Kilpeck Church (aka the Parish Church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck), located in Herefordshire near the Welsh border, is home to the finest collection of Romanesque sculpture in England. It was built in about 1140 and has survived remarkably intact and unaltered to the present day.
There has been a church on this site since the earliest days of Christianity. The village's name of Kilpeck is probably derived from kil Pedic, the "cell of St Pedic," who is otherwise unknown but was likely a local Celtic holy man. Records in the Book of Llandaff indicate that "Kilpeck church with all its lands around" was given to that diocese in 650 AD.
Part of a previous Saxon church may survive in the remains of a buttress on the north wall of the present church. It has the characteristics of Saxon architecture, but remains a bit of a mystery since the Normans usually destroyed all trace of previous Saxon work.
The Normans arrived in Kilpeck not long after the Conquest, and William the Conqueror gave Kilpeck to his kinsman William fitz Norman. This William built a timber castle at Kilpeck, which was later replaced with stone and extended but does not survive today.
William's son, Hugh de Kilpeck, was Keeper of the King's Forests, and it was he who founded Kilpeck's splendid Romanesque church in about 1140. The church was given to the Abbey of Gloucester in 1143.
The identity or provenance of the builders is unknown, but it is likely they were the same as those employed at nearby Shobdon (now in ruins). It is said that Oliver de Merlimond, steward to the Lord of Wigmore, Hugh Mortimer, went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.
Upon his return, he built a church at Shobdon inspired by the Romanesque churches he had seen in southwest France. It is likely that Hugh of Kilpeck, who was a kinsman of Earl Mortimer, employed the same builders on his church at Kilpeck. The decorative style in both churches is clearly of the same school.
Kilpeck Church was dedicated to St David, probably referring to a local Celtic St David rather than the more famous Welsh St David. The Herefordshire churches of Much Dewchurch, Little Dewchurch and Dewsall all have the same dedication and lie on the same straight line as Kilpeck. After Kilpeck Castle fell into disrepair, St David's church adopted the dedication of St Mary from the chapel in the castle.
In the Middle Ages, Kilpeck was a fortified village and home to a thriving community. The castle was large and important enough that King John visited three times within four years. Kilpeck was allowed three medieval fairs, one of them weekly on Fridays. These were probably held on the green just outside the wicket gate. Some of the corbels on Kilpeck Church are scenes from such fairs, such as musicians and the contest of catching a greased pig.
Remarkably, Kilpeck Church has remained mostly unchanged over the 850 years since its construction. It probably escaped the usual alteration and expansion due to the village's decline in prosperity - the Black Plague hit the area in 1349 and the castle was neglected by absentee landlords.
Its sculptures somehow survived the iconoclasm of both the Reformation and the Civil War, and the interior escaped major Victorian renovations. The escape from Puritan damage is especially remarkable, given that Kilpeck Castle was a Royalist garrison that was captured by Cromwell's men (in 1645), and subsequently demolished by order of Parliament.
The only significant changes were the additions of a window and door on the south side in the 14th century and the addition of the belfry and various restrained restorations by Cottingham in the 1840s. Further work in 1982 included extensive repointing of the exterior stone and the addition of the lead mantle over the sorth portal for protection from water damage.
Today, Kilpeck village is home to less than 150 people, but Kilpeck Church is still a place of worship, with a service held at least once every three weeks. And thanks to its splendid collection of Romanesque carvings, it is a popular stop for tourists and church enthusiasts.
What to See
The small church has a simple plan of nave, chancel and round apse. All features date from the original construction in c.1140 except the window and south door at the east end (added 14th century) and the belfry (added 1840s).
The west window and south door are beautifully carved figurative and abstract designs and the roofline is populated with cartoonish corbels. The carvings draw their themes from the pilgrim routes in France and Spain and incorporate the artistic traditions of the Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards. Some reflect everyday medieval life, some depict mythical beasts and symbolic creatures, while others are abstract decorations. Very few have explicit Christian themes.
The exterior carvings are all of red sandstone, which was probably quarried at nearby Ross-on-Wye. Sandstone is not normally known for its durability, but this Herefordshire form of it seems impervious to weather. The sandstone at Kilpeck has developed a very hard patina and will now only be damaged if water penetrates beneath the skin. In addition, the shafts of the south door are almost one piece with a vertical grain, which further discourages water penetration.
The west window has a lovely rope design on the shafts and arch, and profiles of Green Men on the capitals. The south door had a wooden porch at one point, but this was removed in 1868. The portal is now protected by a lead mantle.
The outer columns of the south door are carved with snakes, tail of one in the mouth of the other, up on the the right and down on the left. This may illustrate evil, but may also represent new life since the snake is "reborn" by sloughing its skin each year. The snake sometimes also represents healing through the virtues of its venom.
