The Romsey Sheela na gig
This figure is situated on the Norman Abbey in
Romsey. the current church is the third to stand on the site
but has been a place of worship for at least 1000 years going back to
Saxon times. Romsey Abbey is widely regarded as one of the best
examples of Norman church architecture still standing.
A Sheela with objects
This sheela is unusual in that it is accompanied by a
number of objects. The figure holds a crooked staff which has been
interpreted as a crozier. The staff is said to indicate that the figure
is meant to be the abbess. There is also a hard to identify object in
the figure's left hand which has been identified as shears. However
Richard N Bailey examined this figure close up on scaffolding and
dismissed this interpretation in his paper Apotropaic Figures in Milan
and North-West England (point 12). As you can see in the photograph on
the left the object does not appear very scissor like. The figure
straddles what appears to be a now damaged bowl. The vulva is indicated
by a small notch and is not very prominent.
The Nun on the Potty
The figure was known locally by schoolchildren1
in the past as "The nun on the potty" this is probably due to the fact
that there appears to be something between the figures splayed legs.
This object appears to be a damaged pot hence the local name for
it. Indeed the figure may be a combination of exhibitionist
and an "at stool" figure although there does not appear to be any sign
of a stool.
A Miserly Sheela?
Whereas it's very hard to determine what the unidentified object is, my
personal theory is that it's a purse ring . See Melbourne
Church's Miser Figure
for an example of a purse ring. In December 2006 I revisted Melbourne
and took some more detailed pictures of the "miser" figure and found
that the object that the figure was holding actually included what
seems to be the sack of the purse as well. If you compare the Romsey
figure to the Melbourne one they both seem to be holding what appear to
be very similar objects. This would seem to fit into the
satirical nature of the carving as the purse ring is used in Romanesque
carving to indicate miserliness. This would mean that carving
been used to imortalise the abbess's niggardliness possibly in paying
the sculptors. However there a problems with this theory in that the
purse ring is usually depicted as a open D shape which the object only
just resembles. We should also be a little wary of the satirical
explanation as this is one frequently used to explain rude or out of
place carvings on churches. A similar story is told about the Kilpeck
figure and many other anomalous (to our eyes) church
carvings. One odd fact is that the carving was originally in
position where it could not be seen easily. This begs the question
could this be a genuine example of a "mason's joke". There are
however a number of features that would argue against the satirical
nature. The carving is not a quick piece of graffiti but a well carved
and detailed panel. It would have taken a significant amount of time to
carve taking a sculptor away from other more visible and authorised
work. As with most speculation on these figures the fact is we will
never really know. There could however be another explanation for the
figure which involves a royal scandal and an abbess who became a wife.
Scandal - Mary de Blois
has it that two sculpted heads on a capital in the South Transept at
Romsey represent King Stephen and his ill fated daughter Mary of Blois.
As was the custom in the 12th century Mary was dedicated to a religious
life as a child by her mother Matilida. She was placed in the priory of
Stratford-atte-Bow in Middlesex along with a group of nuns from St Sulpice
in Rennes who were attend to her upbringing. Apparently the strict rule
of the English nuns did not sit well with French group who were used to
a more lenient regime. No doubt the importance of their royal charge also contributed to the friction.
Unfortunately this strife was taste
of what was to come for the young princess. Some years later Queen
Matilda founded a new priory at Lillechurch in Kent and at the tender
age of sixteen Mary found herself the prioress of the St Sulpice
nuns.The rents from Lillechurch manor were made over to Stratford
priory to cover the costs of the new sister house. It would seem that
relations did not improve despite the move and few years later
Stratford priory rescinded any claim to Lillechurch on the condition
that Mary's group packed up their bags and left forthwith.
During her time at
Lillechurch her mother Matilda and her father King Stephen
leaving Henry II to suceeded to the throne. Henry was of a different
family to Mary and so her fortunes dwindled somewhat.
easy to read between the lines in this history that group were
troublesome and not easy to control. Whatever the reason the
group left Kent and were sent to
Romsey some time between 1156 and 1158 where Mary was appointed new
Abbess. The choice of Romsey was not unusual as it had a tradition of
housing those of royal blood who took to the cloisters. Mary began a
quiet life at Romsey until 1159
when Mary's brother William died leaving her the sole heiress of her
families estates including Boulogne in France.
It is at this point that scandal rocks 12th
Henry II sees an opportunity to strengthen his alliances on the
continent by marrying Mary, despite the fact she is an abbess with
accompanying vows of chastity, to Matthew of Alsace the younger son of
the count of Flanders. Thomas a Beckett's horror at the scarelige of
this marriage is written about by a number of writers of the period.
All but one of the chroniclers of the period paint Mary as the innocent
party in this scandal. For a short time she was the "innocent object
of execration" 2 of
most of Europe. The marriage led to the excommunication of Matthew but
not that of Mary which seems to indicate that she was seen as an
innocent party in this sacreligious union.
gig or Mary of Blois?
this mean then that the carving at Romsey is actually a record of this
scandal? The figure definitely represents a ecclesiastical figure due
to the prescence of the crozier. The other objects though are more
troublesome, a pot which the figure squats over and looped object held
in the left hand which may be a purse representing money. For the most
part Mary was seen as the innocent party so is it likely that she
villified in a satirical piece of sculpture? Despite this the sculpture
does seem to represent an abbess and even though Mary was widely
believed to be innocent there was a school of thought that she could
have objected more strongly had she wished to. Given that Mary's
ecclesiastical career was a matter of circumstance rather than
conviction would she have welcomed the marriage? Apparently not as a
later letter to the King of France makers clear her hatred of King
Henry and it would appear she did not welcome the marriage at all.
Nevertheless we have a sexual sculpture of what appears to be an
abbess and a sexual scandal involving an abbess both of which come from
the same period. Unfortunately there is no definite proof that they are
birthing corbel adjacent to the Sheela na gig figure
Unlike most church sculpture we have
a likely sculptor for this corbel as he has kindly
left his signature on the side of the figure. The name Ellery
is fairly easy to make out with a possible date of 1865 below.
A Thomas Ellery is recorded in Harrod & Co.'s
Directory of Hampshire & Isle of Wight, 1865 "Thomas ELLERY,
stone and marble mason, Middle Bridge street, Romsey". Unfortunately
only Ellery is clear with some scratches possibly indicating initials.
It's thought that this corbel is a replacement for an original
romanesque corbel of a similar design.
Romsey Abbey. The arrow indicates the position of the
sheela na gig carving. The birthing corbel is on the adjacent lower
1. The late Wendy McKenna local resident and archaeologist.
2. Lives of the
Princesses of England M.A. Everret Green 1849
3. Romsey Abbey
Through the Centuries by Judy Walker Pendragon Press 1993
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