This figure was discovered by Theresa Oakley and was published in her doctoral thesis Lifting the Veil.
The figure is very worn and as such it is hard to tell what it was originally meant to represent.
The question is was this once an exhibitionist figure? There are a number of features that count against this. The land for the building was granted to the Austin friars in 1379 which puts the carving in a much later period than the 12th century when we normally see female exhibitionist sculpture.
It resides on the now disused Chapel of the Augustinian Friary on Conduit Hil, Ry and is in a somewhat dilapidated state. Permission was granted to the friars to rebuild their friary after a French raid destroyed the original buildings along with most of the town. The chapel is the only building to have survived into the present day. It has had a varied life serving as a store house in the 1700s. In the twentieth century it wet through many incarnations including Salvation Army barracks, theatre, malthouse, butter and cheese warehouse, wool store pottery and dance hall.
While I was visiting the figure one of the locals very kindly let me into his garden to have a look at the side of the building and photograph the odd blocked up floor level windows.
Is this a Sheela Na Gig?
If this is an exhibitionist figure then it would be exceptional given the likely date of carving. It is worn and it is hard to tell what originally it once was. Angel figures from this period when they become worn start to become suggestive of exhibitionist figures. Having said that carving as it stands today is suggestive of one. At the end of the day this carving is simply to worn to make an accurate judgement.
The church of St Mary Magdalene in Winterbourne Monkton lies near the famous village and henge of Avebury. Monkton has religious connections going back to 928AD and was owned by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. This can be seen reflected in the village’s name of “Monkton”
There is a figure on the font in the church which has been referred to as sheela by the folklorist Ivan Bunn in his list of UK sheelas. At the time of writing his website now appears to be offline.
The font in the church is thought to date from the 12th century which would put it in the right period for sheela carvings. The figure however has no clearly defined gentials and has a number of other features which do not fit in neatly with it being a sheela. The head has no visible facial features the face itself being a scooped out hollow. The head also appears to have three horns or possibly a crown. There is a “bra” like structure on the chest which could indicate breasts. The arms of the figure are very odd, as you face the figure the arm on the left terminates in what appears to be a bird head while the right arm dissolves into a curl below the elbow (foliage perhaps?).The figure is splay legged with “something” appearing to emanate from the groin. This has been interpreted as foliage but as you can see from the photo on the left this “foliage” still retains some of the medieval red/orange paint. One of the ribs of the font has a definite bulge on it which looks to be deliberate and is missing from the rest of the ribs. (see below left)
The figure is one of the more puzzling figures I’ve come across and I’m not aware of any other figure quite like it. It seems to be more abstract than most medieval figures. It lacks the defined genitals which would definitely make this figure a sheela. Nevertheless it is an interesting and unique figure.
Thanks go to Carl Grigg for the photographs.
Close-up of the head showing the “horns” and scooped out face
Abstract corbels, an astrological tympanum, St Michael slaying the dragon and host of other architectural features make Stoke Sub Hamdon a veritable feast of medieval carving.
The church has been added to many time over the centuries resulting in a many different features from different times. The church is thought to have been originally built in 1100 the first version of the church not having a tower. This figure and a later nude figure on the church is discussed in the paper Two Sheila-na-gigs at Stoke Sub Hamdon by Paul Ashdown in Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 1993.
The figure can be found on the left side of the church as you enter from the main gate. Walk past the tower and you should find a series of Romanesque corbels. The picture below indicates the exact position.
At first glance the figure is unremarkable just a face staring out from a squatting body. However when you go directly beneath the figure you can clearly see a cleft indicating either buttocks or a vagina. Unfortunately it is hard to from the carving which it is meant to be. There also seems to be some indication of hands pulling a the cleft apart but this not clear. While the figure is undoubtedly exhibitionist is it a sheela? Well it has all the characteristics of a sheela except for the fact that it’s exhibitionist nature is not immediately obvious. It is not as “in your face” as the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas and has less of an impact. In fact you have to go out of your way to discover that the figure is indeed exhibitionist at all. The same goes for the later figure on the rear of the church (see below) mentioned in Paul Ashdown’s paper.