The inner column on the right is decorated with foliage, with a pair of birds at the bottom. Perhaps these represent man entwined n the cares of the world. The right-hand capital has a type of the Green Man figure.
The inner column on the left has two very interesting warrior figures, sometimes called Welsh Warriors. They wear unusual (Phrygian?) caps, quilted jackets, trousers (an unusual feature in art) and a soft-looking shoe. The lower warrior carries a lance and the upper a two-handled sword with double shaft and hand-guard (some see this as a cross).
The tympanum over the south door has a lovely carving of the Tree of Life. Over this are two orders of arches, the inner arch being the earlier and more interesting. Some of the figures are from The Bestiary, a popular medieval guide in which real and mythical beasts are used to represent moral teachings.
One of these is the Mantichore, shown third from the left. The Bestiary described this as having a triple row of teeth set in a man's head on a lion's body and a tail with the sting of a scorpian. It ate human flesh and could seduce man from the paths of virtue with the voice of a Sibyl. On the left-hand capital is a Basilisk - born from the egg of a cock, hatched by a toad or serpent and was lethal by its glance if it saw you first.
The entire roofline around the church is decorated with carved corbels, originally 89 in total. A few are missing, but most are intact and in excellent condition. It is generally presumed that they were intended to teach something, and many were probably suggested by Hugh de Kilpeck. However, many also seem to be simply entertaining or the ideas of the individual carvers.
For a complete photographic tour,
please see our full-page Guide to the Corbels at Kilpeck Church.
On the west end are three projecting monster heads in a Nordic style. They depicting crocodiles devouring their enemy, the Hydrus. The latter covered itself with mud, slid into the crocodile's mouth and split open in its belly. It thus represents Christ's Harrowing of Hell and is a theme illustrated elsewhere by the Herefordshire School. It is possible that poles were put through the hydra "loops" to hold a tapestry when there was a procession from the castle.
Like the exterior, the interior has remained virtually unchanged since 1140, although it has been whitewashed in post-Reformation style. It is simple and austere, with no Victorian monuments to spoil the overwhelming impression of antiquity.
The chancel arch is carved with large figures, which are thought to be inspired by those on the Gate of the Silversmiths at the Cathedral of Santiago, the great medieval pilgrimage destination. They were carved from large piece of sandstone and were originally painted. The figures are quite different from those on the exterior - elongated, stylized and almost Gothic.
The identities of the figures are not known, but each has distinguishing characteristics. The saint with a key on the left column is the only one to carry a recognizable symbol, identifying him as St Peter. There may be significance in the way the crosses are shown by the saints on each side. The hair on south and north is different: one tonsured in an unknown style (Celtic tonsuring was from ear to ear and Roman circular); the other uncut. The lower figures on each side are priests: the one on the right holds an aspergillum (holy water sprinkler) while the left one holds a scourge.
The apse was once divided from the chancel by a screen, and it may be that relics were placed here. Perhaps Hugh de Kilpeck brought relics back from the First Crusade in 1096 and built this church to hold them. The glass in the apse windows were designed by Augustus Pugin in 1849.
The apse contains an early example of rib vaulting, carved with a chevron design that may represent flowing water. The top intersection of the ribs is decorated with four identical heads. Similar heads at Durham Cathedral are called Cat's Masks and comparable heads can also be seen at Elkstone Church in Gloucestershire. They are directly over the altar so must have had a special significance, but this remains unknown today. Given the tradition of starting churches at the east end, this is possibly some of the earliest work and maybe not even by the Herefordshire school.
The huge font, which originally stood in the chancel but is now near the entrance, is very early Norman. It is quite plain and not at all in the style of the Herefordshire school. It may be that it was a votive gift to the church. Its small pillars are almost certainly exterior shafts of windows from Kilpeck Castle. Metal pieces in the rim are from a lock installed after 1236, when it became law to secure fonts against the nefarious use of holy water. The font has its own decorated stopper, which can be seen on a sill in the chancel.
Another great treasure is the stone holy water stoup, now under the chancel arch and used as a flowerpot. This originally stood by the door, where worshippers would have ritually washed before entering the church. It is much older than the church and possibly even pre-Saxon. It represents hands around a pregnant belly and has snake feet.
At the back of the church is a wooden gallery, which could have been erected at any time between the 16th and 18th centuries. The six pillars are Elizabethan, the rail at the top is Jacobean and the stairs early Victorian.
Quick Facts on Kilpeck Church
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Map of Kilpeck Church
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- Personal visit (November 1, 2007).
- James Bailey, The Parish Church of St Mary & St David at Kilpeck (2000). Excellent booklet purchased at the church.
- A short tour round the corbels. Printed sheet purchased at the church.
- Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches (Penguin Books, 2000), 270.
- Kilpeck Church and Castle - Hereford Pages
- Kilpeck Church - by Peter Evans
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