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Billesley

Dedication : All Saints      Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                             Principal Features : Tiny church rebuilt in Stuart period; Norman carvings; Shakespeare connections.

Billesley is a tiny place in the vicinity of Stratford-on-Avon. be careful not to confuse it with Billesley in Birmingham not very far away! The church is within the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

I visited Billesley in order to see some fragments of Anglo-Saxon carvings that are on display, of which more anon. Despite arriving there in the midst of one of 2013’s biblical floods, however, I found it to be an enchanting little church and decided to write about it.

If you are looking at the picture to the left and thinking “Omigod it’s a Norman apse” you are sadly mistaken. The original church was indeed believed to date from c12 but what we see today is a 1692 structure, further modified during the c18.

The church is accessed from the grounds of the rather swish Billesley Manor Hotel and visitors arriving as I did in wet weather have to negotiate part of a muddy farmyard. This is less surprising when you realise that the population at the 2001 census was 46! That probably included staff resident at the hotel to boot. In Norman times the village had a population of about 150 and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. In the c14 the population was devastated by famine and Plague and never recovered. Warwickshire suffered particularly from the 1361 outbreak, sometimes known as the “Pestilence of the Children” for its disproportionate effect on those not alive to gain some immunity during the devastating 1348 pandemic.

The church had no rector after 1624 and, unsurprisingly, it fell into decay. Fortunately, in 1692 the new owner of the manor, one Bernard Whalley, decided to have it completely rebuilt.

Nobody seems to know the original plan. Perhaps it had an apsidal east end which the new one replaced or perhaps Mr Whalley just had a taste for the Romanesque style. Either way the church he built is an engaging blend of faux Norman structure and Stuart period interior. The windows are round-headed in the Norman style but on a much grander scale and with plain glass. Each has an attractive raised stone surround. The north wall is believed to have some stonework from the original church. There is a south transept or vestry and a west porch through which the church is accessed. It is a surprisingly tasteful and attractive building. It pays tribute to the Norman architectural heritage without falling into the trap of parody - unlike some neo-Norman confections I could mention!

The interior is also very engaging. There are family box pews and a minstrel’s gallery, all apparently dating from 1692. Apart from the wall monuments I so love to hate, the walls are as plain as the glass. The overall effect is of an austere solemnity of a previous era. There are no children’s corners, WI banners or war memorials. It is a simple “house of God” that time forgot until the Churches Conservation Trust - gawd bless ‘em - took it under their wing.

Let’s turn to the Norman carvings housed within the transept. The most important is an almost complete Norman tympanum that the CCT found amongst the rubble used to block a doorway! This is no ordinary tympanum. It is in the style of the Herefordshire School of Norman architecture and what’s more was certainly carved by the same mason who produced the font at Eardisley a good 65 miles away in Herefordshire and which also seems to have links to Bredwardine Church nearby. More about this in the footnote below. The other is part of cross shaft.

Two views of the church looking east. The right hand picture is taken from the minstrel’s gallery. Note the apsidal east end and simple chancel arch in the round-headed Romanesque/Norman style.

Left: Looking towards the west end. The gallery is almost comically out of proportion with the rest of the church but I’m sure they were all the rage in 1692! It must be pretty oppressive for those in the pews below! They too date from the 1692 rebuilding. Right: The north side. There is a blocked c14 doorway here which tells us that the 1692 rebuilding did not involve total demolition. Indeed, it has been suggested that some of this wall is the original Norman work.

Left: The church from the south west. The porch was re-sited here by Bernard Whalley so that it faced the manor. Right: Another blocked doorway, this time on the west side of the south transept and dating from the rebuilding. There is or was a Norman carving - part of a harrowing of hell scene - set into this block-work but I can’s see it myself. Perhaps the CCT moved it? Note the herringbone masonry beneath the window to the left. Such masonry is normally associated with the Anglo-Saxon era. Why would someone construct such a masonry course in the c17? This seems to indicate, again, that ancient masonry was retained during the rebuilding and that the original was early Norman if not pre-Norman.

