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Dedication : St Nicholas Simon Jenkins: ****                                               Principal Features : Extraordinary Norman Decoration

I often wonder how much the casual visitor sees in an English church. Would a visitor (or a worshipper) notice, for example, the Norman chancel arch of Tickencote Church? A visitor to Barfreston, however, would surely know that he is seeing something extraordinary. The impact of the extraordinary south door, the wheel window, the internal friezes and the profusion of the most fascinating and ancient carvings is immediate.

Barfreston Church dated from the late c11 and was endowed by the Norman knight, Hugo de Port. In 1180 it was remodeled, possibly by Hugo’s grandson, and most of the amazing carvings date from that period. Extraordinarily, the Victorian restorer, R.C.Hussey concluded that some of the stone was moved here, probably from Hackington Abbey nearby that was demolished due to its being seen as a threat by the monks of Christ’s Church at Canterbury. There were extensive internal alterations in the c19 that slightly diminish the Norman atmosphere, but not by much!

Barfreston is in the forefront of English Norman churches, comparable with other “greats” such as Kilpeck - indeed, Barfreston is sometimes known as the “Kilpeck of the South”. To which I have to say “nonsense”! In Kilpeck we see a riotous confusion of Norse, Celtic and even eastern imagery. Barfreston, on the other hand, is quintessentially French in its decorations. Indeed, Hugo even imported Caen stone for the purpose, no local stone being suitable for such rich carving. Along with Patrixbourne and St Margaret’s at Cliffe, Barfreston is part

of a Kentish “school” of French-influenced church architecture, quite different from others in England and very different indeed from the very English Hereford School of Architecture to which Kilpeck and Rock Church, amongst others, belong.

Barfreston Church, South side. The ornate south door can be seen, with a to blocked doorway to its east. Note the corbel table. Note also the upper masonry section with Caen stone to support the elaborate carving. Lower down the masonry is faced with local flint. Note also the arrangement of glazed and “blind” window mouldings. There is similar, but less satisfying, use of this device at Rock in Worcestershire.

The North side is identical in style to the South and, mercifully, has not been tainted by the addition of ugly vestry buildings, boiler houses and so on that so often preserve the ecclesiastical tradition that the North side is the “Devil’s Side” of a church! Note another filled in doorway which, again, has nevertheless preserved its Norman decoration.

The superlative south door, with its tympanum and three courses of decoration.

The outer circle of decoration has figures from mediaeval life. The bishop figures below is believed by many to be St Thomas a Becket who was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The date certainly makes this theory plausible, and Barfreston is on the “Pilgrim’s Route” to Becket’s shrine.

The tympanum. Christ in Majesty has his right hand raised in benediction whilest his left hand rests on a book. He is surrounded by various angels, whilst to left and right are very clear crowned “King and Queen” images. Might we assume these are Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine who were the English monarchs of the time that the decoration was commissioned? There are also griffons, mermaids, wyverns and so on amongst the foliage.  The inner order of foliate decoration can be seen around this tympanum.

The south door capitals are still in fine condition despite some weathering. On the outer capital what looks like a mounted knight is, in fact, a centaur (horse’s body, man’s head) wearing, rather bizarrely, a contemporary soldier’s helmet. He is attacking a green mask figure who is simultaneously assailed by a monster from his left.

The marvellous thing about this lion carving is that the sculptor - unusually - seems to know vaguely what a lion looks like! We might quibble about his anatomy, but this is unmistakably a lion. Note how fine are the whimsical carvings on the impost block above.

On the east side capital, we have two knights (Good and Evil?) jousting on the left. This is a very French device. On the outer capital a griffin and a lion are also fighting each other. Note the richness of the carvings even above the capitals.

Again, we might quibble about the proportions of this mounted knight, but compared with, for example, contemporary illustrations of the period this is a fine depiction. Our knight has a lance from which a banner hangs. We can see a saddle and some vestiges of reins and bridle.

The three orders of decoration on the south door. The inner course is elaborate foliate decoration. The centre has a delightful series of images of musical animals. At the bottom we have a man playing a viol, with a rabbit and an unidentifiable second creature peering over his shoulder, Above him a bear plays a harp while a tumbler cavorts at his side. Then there is a bear playing some sort of wind instrument while a companion (surely not another bear?)  is apparently either eating or drinking

The viol player.

Above the rider is this pair of hounds.

On the eastern side of the doorway is this figure riding a horse. He or she is a less martial figure than some of the other riders.

The outermost course of decoration has Zodiac figures and the Labours of the Month. From the top in this shot we see a man with a sack and a staff - perhaps a pilgrim, but certainly bent with effort. Then two perormers of some sort - one stripped to the waist, the other clothed. Finally we see a figure astride a small animal - perhaps a dog.

Inside the church is this splendid triple arch, with the wheel window framed bt the chancel arch itself. The blind arches to left and right would have housed altars. Norman string courses can be seen wending their way around the church, following the window openings. Note the Norman friezes to left and right and the beautifully sculpted chancel arch shafts.

Looking towards the west end, we see the rather unfortunate later west window, but elsewhere Norman round arches and mouldings are to be seen everywhere.