This later figure (right) can be found on the rear of the church high up on the back wall. It consists of a nude figure with it’s mouth wide open which is blocked by a piece of rubble. The figure is missing the right hand limbs but gestures to the vulva with it’s left hand. The vulva is not immediately obvious and it was only due to the fact that we had read John Ashdown’s paper that we noticed it. In fact both myself and Keith Jones missed this figure on several separate visits despite the fact we were looking for figures of this type. The figure appears to have been moved from elsewhere and looks like the type of gargoyle figure you see adorning later medieval church towers. If this is the case then the figure would have faced head outwards with the feet on the tower while a channel would have been set to make waste water emerge from the mouth. If this description holds true then the vulva would have been facing the church and would not have been immediately obvious. There is also some indication that the vulva may have been carved at a later date than the main figure as it appears to be out of line with the main body. If you look at the photograph above you can see that if you draw a vertical line through the vulva it points to beyond the figure’s left shoulder rather than straight up to the head.
Once again we are faced with the question of the definition of a Sheela na gig. This figure lacks the overt exhibitionism of the Kilpeck and Oaksey figures in much the same way as the earlier Romanesque corbel on the other side of the church. Nevertheless it is displaying it’s vulva (if not in an immediately shocking way) This and the fact that stylistically it appears to much later than the usual Romanesque period, makes it one of the latest vulva displaying figures in the UK.
The rest of the church is very interesting with many different carvings dotted around it. There are some corbels which very abstract in design and would not look out of place in an Escher drawing. In addition to these some carvings (see below) are very odd defying a simple explanation of what they are meant to represent.
Tympanum over the main door to the church containing the astrological symbols of Saggitarius and Leo.
Interestingly the Sagitarius/Leo motif is duplicated on the font at Hook Norton including the explicit naming of the figures with inscriptions.
According to The Witch on the Wall the figure was discovered near the remains of St Ives Priory the figure is crudely carved for the most and appears to have signs on burning on it. The photograph to the right was taken in the 1970’s by Anthony Weir author of Images of Lust . At that time the figure was in the private possession of Mr R.C. Jude of St Ives. I contacted the Norris museum near St.Ives with a view to finding out what had happened to the figure and whether the museum now had possession. Unfortunately according to the museum Mr. Jude had since died and had no immediate family. It’s assumed that the figure was left to his cousins or more remote family. Unfortunately this now means that the figure is essentially lost. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the figure or can put me touch with Mr. Jude’s family please let me know.
One of the odder features of this sculpture is that vulva resides in a depression. This could be down to the legs now being missing or possibly that the figure was being eaten by a monstrous pair of jaws,
Please note that this shows the Location of St Ives. This figure is now lost.
Royston Cave is one of the more unusual places in Britain. Possibly the remnants of an Neolithic flint mine, the cave was used for religious purposes in medieval times and is covered in carvings of religious and secular subjects. Local historians insist that there is a Templar connection and that it was used for initiation purposes into that order. The imagery in the cave tends to support this theory with some of the carvings being interpreted as events in Templar history. A number of saints are depcited including St Catherine, St Lawrence and St Christopher. The cave originally had a platform built into it which made the old floor much higher than the modern one.
This sheela figure is situated between a horse and a sword as can be seen in the above picture (Fig 1). It’s open to debate whether the figure should be taken in context with these carvings as Joseph Beldam did in his book The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave 1884 (see below). My initial reaction is to take it as a stand alone figure there does not seem to be a discernable pattern in how they should be read. The figure has the Herculean shoulders and the exaggerated hanging pudenda which marks it as sheela but, as Anderson points out, the figure does not gesture to the genitals the hands hanging loosely at its sides. The carving of the sheela is fairly crude especially when compared to some of the care taken on the other figures. There are a number of holes drilled into the walls of the cave which are thought to have held supports for the candles that lit it. Interestingly one of these holes is directly between the legs of the sheela (Fig 2) this would have meant that the figure and more to the point the vaginal area would have been directly lit further emphasizing the shock that the figure would have been likely to induce.
Whereas it is hard to date the carvings the style of some of the imagery seems to indicate 13th – 14th Century origin. This would make this a later example of sheela if this date is correct.
Royston lies on the intersection of the ancient thoroughfares of the Icknield Way and Ermine St. Interestingly another Sheela can also be found near the Icknield way further south at Buckland
More information on Royston Cave can be found at www.roystoncave.com and on Wikipedia which replicates a number of plates from Beldam’s book.
Joseph Beldam and the Cave
In 1884 Joseph Beldam published a book called “The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave”. In the book the Sheela na gig changes sex and is associated with the horse and sword next to it. This scene is then, somewhat bizzarely, described as the conversion of St Paul. As can be seen in the illustration from the book on the left the Sheela has been bowdlerised into a clothed figure petting the horse next to it. This is one more example of Victorian self-censorship in the describing of exhibitionist figures which can also be seen in tracts on the Llanhamlach figure and the typanum at Stoke Sub Hamdon.