The reconstructed tympanum really is a stunner. You will see few better pieces of Norman sculpture in England. This is the point at which you must view the font at Eardisley, for it is without any shadow of doubt by the same carver. The representation here is, for once, fairly straightforward: the central figure is running from evil as represented by a dragon and a snake towards purity represented by a dove. Note the incredibly intricate intertwined plant stems. The central human figure, so reminiscent of those at Eardisley. I can’t make out what he is holding. Is he pulling himself along a tree or some other plant?

I am a bit mystified about this carving carvings. The CCT information board does not discuss it but I believe it is a fragment of a cross shaft

The west end showing the porch its Georgian (?) adornments and the little wooden bell-cote.

Footnote 1 - The Tympanum Conundrum

The problem with Billesley is that the comprehensive rebuilding leaves us totally in the dark about what form the original church took. This wonderful tympanum was recovered from rubble in the walls!

It seems extraordinary that the same man carved Eardisley font. Eardisley is at the far west of the area within which we find the Herefordshire School of carving. Billesley is at the extreme east. The intervening distance is 65 miles. It’s not an impossible distance even in Norman times - but for a man who was surely not “free” in any sense that we would understand it, it does seem rather extraordinary to be pursuing his craft at such a distance. How and by whom was he commissioned? Malcolm Thurlby’s definitive book “The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture” (Logaston Press 1999) specifically tackles this theme and is able to make educated theories. Eardisley font he attributes squarely to Ralph de Baskerville as he does the Romanesque carving at Stretton Sugwas 12 miles to the west of Eardisley. The lands at both those locations were known to have been owned by him.

On my own website for Bredwardine in Herefordshire, itself only 5 miles from Eardisley, I hypothesise that the door lintels were moved there from Eardisley when the latter was re-built in around 1200; and one of the facts underpinning that theory was that Bredwardine too was acquired by the de Baskervilles.

I can find no historic connection between Billesley and the de Baskervilles. What is also significant is that the CCT believes Billesley to have been built in c11 - that is, it is early Norman. Yet the first church at Eardisley is believed to have been built in 1100 and the font to date from around 1150. It seems clear, therefore, that this tympanum could not have been part of the original Billesley church. It must have been added later.

Let’s now throw in the issue of the fragment of a second tympanum at Billesley. I did not see it, but Thurlby has a picture of it in his book. He speculates that it was on the original north door, while the tympanum shown above was on the south side. There’s nothing wrong with that theory at all - but the two tympani do not look to have been carved by the same man so we can only speculate whether or not they were contemporary.

So where is this leading? Well, the tympanum here would not have looked out of place at Eardisley. I already believe that when Eardisley was rebuilt in 1200 its door lintels were re-used at Bredwardine that had acquired a de Baskerville connection. Billesley has no obvious connection with the de Baskervilles so there are two possibilities. One is that the Eardisley carver had the freedom to travel sixty five miles to carve a tympanum at Billesley for a different patron. The other is that the tympanum was originally carved by that man at Eardisley and moved 65 miles to Billesley perhaps 50 years later when Eardisley was rebuilt.

I have seen no discussion of this issue elsewhere or of my theory that door lintels were moved from Eardisley to Bredwardine. The obvious answer is that the church at Billesley needed a new door and our man was asked to travel 65 miles to carve it. Perhaps the de Baskervilles recommended him? But look at that stone. It looks like it is sandstone, the same as that used at Eardisley.  What stone is Billesley built from? Blue lias! If Eardisley Man carved here he must have brought his stone with him!

Footnote 2 - The Shakespeare Connection

Well this is Warwickshire and we (I was born in the county myself) do love a good Shakespeare connection! Billesley is one of a few churches that may have hosted the marriage of Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway. There are no parish records from that period so it is pure speculation. The known linkage with the couple is that William’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, chose to get married there in June 1649. Neither she nor her husband, Sir John Bernard, had any connections with Billesley. Moreover it was by now a tiny village with a decaying church and no permanent rector. So the speculation is that Elizabeth chose to marry here, emulating her celebrated grandfather.