalwork from St Albans, were the models for a large group of more-or-less competent copies that survive in the churches of the Vale of Aylesbury.

In the next blog in this series I will look at a group of clunch doorways on the Suffolk coast.

Further Reading

L. F. Salzman, Building in England, down to 1540: a Documentary History, Oxford 1952 (1997 ed)

On the Cambridge quarries, see RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge, London 1959, p.98-136. Specific contracts are reprinted in R. Willis and J. W. Clark, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, 3 vols Cambridge 1886, repr. 1988.

On medieval brick building, see N. J. Moore, ‘Brick’, in J. Blair and N. Ramsay (ed.), English Medieval Industries, London 1991, p.211-36.

The literature on the Aylesbury group of fonts is not as large as might be expected, but the quality is high. The starting point must be M. Thurlby, “Fluted and Chalice-Shaped: The Aylesbury Group of Fonts”, Country Life, CLXXI, 1982, p.228-29, and the same author’s ‘The Place of St Albans in Regional Sculpture and Architecture in the Second Half of the Twelfth Century.’ in M. Henig and P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans. Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology. (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXIV). Leeds 2001, p.162-75. To these should be added Ken Goodearl’s web resource, The Aylesbury Fonts.

Finally the fonts have all been recorded in individual site reports of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website.

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Gargoyles at Wilstead church

At 9.30 on the evening of Sunday 11 April, 1742 the west tower of Wilstead parish church near Bedford collapsed.  The Bishop of Lincoln, having considered the extent of the damage, gave permission for the sale of three of the bells to put the damage right, and a timber belfry was built over the west end of the nave, housing a single bell.

Wilstead Church from the NE (1937 painting from a glass slide in the Henman Collection, Bedford Central Libraries)

In the mid-19th century it was decided to build a new west tower of stone. The work was begun in May 1851, by the Hertford architect Thomas Smith, who built a new south porch at the same time. The new tower had a battlemented parapet with gargoyles at the angles, and was illustrated in the VCH article by a drawing signed JW 1911, and appeared in picture postcards in the 1920s.

Wilstead church from the south east. 1911 drawing

This drawing also shows a new chancel, and that also forms part of the story. In 1852 the south wall of the nave needed attention, and a decision was made to drain the entire churchyard. This turned out to be a mistake. By the late 1860s, repairs were urgently required, and in 1872  the medieval chancel arch was removed and the chancel was entirely rebuilt longer than before. The architect responsible was Sir Arthur Blomfield. The new chancel soon began to sink at the east, and became detached from the nave. Attempts were made to remedy the situation in 1900 by underpinning the chancel walls and jacking up the roof, fastening it to the nave wall with a large bolt. These measures did not cure the problem and more repairs to the chancel roof were needed in 1907 and 1923.

In August 1935 the church had become unsafe, and was closed to the parishioners, who used a portion of a school that was made available to them at the weekend. In May of the following year a meeting between the Archdeacon of Bedford, the churchwardens and Professor A. E. Richardson concluded that there were three possibilities: to rebuild a part of the church at a cost of £2000, to pull down the chancel and keep the nave only, costing £1000, or to pull down the entire church and build a smaller one at a cost of at least £3000. What ultimately happened was that the building was restored at a cost of £1500 and reopened by the suffragan Bishop of Bedford on Wednesday 2 June 1937.

At some time between the 1920s (when the tower is shown with battlements) and 1964 (the date of the Historic England List Description, which describes the parapet as plain) the parapet was restored without battlements, retaining the 1851 gargoyles.

Wilstead church tower from the south east (author photograph, November 2019)

I have called the sculptures at the angles of the tower gargoyles, but they are clearly not functional now, and the task of draining the tower roof is performed by two lead spouts projecting from either end of the tower’s E wall, and set at a level just below the stringcourse at the foot of the parapet. Water falling on the tower roof is thus directed into the nave roof gutters and thence into drainpipes. On close examination the tower gargoyles all have open mouths which have been blocked, raising the possibility that they were originally intended to be functional. All perch on a stringcouse at the foot of the parapet, whose profile has a projecting vertical face over an undercut hollow with a roll near the bottom.

The SW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, SW gargoyle

This is a composite winged quadruped with a doglike head, drilled eyes under heavy brow ridges, drilled nostrils and small rounded ears. It has a wide open mouth blocked with a plug. Its body is arched and its legs are straight with lionlike claws. The forefeet rest below the lower roll of the stringcourse and the back feet rest on top of the roll, so that the back arches upwards considerably. The wings on its shoulders are small and rounded with deep fluting on the outer faces and sprocketed upper edges like a bat’s wing. The tail is curled and there are traces of fur or feathers indicated on the hindquarters.

The NW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, NW gargoyle

This is a winged biped with a toadlike head, drilled eyes and an open mouth blocked with a plug. The head is badly eroded and only the right leg survives. It is slender and straight with long knuckled toes and rests below the lower roll of the stringcourse. The body tapers from broad shoulders and the wings are fanlike with deeply fluted faces and a scalloped upper edge.

The NE gargoyle

Wilstead church, NE gargoyle

This is birdlike: its body is broad and deep-chested with a bird’s wings and a beak like a duck, The eyes are drilled and the beak is open and plugged. Its claws appear to clasp the lower roll of the stringcourse, and the skin is covered with scales like a fish. Behind the head, the body curves up in a long tail that appears to join the top of the head. The wings are outspread and are carved on the face of the stringcourse block. On top of the creature’s tail appears to be a second, lizard-like beast, perhaps an assailant. It is badly eroded and details are not clear.