William Stukeley and Royston Cave
Antiquarian William Stukeley made an earlier drawing of the figure which has also been bowdlerised. In this drawing the arms are correctly positioned but the figure has acquired a head of hair similar to other figures in the cave and the carved vulva now becomes part of a skirt or shift. As you can see from the above photograph the legs are indicated either side of the vulva making it distinctly un-skirt like. Stukeley attributed a Norman origin to the cave writing shortly after it’s discovery
“this agreeable subterranean recess, hewn out of
pure chalk. ’Tis of an elegant bell like form … all
around the sides, it is adorned with imagery in
basso relieve of crucifixes, saints, martyrs and
historical pieces … suitable to a time that was
soon after the conquest.”
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 alleged satirical nature of the carving as the purse ring is used in Romanesque carving to indicate miserliness. This would mean that carving has 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.
A Royal Scandal – Mary de Blois
Tradition 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 died leaving Henry II to suceeded to the throne. Henry was of a different family to Mary and so her fortunes dwindled somewhat.
It seems 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 century Europe.
King 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.
Sheela na gig or Mary of Blois?
Does 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 would be 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 connected.
Romsey Abbey. The arrow indicates the position of the sheela na gig carving. The birthing corbel is on the adjacent lower corbel table.
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.
The late Wendy McKenna local resident and archaeologist.
Lives of the Princesses of England M.A. Everret Green 1849
Romsey Abbey Through the Centuries by Judy Walker Pendragon Press 1993
In 1050 Edward the Confessor, unhappy with the relatively obscure location of the See of Devon and Cornwall moved it from Crediton in Devon
to the more important location of Exeter. After the Norman conquest the second Norman bishop Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror started construction of a new cathedral between 1112-1114. Construction continued throughout the 12th century with small hiatus caused by a fire during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. It is to this Romanesque phase of building that unusual two towers of Exeter and the sheela na gig figures belong.
The figures can be found on the north side of the south tower. They are extremely hard to see with the naked eye and can only be found with some sort of maginification. The best place to view the figures is by standing at the back of the large green outside the cathedral to the right of north tower. You have to look at the corbels on the face of the far tower over the roof the cathedral. The fact that the corbels are only around foot wide combined with the angle and distance at which they are viewed really does mean that you will need binoculars or a long lens on your camera. The in situ photos below were taken with a 1000mm lens. The figures consist of a definite female figure, a definite male figure and a slightly ambiguous figure which on the balance of probabilities is likely to be female.
All of the figures are crudely carved and now very worn, but even taking into account their current state even when new the figures would have been crude. This is curious as other figures while still not of the highest quality are better carved than the exhibitionists.
One of the more likely theories to explain exhibitionist figures is that they served a didactic purpose warning against sins of the flesh. Given that they they are nigh invisible from the ground a didactic purpose seems unlikely. What of the apotropaic theory as protection against evil? Again this seems unlikely as an explanation as the location does not readlily fit in with the theory. Unlike Oxford the figures are not over a gateway or facing outward, in fact the figures face inward towards the cathedral rather than outwards protecting against external evil. Despite being in plain view the figures are to all intents and purposes hidden. Could this mean that they are “pagan” survivals secretly hidden among the Christian carvings? Again this is unlikely, though crude the figures are similar to other romanesque carvings which are always found in a Christian context.
It is hard to ascribe any meaning to these carvings other than decoration like the rest of the corbels on the cathedral.
Thanks go to Thomas Cadbury for allowing me to visit the museum stores to photograph the casts.
The museum is not currently displaying the figures but is well worth a visit anyway
Sometime between the 10th and 11th of November 2004 this figure was destroyed by a vandal. It’s been in the church probably since the early 1100s only to be destroyed by some idiot with a chisel.
It’s interesting that one of the parishioners was not too unhappy to see it go, mainly because it was “pagan”. The pagan survival theory for sheelas is probably the one with least evidence to support it, most of the evidence points to a medieval Christian origin for them. There has been some speculation that the damage may have been done due to it’s supposedly “pagan” nature. If this is the case then the person who did the damage may like to know they have destroyed part of their medieval Christian heritage rather than the desecration of a pagan idol. Whatever motivation was behind the damage there is no denying it was a mindless act. The destruction was widely reported including a short mention in the Telegraph.