The chancel with triple lancet window, foretelling the Early English style of triple lancet to come.

The south wall interior.


The friezes are some of the highlights of the church because they are beautifully preserved. In these two we have a whole sequence of creatures depicted.

A man is creeping on 3 animals here. The one on the left appears to be a monkey and the one in the centre a rabbit or hare. The one on the right might also be a rabbit, but looks more like a donkey or ass to me. The rabbit seems to be held in some sort of pot or bucket.

More fantastic cratures.

There are wonderful stylised mouldings above the triple lancet east window, particularly this one above the central arch. There are fascinating heads where the arches spring from each other, and another above the arch itself.

The chancel arch, again, is beautifully decorated. Note the fineness of the small capitals and of the twist design of the pillars.

This is a sort of “stock” frieze that appears on most of the south wall.

Some nice stylised foliage mouldings.

The left and right arches are more simply decorated.

The T-shaped moulding (see above) proceeds all along the south wall and continues over the south door, where there are also splendid cat mask heads.

The wheel window from the interior. The top half of the window has mouldings of fabulous beasties, while the lower half is of foliage. At 12 O’clock there is some sort of face peering out.

The wheel window from the outside. As with the interior, fabulous beasts inhabit the top portion of the perimeter but in this case a rather smaller arc rather than a semi-circle. Best of all, are the wonderful monsters consuming the spokes of the wheel.

As if the south door were not enough, Barfreston also has blocked Norman doorways on the North Wall (left) and on the south side of the chancel (above). At the centre of the decoration is what looks like a crowned head flanked by two stylised flowers,

The North door, unlike many of its ilk, has interesting carvings of its own. The eastern capital has a kind of “green cat” image, with the animals body spreading on both sides of his rather good-natured head.

On the other side we have these rather nice dancing maidens in what look for all the world like modern party frocks!

Each of the door jambs has a decoration of its own - in both cases a curiously flat image that almost seem like afterthoughts by one of the masons. On the left is another grinning cat and on the right a bearded man’s face.

Barfreston has other sculptures high on the east wall, flanking the wheel window. This is a decidedly French style. A now-headless rider sits in a niche to the left, There are two other figures. The upper figure is probably the eagle of St John. This along with the rather mutilated figure lower down and the further winged figure to the right of the window are likely to be symbols of three of the four evangelists. There will have been a fourth, presumably. Interestingly, the St John figure seems to be sitting above what was another unidentifiable sculpture so maybe there has been some rearrangement carried out at some point in time?

The right hand niche now contains only a fragment, The figure within the roundel is a winged creature but it is hard to tell what. If it were a lion then it would be St Mark, if a bull then St Luke. To the right is is a curious figure hanging rather like a bat.

The curious animal crawling down the east wall.

Above the south wall of the chancel, contiguous with the windows is this rather curious niche containing a decorated tablet. The larger motif is a giant moster or fish.

The beautifully ornate piers of the chancel arch.

The top of the chancel niche has this extraordinary representation of a bridge over (presumably) a river, pre-dating the Rialto Bridge in Venice which it resembles by over 300 years? Where did this idea come from?

The east end. Note the corbel table that runs round most of the church and also the blind arcading that complements the triple lancet windows.

The corbel table does not have the glorious anarchy of Kilpeck, but it is complete and continuous.

The corbels may not  be of the first rank, but I love this mischievous-looking hound or fox that seems to me to be daring the dumb-looking creature next to him to do something naughty...!

....and is this chap on the other side tittering at the thought of the wickedness to come? Who knows!

Just to wind things up, there are scratch dials around the south doorway. These primitive devices are in fact sundials that would have told the local people when the church services were due.

Footnote 1

I have spent some time describing similarities between Barfreston and the French style of Romanesque architecture (please bear in mind that in France, the “Norman” style is not a concept that would be recognised: we talk about Norman because they were our invaders who brought these French styles to our country). Below are two photographs on the Eglise at Trois Palis (pop 695!) which is situated on the River Charente between Cognac (of brandy fame) and Angouleme. This area is the most prolific in France for Romanesque architecture and I am not alone in seeing a strong similarity between Barfreston and the churches there.

The west front of Trois Palis has the type of external sculpture that is unusual in England. Above the west door (which, like Barfreston, has three stages of decoration) are three figures of St John the Baptist, The Virgin Mary and St John the Apostle respectively. Above that are five sculptures: Christ at the centre and surrounded by (clockwise from top left) the Angel of St Matthew, the eagle of St John, the winged lion of St Mark and the winged bull of St Luke - the four evangelists. We can see the remains of the same imagery on the east front of Barfreston church. Note also the corbel table extended around the south end as it is around the east end of Barfreston.

Footnote 2

Whilst writing this - so far my biggest - page I was a little surprised at the lack of information about the church (as opposed to pictures) on the internet. I did, however, uncover an extraordinary document which I have drawn upon a little describing the iconography of the church . It is at and written by one Robert Maxtone Graham. It is a 57 page document so it might be best to download it to view offline. It is obviously a labour of love and awesomely detailed. Robert also produces far more parallels with French church architecture complete with pictures. I strongly recommend it.