The SE gargoyle

Wilstead church, SE gargoyle

This is an agile doglike beast in an attitude of springing. The back feet are pressed against the undercut at the top of the stringcourse hollow while the forefeet are on or below the lower roll; the left foot lower than the right. There is a tiny wing on each foreleg, and the front view shows small but distinct horns on the head. As before the mouth is wide open and plugged.

Obtaining accurate dates for gargoyles is not always easy, but in this case it seems certain that they belong to the rebuilding of 1851. They appear to have been functional initially, and it seems fair to assume that they became purely decorative when the parapet was rebuilt in the twentieth century. Certainly the lead spouts that drain the tower roof today are not shown on the drawing of 1911. The creatures are lively and inventive, and without detracting in any way from the skill of Thomas Smith’s craftsmen, one cannot help wondering whether they were copying medieval models. Future investigations in the area might clarify this. Finally it seems surprising that the restoration history of All Saints, Wilstead is clear until the most recent event; the removal of battlements from the parapet. If any of my readers has information about this I should be most grateful.


Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 23 August 1935; 15 May 1936; 12 June 1936; 25 September 1936; 16 April 1937.

Victoria History of the County of Bedford, 3, 1912, 325-28.

Historic England List Description, English Heritage Legacy ID 36770, 13 July 1964.

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Gargoyles 1: Introduction and interpretation

The simplest, most straightforward definition of a gargoyle is that it is a sort of high-level stone waterspout with a gutter, projecting out far enough from the wall face to prevent water erosion. From the thirteenth century onwards these spouts were carved in the form of animal, human figures or grotesques, and since the nineteenth century, art historians have reacted in various ways to their grotesque imagery.

Gargoyle from above, showing the gutter that leads the rainwater out of the creature’s mouth. Drawing from Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire

In France, Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin, Jesuit antiquarians and founders of Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, an influential multi-volume publication on medieval art that made its first appearance in 1849, took the view that this kind of high-level monstrous imagery on churches represented the legions of the enemy of salvation hovering over the heads of the faithful to deflect them from the true path. Their complex justification for this view involved Gog and Magog, widely if vaguely considered to be the servants of Lucifer in his battle against Christ, and St Paul’s description of the devil, in his letter to the Ephesians, as principem potestatis aeris ; the prince of the power of the air.

A more whimsical explanation came from the Abbé Auber, who, writing in 1871, asserted that gargoyle waterspouts represented devils conquered by the church and set to perform this menial task. He noted that while simple stone drains were good enough in an earlier period, gothic sculptors used a variety of imaginative forms to emphasize the tortures undergone by the unfortunate demons.

This kind of approach was anathema to the highly respected French art historian, Emile Mâle who singled out Cahier’s and Auber’s analyses, as well as that of Félicie d’Ayzac for special criticism. Having expounded a complex medieval iconographic system based largely on the Speculum Maius of Vincent de Beauvais, Mâle found no place in it for the grotesque and monstrous imagery of the gargoyles, concluding that, as no medieval text can explain them they must be the sculptural equivalent of old wives’ tales, ancestral memories like vampires or dragons, and certainly unworthy of the attention of the serious scholar.

Chimera (on the parapet) and gargoyles at Notre-Dame, Paris. Creative Commons, Peter Cadogan

The gargoyles of Notre-Dame in Paris are far and away the best known and most dramatic of all, but they, and the chimeras crouching on the balustrades above them, are all the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, who spent 25 years from 1845 restoring the building from its state of post-Revolutionary dereliction. Practically all of the Gothic gargoyles were lost or worn beyond any hope of copying, while the chimeras survived only as stumps or in ambiguous antiquarian drawings.  In Viollet-le-Duc’s copious writings he was always concerned to emphasize the functionality of gargoyles. The earliest attempt to write a history of the gargoyle was his article on the subject in the Dictionnaire, which gives a closely argued history of the form, tracing its development from the short gargoyles of c.1225 at Notre-Dame to the longer ones of the nave buttresses.

This elongation inspired sculptors to produce decorative forms, and was facilitated by the availability of the limestone of the Seine basin, le liais cliquart, a fine-grained limestone that can be cut in long blocks. He stated simply that this was the reason that Parisian gargoyles were the most beautiful of all, but it is hard to resist the conclusion that they were invented at Notre-Dame. Viollet-le-Duc is perhaps closer to Mâle than any of his other French contemporaries in his resistance to any interpretation of the Gothic gargoyle beyond the functional. Another point well made by Viollet-le-Duc is that their very function means that gargoyles are subject to water erosion and were inevitably replaced, sometimes more than once, during their lifetime.  While the flow of rain through their gutters eventually compromises their usefulness, their exposed position likewise wears away their details too, so that by the time they need replacing, old gargoyles can no longer be copied. In this he found justification for his approach to replacing them, considering that what the medieval carvers had made was akin to the activity of his own team in bringing their own imagination to bear when giving monstrous shape to a practical member.

In England, something similar happened at Chester Cathedral, built of New Red Sandstone in many medieval phases from 1092. This building material is characterised by its ease of cutting when freshly quarried, and by hardening followed by rapid erosion thereafter.  Hence the striking gargoyles certainly belong to the restorations of Harrison (1818-20), Hussey (1844), Scott (1868-76) or Blomfield (1882). George Gilbert Scott’s restoration in particular was criticised at the time for the extent of his interventions.