10 Years On
Emeritus Professor of the University of Sussex, Robin Milner-Gulland wrote an article in the December 2014 edition of Sussex Past and Present the Sussex Archaeological Society Newsletter. The following quote is from the end of the article
The carving, including the roundels, was destroyed by chisel (left-handedly) on the 10th or 11th November 2004; the fragments were left on the floor and put in the care of one of the churchwardens.
They were inspected by a representative of English Heritage, who reported that the stone was friable, the fragments small, so ‘reconstructive surgery’ would be needed if they were to be restored – but it was not impossible. A strange ‘ghost’ of the carving can be detected on the impost. The vandalism was reported in the press, the police made investigations, but since that time everything seems to have stalled and the fragments to have been lost. The police have a suspect, but in the absence of hard evidence are not in a position to make an arrest. It wasn’t, apparently, a random act by a passing stranger, but seems to have been somehow connected with parochial dissension between different groups in the congregation: the supposedly ‘unChristian’ carving was perceived as malign. When I suggested to a churchwarden that a photograph of it could be displayed, I was told ‘it wouldn’t last a week’. So after ten years we still live with the consequences of an act of deliberate vandalism in one of the most precious of Sussex
churches: a mystery story that lacks its final chapter.
The Original Text
Picture courtesy of Shae Clancy. Copyright Shae Clancy
This Sheela can be found in All Saints Chapel near the tiny village of Wiston in Sussex. The church is situated well off the road behind trees and is very easy to miss. I drove past it a few times while looking for it. There is a red sign on the road indicating the presence of the church which belongs to the parish of Wiston with Buncton. If you have read Images of Lust this sheela only gets a passing mention and is reported as being in the village Buncton. This is not entirely accurate as it is situated a little way outside the village of Wiston, in fact Buncton seems to consist of two or three houses and is not clearly signposted.
The figure itself is situated on the left side of the chancel arch. It is quite high up and unusually it lies on it’s side. (see below). A note in the church describes the carving as being that of the mason and makes no reference to it being a sheela or even female. There may be some doubt as to whether this carving is a sheela or not. There are no obvious genitals on display but there does seem to be some indication of toolwork where the genitals should be. If there were genitals at so me time then the carving would be similar to the one at Oaksey in Wiltshire. This similarity is further borne out by the fact that stances of the figures in both carvings are very similar and it appears to be pointing to the vagina in the same way as the Oaksey sheela. The carving also has two very small breasts or nipples which are not obvious in the photograph. The short comment in Images of Lust quotes Professor G.Zarnecki who describes the carving as being”much rubbed”, I find this hard to believe for a number of reasons.
1. The carving is far too high for anyone to casually rub it. You would need a ladder or be standing on a chair to reach it.
2. The carving appears to be in situ i.e. It does not seem to have been moved from some more accessible place where rubbing could have taken place.
To my mind it makes more sense that if the carving is a sheela then it has been carefully defaced at some time, notice the scratches around the genital area in the photograph above. In addition to this there is a vulva shaped depression between legs which would seem to that perhaps at one time the figure was more exhibitionist than it is now and has been the victim of some puritanical “enhancement” rather than rubbing for good luck or fertility.
The church itself is very old dating back to between 1150 – 1180 although land had been granted to the church in this as far back as 791 AD. Its Romanesque elements lend some weight to image being a sheela as they are normally found on buildings of this era. Another feature on the carving may point to the image being a sheela. The left had rests on the hip of the figure while the right arm seems to straighter with the now missing right hand resting slightly lower down. It may be that the figure was pointing to the genital area in much the same way as the Oaksey and Lower Swell figures. Another aspect of the carving ties it in with the blind arcading found on the outside of the chapel. The round hatched circle above the head of the figure (right)Oaksey is duplicated on one of the arches in the arcading. (See Below)
The History of the Chapel
The chapel stand on the hill of Biohchandowne from which Buncton is thought to have taken its name. There is no record of a chapel in the Domesday book despite the fact that a royal charter granted the land to church in Saxon times. (For a detailed paper on this charter click here http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/buncton_charter.htm)
The following is extracted from a visit made to Buncton in 1871 by Mr. MatthewOaksey Holbeeche Bloxam, his brother, the Rev. J .R. Bloxam, and the Rev C. W .A. Napier. Rector of Wiston. Originally published in Sussex Archaeological Society Notes And Queries in 1913.
“The Chapel visited by me in September 1871,is a small Norman edifice, consisting of a nave and chancel only, with a modern bell –cote over the west end of the nave, containing a single bell. The exterior of the nave is extremely plain, and the walls are unsupported by buttresses. The south door has been blocked up with masonry plain horizontal lintel, consisting of a single stone, forms the head of the doorway, above which is a plain semicircular arch.
