Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Perfectly Ordinary Medieval English Church

by Anne O'Brien

Or is it?

What is so special about this unassuming little church?

This is the church of St John the Evangelist at Shobdon, a small village in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. It looks very much like any small medieval church in this part of rural England.

The first known church at Shobdon was a timber chapel, built in Anglo Saxon times. The second was a stone church built in the 12th century, by Oliver de Merlemond, a steward of the powerful Mortimer family, when he received the estate of Shobdon from Hugh Mortimer.   A tower was added in the 13th Century.

The third and present church consisted of a completely new nave, which was built onto the 13th Century tower, by the Bateman family in 1756, on whose estate the church stood. Much like the rebuilding of many churches in England over the centuries, we would presume.

So what is it that makes this church so remarkable?  As soon as you enter, you will see that it is far from ordinary.  To be fanciful, it is like stepping into a traditional iced wedding-cake, a completely different world, a true Georgian gem.

This unique style of architecture is known as Strawberry Hill Gothic, a flamboyant world of Rococo and Gothic design that draws its inspiration from the work of Horace Walpole at his London house of Strawberry Hill.  This should not be be too surprising, as the Batemans were close friends with Walpole, and his ideas obviously influenced the design of this extraordinary building.

The interior is primarily two-toned, in white with pale blue accents. Highly decorated ornamental arches abound, with exquisite attention to the fine detail of the carving. The centrepiece of the interior is the lavish three-storey pulpit, which is based on one designed by William Kent for York Minster.

The church has no aisles, but has a gallery above the west entrance, and a chancel marked by a trio of ogee arches that appear almost oriental in style. There is a separate door for the Bateman family, which gives onto the family pew, where they were provided with their own fireplace for warmth. There is another door for the Bateman servants, which gives access to the servant's pew in the north transept.

The only piece of original decoration is on the Norman font which was retained.

The whole thing is quite unexpected and totally at odds with the exterior but quite delightful, particularly after its recent sensitive restoration. Not to be missed if you are visiting Herefordshire.

But that is not the end of the story.  What happened to the original interior of this striking little church?  Was it simply destroyed?  It would have been a tragedy if it had been destroyed for one very important reason.  

Soon after he acquired the manor, Oliver de Merlemond went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Compostela, after which he rebuilt the small Saxon church on his manor, stunningly decorated, its arches carved with patterns and mythical beasts such as dragons, its pillars adorned with intricate interlaced decoration and figures, the semicircular panels above its two doorways bearing beautiful depictions of Christ in Majesty, upheld by angels, and the Harrowing of Hell. The church seems to have been the first building decorated by the celebrated Hereford School of Sculptors.

So ornate is the Hereford sculpture, so unlike what was being done in the rest of England at the time, and so like other work in Europe, that there has been speculation that Oliver’s journey influenced it in some way.

Did Oliver bring back a carver from Spain or France? Or did the group of pilgrims with which he travelled include a local stoneworker who absorbed the powerful influence of buildings on the route to Compostela? We will never know.

So what happened to this glorious carving?  When the 18th century church was built, the original Romanesque chancel arch was carefully removed and reassembled on the hill overlooking the church. This was linked to two carved doorways with their tympana to create an unusual folly. Though somewhat eroded by wind and weather, the arches, known as Shobdon Arches, still show us the exquisitely detailed Norman carving.

Anyone who wishes to see this Hereford style of architecture with its mythical creatures and interlocked carving still in its rightful position can visit the nearby churches of Eardisley and, of course, the most famous of them all, Kilpeck.

But nothing prepares you for the sight of the Strawberry Hill Gothic inside Shobdon Church.


Visit my website to discover more about my medieval interests and my historical novels.

The Forbidden Queen, a novel of Katherine de Valois, was released in the USA in March 2014.

The Scandalous Duchess, a novel of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, was released in the UK in March 2014.

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