There seems no doubt, however, that the freedom enjoyed by Viollet-le-Duc in his restorations at Notre-Dame and elsewhere was not experienced by the masons and sculptors of the Gothic period.  Why should the Dean and Chapter pay their workers to indulge their imagination in stone unless they had a specific programme in mind? It seems reasonable to look for an explanation of the forms of gargoyles that goes beyond the ghost story and the carvers’ nightmares. Cahier and Martin certainly provided one that may have satisfied their contemporaries, but to the modern audience it appears wilfully learned and would probably be inaccessible to the medieval viewer of the sculpture.  An explanation more convincing to today’s reader, developed in the work of Michael Camille, is that these terrifying creatures represent the sin and vice that fills the world, which must be rejected by the man of God.  But perhaps more than a mere representation; instead they may enable the sinful churchgoer to see what is actually present.  This is part of a far broader solution aimed at cracking the paradox of monstrous imagery in the holy space. The predatory birds and fierce beasts of Reading cloister; the grotesque and obscene corbels that surround so many churches, and the foul creatures that cluster around their doorways are there to remind us that the world is really like that, however beautiful and serene it may appear, and that the only refuge is to be found in the Church.

In a future post I will examine a few British gargoyles in more detail.

Further Reading
A. Auber, Histoire et théorie du symbolisme religieux, 4 vols, Paris 1871, II, 256, 377.
C. Cahier and A. Martin, Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, Paris 1847-49, I, 75-77.
C. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992, esp. 77-97.
C. Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London 2009.
E. Mâle, L’Art Religieux du XIIIe siecle en France, Paris 1898 (7th ed. 1931), 46-58.
E. Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, Paris 1854-68, VI, 21-28.

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Not the hand of St James


The hand at St Peter’s, Marlow. Photograph author


St James the Great

JAMES the Great was the brother of the apostle John, and the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and Salome, arguably (at a stretch) the Virgin Mary’s sister. James and John may thus have been first cousins of Jesus. Following the account in Acts 12, 1-2, James was executed in Jerusalem with the sword on the orders of King Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, in AD 42 or 44. What happened thereafter has been a matter of some controversy, and I shall examine two mythical histories which have met with very different levels of success.

The Santiago de Compostela myth

THE official line, synthesised from various legends dating back to the seventh century, was that the apostle had preached in Spain during his lifetime, and that at his death two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, had taken his body to Spain, landing at Padrón on the Galician coast.  It was then taken inland to Compostela, and buried. Later the two disciples were buried nearby, and the discovery of graves that fitted this story in 814 AD was taken as evidence that it was true.  The Historia Compostellana, an account written by an author in the circle of Diego Gelmirez of Compostela (Bishop 1100-20, then Archbishop until 1140), was in some sense a codification of the cluster of Spanish legends, and the success of Santiago as a pilgrimage destination testifies to its general acceptance.

Compostela claims to have the entire body except for two pieces.  Between 1048 and 1054 an arm was sent by the King of Navarre to the Bishop of  Tongres and Liège in modern Belgium, and permission was granted for a lock of hair to be taken by the deacon of the Bishop of Pistoia in 1144.  He took bone along with the hair, but was allowed to keep it, and this act of generosity was to prove useful in the later history of the shrine.  Pope Callixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims to the shrine in 1122, and this was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in the Bull, Regis Aeterni, issued in 1179. Most recently in 1884 Pope Leo XIII proclaimed in the Bull, Deus Omnipotens, that the relics in Santiago were those of St. James.

The Arm at Torcello


The Tomb of St James, Valley of Josaphat, Jerusalem. Photograph A. Salzmann 1854-56.

DESPITE all this, the story is inherently unlikely, and a second myth seems on the surface to have much more going for it.  In this account, James was not only executed in Jerusalem but was buried there too. In the late fourth century Bishop Heliodorus of Altino visited his shrine and took away an arm. In 640 the arm was given to Torcello Cathedral, on an island at the northern end of the Venetian lagoon; a safer home than Altino which was overrun by Lombards. There it stayed until the visit of Adalbert, Arcbishop of Hamburg Bremen in the 1040s, when Bishop Vitalis of Torcello surrendered the hand, retaining the rest of the arm, to the Archbishop. Adalbert’s visit to Italy was as a member of the court of Emperor Henry III, who convened the Council of Sutri at which three rival claimants to the papacy were deposed in favour of the Emperor’s own candidate. Adalbert was his first choice, but turned it down and Henry’s own confessor, Bishop Suidger of Bamberg, was elected as Clement II. With the power of the Emperor behind him, Adalbert apparently had no difficulty in obtaining the relic he desired.

The hand in the Imperial Treasury

WHEN Adalbert died in 1072, his treasury contained little except books, vestments and relics, and these were seized by Emperor Henry IV, subsequently passing to his son and successor Henry V. In 1114 Henry V married Matilda, the 12-year-old daughter of King Henry I of England, and when he died in 1125 her opportunities in Germany were extremely limited, so she left for Normandy taking her personal collection of jewels, her own imperial regalia, two of Henry’s crowns, and the hand of St James.