The chancel arch is semicircular and Norman in style, the chancel does not appear of its original dimensions, but may have been shortened in the 14th century. It is now in the interior 13 feet 6 incOakseyhes wide by only 11 feet 6 inches in length. On the north side of the chancel arch there is some rude sculpture of a man. It is lighted by a small Norman or early English window of a single light, both on the north and south sides. In the east wall is a decorated window, either modern or restored. In the south wall of the chancel is an Ogee-headed Fenestella, trefoiled under the head and moulded. Within and beneath this is a projecting perforated basin or piscina; this is thought to be of the 14th century. In the north wall opposite the piscine is a somewhat large but plain pointed locker, divided by a stone shelf of the 14th century.
On the exterior or the chancel on the north side and on the south side there are three pointed arches, in either wall, of semi-Norman design, somewhat rudely ornamented with Norman mouldings. The Walls are constructed chiefly of flint and rubble masonry, intermingled with Roman tile. The east wall of the chancel is of Ashlar masonry, and appears to have been constructed in the 14th century, when the chancel was shortened. Projecting from this east wall inside are two small moulded brackets of the 15th century. There are no details or indications of masonry of greater antiquity than the middle of the 12th century, circa A.D.1150; the chapel was, in my opinion, constructed.”
This figure lies on a corner stone of the church of St Mary the Virgin, Painswick. Painswick is a picturesque Cotswold town which has earned itself the unofficial title of “Queen of the Cotswolds”. The church which was originally Norman was remodelled around 1480 in the perpendicular style. The churchyard has 99 yew trees in which enclose the churchyard paths making them into tunnels in some places. There is a legend surrounding the yews that if a 100th tree is planted then the tree and the person who planted it will die because the devil wishes to keep the number at 99. The church is also famous for it’s large imposing spire which can be seen for miles around and it’s “clypping” ceremony where once a year the children of the parish form a ring around the church and sing hymns. It’s thought to express the parishioners love for the church by embracing it. On the outside, the church is for the most part fairly plain but there are at least four pieces of carving including the male figure with a possible fifth enigmatic “face” high on the tower. However this may just be an simulacra. If anyone knows any more about this “face” I would be happy to hear from them.
The phallic male figure has stubby arms and legs with a bald head and a pointed beard. Between his legs there are pair of small weathered testicles and his long thin penis rises almost to his chest. The penis is also slightly off centre. The figure shows a similarity to a bearded figure on the chancel arch atLower Swell some 30 miles to the East.
All of the figures on the church show a fair degree of weathering. In addition to the male phallic figure there is also a man with a “barrel” with a hole in it, another who appears to be eating and a gargoyle type figure. All of these figures have holes in them unlike the phallic figure which would seem to indicate that were meant to act as waterspouts. No mention is made of any of carvings in the church literature. Thanks go to Hazel Brown for bringing this figure to my attention.
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The church of St John the Baptist Burford contains a small slab set into an internal turret on which are carved three figures which are thought to have come from an earlier building. This is supported by the fact that the stonework of the turret contains stonework from an earlier Saxon building. The figures comprise of three crude figures two of which appear to be displaying sexual organs. The figure on the left appears to have a slit indicating a vagina. While the middle figure has small “penis” peeping from beneath it’s skirt like garment. The middle figure is also gesturing towards the vaginal slit of the left figure. On the right we have a figure which at first appears to be a centaur but on closer inspection is a badly carved representation of a figure riding a horse.
Experts disagree on exact date for the carving some placing it in the 12th century interpreting it as the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. It seems strange and even shocking to our modern view that differentiating Mary and Joseph would be represented by showing sexual organs. But it’s worth remembering we are looking at the carving with modern eyes and not those of the original sculptor
Other experts date it from the time of the Roman occupation which would make it a Romano-Celtic figure. While this is definitely not a sheela carving it’s also definitely an exhibitionist one but not one which fits easily into the rest of the catalogue of exhibitionist figures.
Romanesque arch on the west door of the church complete with Beakhead and Monster figures. The arch is circa 1175. The door and hinges are thought to be original
17th Century figure from the tomb of Sir Lawrence and Lady Tanfield. It’s interesting to note that this figure dates from the time of the puritans. A period in which we would expect a severe degree of sexual repression yet here we have a bare breasted young woman appearing on a tomb. It may be that our prejudices of the past being more sexually repressive have more to do with a comparatively recent Victorian influence than any basis in reality.