The hand at Reading Abbey

A charter dated 1126 states that King Henry I gave the hand to Reading Abbey at the request of his daughter, Matilda, who had brought it from Germany. This charter is demonstrably either corrupt or a forgery, but the chronicler Matthew Paris recorded that the relic was sent to Reading from Normandy by the king in 1133, and this might be the true date of its arrival. Within three years it had gone again. In 1136 it was borrowed by the new king’s younger brother, Henry of Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester, and he could not be persuaded to return it until 1155. It was certainly back at the abbey by 1161, when it was mentioned in an indulgence issued by Theobald, Bishop of London as being there. Thereafter it was mentioned occasionally throughout the pre-Reformation period most notably, perhaps, in a manuscript of circa 1200 that describes 28 miracles, mostly cures, worked by the hand. It was recorded in the relic list of circa 1190 now in British Library MS Egerton 3031 as Manus sancti Iacobi cum carne et ossibus (the hand of St James with flesh and bones), and the final mention was in the short list of relics made in 1538 by Dr London at an early stage in the Dissolution of the house. 

The rediscovery of the hand

IT is at this point that the Reading hand disappears from the historical record, but it might have survived the Dissolution.  In October 1786 workmen digging the foundations for Reading Gaol discovered a left hand in a wall at the east end of the abbey church.  Interestingly, although nowhere in the medieval accounts of the hand is it stated whether it was a left or a right hand, the image on the abbey seal in use in 1239 clearly shows a left hand raised in benediction, accompanied by the words ORA PRO NOBIS SANCTE IACOBE, which would be unusual unless this represented the reliquary itself.

3 Seal Press 2 Box 1_2 - Copy

The seal of Abbot Adam of Lathbury, Salisbury Cathedral Treasury

THE newly rediscovered hand came into the possession of one Dr Hooper, who gave it around 1801 to the Athenaeum, the museum of the Reading Philosophical Institute, where it was displayed for some years.  When this closed down in 1853 the relic was returned to Dr Hooper’s executors, who sold it to the Roman Catholic Lewis Mackenzie in 1855.  Mackenzie died the following year, and his heir sold the hand to Charles Robert Scott-Murray (1818-82) for 50 guineas. Scott-Murray had converted to the Catholic faith in 1844, and he engaged the architect Augustus Welby Pugin to build a catholic church dedicated to St Peter in Marlow-on-Thames, and a private chapel at Danesfield, his own house nearby.  The hand was kept in Danesfield chapel until the house was sold out of the family to Robert William Hudson, heir of the Sunlight soap magnate Robert Spear Hudson, in 1897.  Hudson rebuilt the house and demolished the chapel, and the hand was given to St Peter’s Marlow, where it is still preserved in a casket of brass and glass.

Competing claims

FATHER John Morris, a Roman Catholic parish priest of Marlow in the 1850s, took a great interest in the hand, attempting to secure it for pious purposes while it was still in the museum, and in 1852 writing to ask Archbishop Miguel Garcia Cuesta of Compostela whether the apostle’s body had a hand missing. The archbishop replied that the tomb was not accessible, having been dismantled in 1597 when Sir Francis Drake attacked nearby Corunna. The body was concealed below the sanctuary for safe keeping and walled in.  This was clearly something of an embarrassment to the Spanish authorities, and in 1878 Cardinal Miguel Paya y Rico, the new Archbishop of Compostela, authorised a search for the apostle’s bones to be performed by Canon Antonio López Ferreiro, the historian of the church, and another canon.  They ultimately announced their success, having found a chest of brick and stone under the floor behind the altar.  It proved to contain the bones of three men, one of whose skull had damage consistent with a decapitation.  When the relic of bone and hair at Pistoia was remembered, it was sent for and proved to fit the skull, and this was taken as confirmation that this was indeed St James, accompanied by his two disciples.

THESE events, and the consequent proclamation that the relics were genuine in Pope Leo XIII’s Bull of 1884, obviously had implications for the other alleged relics, and when the scholar Brian Taylor asked whether the state of the bones identified as the apostle’s was consistent with the claims of Torcello, Liège and Marlow he received a scribbled and unsigned note in reply, ‘Parece que si’ – apparently yes – for Liège; ‘No consta’ – no clear evidence – for Torcello; and ‘Parece que no’ – apparently not – for Marlow.

Scientific testing before 2018

THE hand was X-rayed in 1960, and Mr Mulvaney of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London stated that it belonged to a mature male, and had suffered a fracture to the little finger a short time before death. In 1965 it was submitted to Professor A. J. E. Cave of St Bartholomew’s, who had previously examined the skull of the Blessed Ambrose Barlow, executed as an unrepentant Catholic at Lancaster in 1641. Prof. Cave was unable to provide any useful information about the hand, but he did show it to an expert at the British Museum , who observed that it was preserved by desiccation – a typically Middle Eastern process.

Radiocarbon dating evidence, 2018

THE hand was recently submitted to the Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art for radiocarbon dating, and the results were made available to St Peter’s in Marlow earlier this year. Radiocarbon dating provides a value for the date of death of a living organism, calculated from the decay of radioactive carbon-14 in a sample.  If this were the hand of St James the Great, we would expect a date range around the year 44 AD when he was executed. The results date the death of the hand to AD 994-1037 with a 68% degree of certainty, and to AD 987 – 1150 with a 95% degree of certainty.


THE fact that the hand is mummified suggests that it came from the Holy Land at some stage.  It is clear that this hand did not belong to the arm collected from Jerusalem by Heliodorus, taken to Altino and transferred to Torcello – it is not old enough. It may, however, be the hand that left Torcello, in which case the switch could have been made by Bishop Vitalis, which would explain why Archbishop Adalbert received a hand rather than the arm he was expecting.  This would make the relic an extremely modern one at the time the exchange was made, presumably a recent addition from Jerusalem. There seems no reason to suspect any chicanery while the hand was in the possession of Archbishop Adalbert or the Imperial Treasury, and we can be confident that Matilda thought she had the genuine relic. Similarly a substitution seems unlikely while the hand was in Reading, except for one occasion – the period from 1136 to 1155 when it was borrowed by Henry of Blois. He could certainly have exchanged the hand for a relic of less value from Winchester or Glastonbury.

Plate 15

Harry Morley. 1917. The Martyrdom of Hugh Faringdon, last Abbot of Reading. Reading Museum

The hand that was discovered in 1786 on the abbey site must surely have come from the abbey, and the method of preservation suggests a relic rather than a burial. It was presumably the hand that was venerated as St James’s during the life of the abbey, although it is fair to point out that the twelfth-century relic list mentioned another hand, that of St Anastasia, which had become a hand of St Anastasius by the time of Dr London’s visit in 1538. As it happens, we know something about this relic too. At the Dissolution, the Abbot of Reading, Hugh Cook of Faringdon, was executed along with two of his monks, John Eynon and John Rugge. From Thomas Cromwell’s papers we have a series of questions he had prepared for Rugge’s examination, including a request for an explanation of his possession of the hand of St Anastasius. It is hard to imagine that this hand was not destroyed by Cromwell’s agents.

Further Reading

R. Baxter, The Royal Abbey of Reading, Woodbridge 2016.

B. Kemp, ‘The Miracles of the Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 65 (1970), 1-20.

B. Taylor, ‘The Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 75 (1994-97), 97-102.


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Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon

To be clear, I am using the word canon here to signify a list of works accepted as being representative of Romanesque sculpture. This is not necessarily the same as a list of works accepted as being of the highest quality, especially as art historians are notoriously cagey about identifying quality (which is sometimes, though not always, equivalent to craftsmanship). Authors writing about Romanesque sculpture must decide which works to write about; teachers of the subject must choose the slides to use in their presentations, and such decisions will define their view of what Romanesque sculpture is. So your list might not be the same as my list, in theory. In practice, however, things are a little more treacherous.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Romanesque, as an adjective, along with Norman, its predecessor in general use, was initially applied to architecture rather than sculpture or painting. It was defined in architectural terms, and in using it to describe sculpture it could only refer to the carvings that ornamented these round-arched, thick walled buildings.  While Romanesque buildings were indebted to Roman architecture, there was no necessary connection between Romanesque and Roman sculpture. Sometimes similarities existed, but more commonly they did not.


The Raising of Lazarus (detail), Chichester Cathedral. Dated c.1000 by Prior & Gardiner but now generally assigned to the second quarter of the 12th century (© Kathryn A. Morrison)

This has important implications for the whole idea of a canon, because when we come to look at the various lists we notice that not a few of the objects lack a precise architectural context, and dating becomes a matter of connoisseurship. Take the Chichester Reliefs, for example, two panels depicting Christ Arriving at Bethany and the Raising of Lazarus, displayed in the south presbytery aisle of Chichester Cathedral. They were behind the choirstalls of the cathedral in 1829, but it is by no means certain that this was their original position. Dating them was problematic because there was nothing dated to compare them to. The closest parallels were with 10th-century manuscript painting and ivories, and the consensus until well into the 20th century was to assign them to the years around 1000 AD, and to speculate that they may have been imports from the lost minster of Selsey.

Edward Prior and Arthur Gardiner’s An Account of Medieval Figure Sculpture in England, published in 1912, may be considered the first serious attempt at an account of English medieval sculpture, and the authors accepted the 1000 AD date for the reliefs. Since the 1950s, Zarnecki’s redating of the reliefs to the 2nd quarter of the 12th century has been generally accepted, and it is based on manuscript parallels, notably with the figure style of the St Albans Psalter. This is no place to discuss the extent of the validity of comparisons between works in different media, but I will doubtless get around to it in a future post.

Having brought Prior and Gardiner into the discussion it will be as well to begin my analysis of the Romanesque canon with their work. I should first say that Romanesque was not their favourite period of medieval sculpture. As I have argued in my post on their work, Romanesque was presented as a stage on the road to a sculptural perfection that was achieved in the second half of the 13th century in the Judgement Portal at Lincoln. Nevertheless, a canon of dated Romanesque sculptures can be extracted from their work, and to avoid clogging up this post with a long list I have posted it separately here.

There are fifty one sites in the list, and it is a tribute to the lasting value of Prior and Gardiner’s achievement that my readers will probably recognise most of them. On the other hand, it might be a worry to find that the bulk of the Romanesque canon was established more than a century ago.  Where we no longer agree is on the issue of dating. A group of works that Prior and Gardiner dated well before the Conquest is now universally dated up to fifty years after it. Apart from the Chichester Reliefs, discussed above, what they have in common is a degree of stylisation in their figure drawing, characterised by our authors as crude or savage.

The relief of St Michael and the Dragon at St Nicholas’ Ipswich, dated by Prior and Gardiner c.1000 AD

The table gives ample scope for analysis, but I just want to make two points here.  First, most of the works chosen are figural, many narrative. This explains the concentration on relief panels, tympana and fonts, which have large fields available for extended scenes. This fits in with the authors’ larger aim, which was to propose a model of development that moved in the direction of naturalism (by the later 13th century) turning to excess and visual depravity in the 14th and 15th centuries. For more on this, see here.   The second point is that the practice of sculpture has no place in the list. Prior and Gardiner divided Romanesque sculpture into that based on drawing, that based on painting and that based on metalwork; a legacy that has lasted for far too long. What is omitted is the possibility of a sculptural tradition. The list is therefore unbalanced as a survey by (for example) a focus on just a few related groups. Four of the entries are the work of the Herefordshire School, and three on the workshop of St Peter’s, Northampton. These are important works that merit inclusion, but the picture is unbalanced by the use of so many of them, when there is nothing at all from the Yorkshire School and none of the fonts of the Aylesbury group in the list.  The over-reliance on a style model is obvious in their treatment of Kilpeck, where the south doorway is dated a quarter-century later than the chancel arch and corbels, despite belonging to the same sculptural campaign.

My second example of a canon is that provided by George Zarnecki in the two little Tiranti volumes he published in 1951 and 1953; English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140 and Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210. This is clearly a much more serious piece of work despite containing only just over 100 pages of text between the two books. They are basically a series of plates with captions; 82 plates in volume 1 and 133 in volume 2. The intention to produce a national survey is made clear by the inclusion of a map of sites as a frontispiece to volume 2, showing that the entire country is pretty much covered.

Zarnecki frontispiece

G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture (1953), frontispiece

The most obvious difference between Prior and Gardiner’s canon and Zarnecki’s is the doubling of the number of sites. This was achieved partly by expanding the area of coverage in an attempt to include the whole of England, and partly by Zarnecki’s policy of examining the sculpture on its own terms. His aim was not, as Prior and Gardiners had been, to justify a model of artistic production, but rather to find out how medieval sculpture was produced. He studied the changes in sculptural practice brought about by the Conquest, which meant examining what had gone before, and explored the survival of Anglo-Saxon forms after the Conquest. He tracked the influences from Continental sculpture associated with the Conquest, and identified changes in workshop practice that went with new building methods. For example, post-Conquest sculpture was dominated by the capital, a feature all but unknown in Anglo-Saxon building, but the dominant form of post-Conquest capital in England, the cushion and its variants, did not come from Normandy.

Canterbury 007

A capital from Archbishop Anselm’s wall arcading at Canterbury Cathedral.

He was always interested in tracing the movements of craftsmen: from Canterbury crypt (which he dated to c.1120) to Westminster Abbey, Reading (whose sculpture was discovered after Prior and Gardiner’s work, partly by Zarnecki himself), Winchester, Romsey Abbey, Christchurch Priory and elsewhere. He also explored the workshop that was active in Castor (apparently dated by an inscription to 1124), Wansford, Sutton and Maxey in the Soke of Peterborough.


Capitals from the crossing at Castor (Soke of Peterborough) by a workshop active in the area

The Herefordshire School was examined in detail too, as well as the Yorkshire School, one centred on St Peter’s Northampton, and three groups of late-12th century fonts in Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and Cornwall. All of this research vastly increased the size of the canon, and went some way to relating it to sculptural practice. He was aware that English Romanesque could not be properly appreciated until all of it was known, which was why he establish the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture towards the end of his time at the Courtauld Institute.


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The Romanesque canon according to Zarnecki (1951 and 1953)

This list of dated works, taken from G. Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140, London 1951, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210 London 1953 is meant to be read in conjunction with my post on Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon.

Location Work Date
Durham Castle chapel Capitals c.1072
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) Crypt capital (Lanfranc) c.1075
Tower of London, St John’s Chapel Capitals c.1080
Gloucester Cathedral Crypt capitals c.1089
Bramber, St Nicholas (Sussex) Chancel arch capital Late 11thc
Newton in Cleveland, St Oswald (Yorks) Dragon relief Late 11thc
Uppington, Holy Trinity (Salop), Dragon tympanum Late 11thc
London, V&A Westminster Hall capitals 1090-1100
Kirkburn, St Mary (Yorks Nave window capitals c.1100
Barton Seagrave, St Botolph (Northants), N doorway tympanum c.1100
South Milton, All Saints (Devon) Font. Early 12thc
Fincham, St Martin (Norfolk), Font Early 12thc
Bredwardine, St Andrew (Hereford) N doorway lintel Early 12thc
Handborough, St Peter (Oxon) N doorway tympanum Early 12thc
Thorpe Arnold, St Mary (Leics) Font Early 12thc
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) S transept corbels Soon after 1107
Hereford Cathedral Choir capitals c.1115
Southwell Minster (Notts) Crossing capitals c.1120
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) External choir arcading c.1120
Canterbury, St Augustine’s (Kent) Corbel c.1120
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) crypt capitals c.1120
Wansford, St Mary (Northants) Font c.1120
Steyning, St Andrew (Sussex) Inhabited foliage relief c.1120
West Haddon, All Saints  (Northants) Font c.1120
Castor, St Kyneburgha (Northants) Tower arch & chancel arch capitals 1124
Luppitt, St Mary (Devon), Font 1100-50
Hook Norton, St Peter (Oxon), Font 1100-50
Toller Fratrum, St Basil (Dorset) Font 1100-50
St Marychurch, St Mary (Devon) Font 1125-50
Charney Basset, St Peter (Berks) Tympanum 1125-50
Reading Abbey (Berks) Cloister sculpture c.1130
Durham Cathedral N doorway capitals c.1130
Hyde, St Bartholomew (Hants) Hyde Abbey capitals c.1130
Romsey Abbey (Hants) Choir aisle capitals c.1140
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) Chapter house doorway c.1140
Lewes, Anne of Cleves Museum (Sussex) Lewes Priory capitals c.1140
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) Capitals c.1140
Norwich Cathedral (Norfolk) Cloister capitals c.1140
Ely Cathedral (Cambs) Prior’s doorway c.1140
Chichester Cathedral (Sussex) Relief panels c.1140
Westminster Abbey (London) Judgement of Solomon capital c.1140
Avington, St Mark and St Luke (Berks) Font c.1140
Darenth, St Margaret (Kent) Font c.1140
Avebury, St James (Wilts) Font c.1140
Alphington, St Michael (Devon) Font c.1140
Coleshill, St Peter and St Paul (Warwicks) Font c.1150
Oxford, St Ebbe W doorway c.1150
Barford, St Michael (Oxon) N doorway c.1150
Bishopsteignton, St John the Baptist (Devon) W doorway 1150-75
Northampton, St Peter Capitals and tomb slab c.1150
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Hereford) S doorway, chancel arch, corbels c.1150
Eardisley, St Mary Magdalene (Hereford) Font c.1150
Castle Frome, St Michael (Hereford) Font c.1150
Brinsop, St George (Hereford) Tympanum c.1150
Stretton Sugwas, St Mary Magdalene (Hereford) Tympanum c.1150
Stottesdon, St Mary (Salop) Font c.1160
Chaddesley Corbett, St Cassian (Worcs) Font c.1160
Durham Cathedral Chapter House Atlas figures c.1140
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) Tournai font 1150-75
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Capital from Old Sarum 1150-75
Ely cathedral (Cambs) Bishop Nigel’s tomb 1150-75
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Old Sarum gable with lions c.1140
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Old Sarum beakhead voussoir, head from arch c.1140
Lincoln Cathedral W doorway and frieze c.1145
York Minster Virgin & Child 1154 (?)
Barking Abbey (Essex) Rood fragments c.1150
Durham Cathedral screen panels 1150-60
Lenton, Holy Trinity (Notts) Font 1150-75
Brighton, St Nicholas (Sussex) Font 1150-75
Bridekirk, St Bridget (Cumberland) Font 1150-75
Selby Abbey (Yorks) Nave capitals c.1140
Brayton, St Wilfrid (Yorks) Chancel arch capitals c.1150
York Minster Crypt capitals c.1160
Alne, St Mary (Yorks) S doorway c.1160
Fishlake, St Cuthbert (Yorks) S doorway 1160-70
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) W doorway c.1160 & 1175
Barfreston, St Mary (Kent) N doorway c.1180
Malmesbury Abbey (Wilts) S porch and doorway 1160-70
Stanton Fitzwarren, St Leonard (Wilts) Font c.1180
Southrop, St Peter (Glos) Font c.1180
Shernborne, St Peter and St Paul (Norfolk) Font c.1170
Great Kimble, St Nicholas (Bucks) Font c.1180
Bodmin, St Petroc (Cornwall) Font c.1200
Stafford, St Mary Font c.1200
Tutbury, St Mary (Staffs) W doorway c.1180
Iffley, St Mary (Oxon) Doorways and chancel vault 1175-82
Elkstone, St John the Evangelist (Glos) Chancel vault boss c.1180
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) “Screen” reliefs c.1190
Bobbing, St Bartholomew (Kent) Figure of bishop c.1200
Much Wenlock Priory (Salop) Lavabo c.1190
Bridlington Priory (Yorks) Statuette 1170-80
York, Yorkshire Museum St Mary’s Abbey figures & voussoirs c.1210
Lincoln Cathedral W front figures Early 13thc
Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset) Lady Chapel doorways c.1210
Durham, St Mary-the-Less Christ in Majesty Early 13thc
Bridlington Priory (Yorks) cloister label stop Early 13thc
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The Romanesque canon according to Prior and Gardiner

This list of dated works, taken from E. S. Prior and A. Gardner, An Account of Medieval Figure-Sculpture in England. Cambridge 1912, is meant to be read in conjunction with my posts on Prior & Gardiner – sculpture as evolution and Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon.

Location Work Assigned date
Ault Hucknall,  St John the Baptist (Derbys), Tympanum and lintel c.1000
Southwell Minster (Derbys) Tympanum c.1000
Ipswich, St Nicholas (Suffolk) Tympanum c.1000
Daglingworth, Holy Rood (Glos) Reliefs c.1000
Chichester Cathedral (Sussex) Reliefs c.1000
Durham Castle Chapel Capitals c.1070
Burnham Deepdale, St Mary (Norfolk) Font c.1100
Westminster Abbey (London) Capital c.1100
Hereford Cathedral Capital c.1100
Moreton Valence, St Stephen (Glos) Tympanum c.1120
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Herefords) Chancel arch/ corbels c.1125
Dinton, St Peter (Bucks) Tympanum c.1125
Fordington, St George (Dorset) Tympanum c.1125
Stone, St John the Baptist (Bucks) Font c.1125
Eardisley, St Mary Magdalene (Herefords) Font c.1125
Romsey Abbey (Hampshire) Corbel table c.1125
Harpole, All Saints (Northants) Font c.1140
Northampton, St Peter (Northants) Relief and capitals c.1140
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) West doorway c.1140-80
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Herefords) South doorway c.1150
Elkstone, St John the Evangelist (Glos) Tympanum c.1150
Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire) Bishop Nigel’s tomb c.1150
Toftrees, All Saints  (Norfolk), Font c.1150
West Haddon, All Saints (Northants) Font c.1150
Highworth, St Michael (Wilts) Tympanum c.1150
Romsey Abbey (Hampshire) Capitals c.1150
Canterbury Cathedral Crypt capitals c.1150
Fownhope, St Mary (Herefords) Tympanum c.1150
Much Wenlock Priory (Salop) Lavabo c.1150
Water Stratford, St Giles (Bucks) Tympanum c.1150
Winchester Cathedral Font c.1150
Elstow, St Mary (Beds) Tympanum c.1150
Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire) Prior’s doorway c.1150
Durham Cathedral Chapter House Atlas figures c.1150
Lincoln Cathedral (Lincs) West front frieze c.1160
Malmesbury Abbey church (Wilts) Tympana c.1160
Iffley, St Mary (Oxon) Doorways c.1160
Southrop, St Peter (Glos) Font c.1160
Hereford Cathedral Font c.1170
Barfreston, St Nicholas (Kent) South doorway c.1170
Brighton, St Nicholas (Sussex) Font c.1170
York, Yorkshire Museum Death of Dives tympanum c.1170
Durham Cathedral Screen reliefs c.1170
Kelloe, St Helen (Durham) Cross c.1170
Coleshill, St Peter (Warwicks) Font c.1170/60
Stafford, St Mary Font c.1180
York Minster Hell relief c.1180
Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel North doorway c.1185
York, Yorkshire Museum St Mary’s Abbey figures c.1200
Worcester Cathedral Christ in Majesty c.1200
York Minster Virgin and Child relief uncertain




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Corbels and corbel tables

A corbel is a projecting block of stone or timber that supports a feature above. A row of corbels supporting a parapet, stringcourse or the eaves of a roof is called a corbel table. Corbels and corbel tables are thus functional features, but in the early Middle Ages, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries, they were often decorated with carving.

Single corbels

Corbels are often used to support the tympanum of a Romanesque doorway.  At Ely Abbey (now cathedral), corbels were often used in this way. The fishscale tympanum of a small internal stair-turret doorway  was supported by a pair of corbels taking the form of rolls decorated with chevron and daisies on the ends.


The N transept stair turret doorway at Ely Cathedral


…. and a detail of one of its corbels

On the more elaborate Prior’s doorway, human head corbels support a tympanum showing Christ in Majesty.

Corbels could be similarly used as an alternative to responds with capitals to carry internal arches, the ends of arcades or vault ribs, and in these cases the corbels usually take capital forms, with impost blocks above and sometimes conical terminals below.


At Buildwas Abbey the rib vault is carried on corbels

Corbel tables

A corbel table is a row of corbels carrying a projecting stringcourse under the eaves of a roof, or supporting the parapet of a tower.  Sometimes the corbels carry an arcade.


The N nave wall of St Martin’s, Little Stukeley, Hunts, showing its plain arcaded corbel table

Since corbel tables do not invariably appear in these positions in Romanesque buildings, it would seem that they perform no essential function.  Their symbolic functions, however, are a matter for endless debate and speculation.

As Michael Camille pointed out, the position of the corbel table on the exterior of the church places it outside the sacred space itself, at the junction between the church and the everyday world outside it. From this we might conclude that the imagery of the corbel table might be a representation of the outside world.


The apse of Kilpeck church. The corbel table surrounds the entire building

The complete Romanesque church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, has 93 surviving exterior corbels. Of these 24 surround the apse, 18 are on the chancel walls and 49 are on the nave walls. The final two corbels are reused as label stops for a chancel window. 12 of the corbels are either lost or too badly damaged to be interpreted.  The first point to note is that only two of the corbels show recognisable religious subjects. Both depict the Agnus Dei, and they are placed in key positions: on the axis of the apse, and above the S nave doorway, which was the parish entrance.

Agnus Dei corbel above the South doorway

For the rest, we have a mixture of humans – both heads and complete figures, grotesques, more or less conventional animals, plants and interlace. If this is a representation of the world outside the church, then all is not as it appears on the surface. The figure scenes include a musician, a pair of wrestlers, lovers embracing, a falling figure, perhaps signifying pride, and the best-known of all, an explicit female exhibitionist.

A musician and a pair of embracing lovers on the apse


A female exhibitionist

All of these suggest that vice is a theme here, and this sheds some light on the interpretation of the other corbels. Grotesque and ordinary heads are juxtaposed, both in the human and the animal world. A muzzled bear has two human heads sticking out of the corners of its mouth; and a demon with the head of a hawk makes two appearances, sinking its beak into the mouth of the man whose head it straddles; elsewhere a carrion bird eats another bird’s body.

A hawk-headed monster and its human prey

The scenes of torment and the grotesque creatures would lose their point if they were not set in the midst of the ordinary – men and women, hares, rabbits, rams and pigs. The message to be taken must be that the world outside the church is not as it seems, and that the Lamb of God above the doorway points the way to the salvation that can only be gained inside the building.

I suspect that there is more to be read in the corbel table than this. There are differences in the content in different parts of the corbel table. Most of the scenes of vice and its punishment, for example, are set around the apse. I also strongly suspect that other churches would offer slightly different messages, but this little essay is not intended to provide any more than a starting point.

Further Reading

M. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992.

A. Weir and J. Jerman, Images of Lust, London 1986.

N. Kenaan Kedar, Marginal Sculpture in Medieval France, Aldershot 1995.

But to be honest, your best bet for pictures and descriptions of British Romanesque corbels and corbel tables is the website of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture


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