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Ribbesford

Dedication : St Leonard                Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                       Principal Features : Norman carvings of Herefordshire school.  c15 Wood Carvings; William Morris stained glass; Wooden arcade pillars

Ribbesford is really a part of the lovely town on Bewdley on the River Severn but it’s not easy to find. My advice is not to trust your sat-nav but use an Ordnance Survey map.

I came here for the tympanum and north doorway which were carved by the Herefordshire School in c12. I was sadly deluded in thinking this would be a Norman church, however! Worse, a storm in 1877 destroyed the north aisle and chancel. Looking at the pictures a year later, however, I realise what a fascinating church this is.

I can’t keep writing about the Herefordshire School of Norman carving, so suffice to say that you can see more information and other examples at Kilpeck, Pipe Aston and Rock which are already on this site - with others still to come. Like Pipe Aston, St Leonards, the land here was owned by the Mortimer family - see that church’s webpage for the significance of this.

The north door here dates from around 1100. The church of this time probably occupied the space that is now the north aisle. The destroyed  north arcade is also said to have been Norman. This implies that there must have been extensions to the south - presumably an aisle - later in c12.

The north aisle and chancel are largely modern replacements, of course, although some of the stonework at the east end of the aisle is believed to be Norman.

The present nave and the lost chancel were probably added in c15. The south aisle dates from about 1450 and is remarkable for the fact that it is made of oak! I can’t believe there are many like it in the country, and I don’t remember seeing one personally. The pillars are octagonal with curved struts springing from the capitals.

Around the church are various pieces of recovered Norman fragments. The blocked south doorway is also Norman, but this must have been moved here because the south aisle, of course, is c15.

The modern pulpit incorporates very fine and interesting carvings from the original c15 rood screen.

Finally, I confess to having little interest in stained glass which always seems to me to bring out the worst in cheesy religious imagery - especially in the Victorians, and moreover reduces the light within a church. The west window of Ribbesford is, however, by William Morris to a design of Burne Jones, both of the Arts & Crafts movement. The superior quality is obvious even to hyelophobes (you learn something every day...) such as myself.

The Norman north door. The tympanum, impost blocks and capitals are all important examples of the Herefordshire School.

The interior looking towards the east end. There is no chancel arch since the rebuilding. The south aisle is made of oak.

The tympanum shows a hunter aiming his bow and arrow at an unfortunate but unidentifiable creature. The Church Guide cheerfully (and facetiously) proposes a duck-billed platypus, but it looks like it has only two legs and a fanned tail, so maybe it is a game bird of some sort. Certainly a fat one! There is a rather lean dog and it is not clear whether he is friendly or hostile to the archer. Malcolm Thurlby’s book on the Herefordshire School says that the archer is wearing a “phrygian cap” and that similar headwear is seen at the church of Kilpeck, St Mary & St David. This hat is associated with Anatolia in modern Turkey and is said to be a symbol of freedom (and even known as a “Liberty Cap”) because of its similarity with the felt cap worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. It is also, however, reminiscent of a Norman military helmet and it is at least arguable that a nose guard can be seen to the right of the hunter’s head.

The tympanum has little else in the way of decoration. We know it is of the Herefordshire School but compared with that of, for example, Pipe Aston, St Giles Church or, again, Kilpeck (AD 1140) it is crude and unsophisticated. Malcolm Thurlby attributes Ribbesford to the Oliver de Merlimond stewardship of the lands in this area, but this is puzzling since the best estimate of de Merlimond’s visit to Santiago de Compostella seems to be 1130, some 30 years after the best estimate of when Ribbesford was built, and this tympanum seems to be far removed from the sophisticated designs we see at known de Merlimond churches.

South door, left capital. On the left we see a larger bird pecking the head of a smaller one with a fish below. We see this motif on the tympanum at Pipe Aston (where in the Footnote you will see my own theory as to its meaning) and on one of the corbels at Kilpeck.

The right hand capital “turns the corner” into the door jamb where there is another interlace design.

Stylised interlace work on the right hand capital.

The Church Guide claims that this is a fragment of an old tombstone on the floor near the font showing the separation of the sheep (the blessed) from the goats (the cursed). This is not so - see footnote.

These are two of the fragments of the Norman church that are mounted inside. The plaited moulding (left) appears to be a fragment of what would have been a very impressive shaft. In the right hand picture we can see respectively a possible fragment of a door jamb and some foliage from a hood mould.

Ribbesford’s modern pulpit preserves these splendid carvings from the original c15 rood screen. Above left we see a pig playing the bagpipes. Those who believe bagpipes to be peculiarly Scottish should think again when they see the frequency with which they are seen in the English parish church - see, for example Altarnun, St Nonna Church (Cornwall). the bagpipe was and still is a feature of most European traditional music. Above right a fox is preaching to geese. One of the geese seems to be already secreted within the fox’s clothing. So in due course, one imagines, would the other be!  Remarkably, this image also is not unique - see it also on a bench end at Brent Knoll, St Michael Church (Somerset) where there is also a satirical connotation.

The carvings also have charming scenes to the sides. Our piper is flanked on the left by a sow feeding her litter. To the right a couple of creatures are straining their might and mane to reach what look rather like acorns. Surely not? The right hand picture shows a bird that seems to be emitting a message of some sort.

Our ancestors, God-fearing as they were, showed a robust sense of humour in their churches, especially in the woodwork!

The west window designed by Burne Jones and made by William Morris. The centrepiece is of a beggar girl being given a new cloak.

The blocked south doorway. Because the south aisle was added in c15, this doorway must, of course, been moved here from the original south wall of the nave.

The very attractive wooden porch added in 1633 (obviously!) and which has helped preserve the tympanum over the last 400 years.

This stone coffin lid is believed to date from about 1300 and to have belonged to one of the Mortimer family.

The capitals on the south door are badly weathered. but this interlace pattern (left) is still quite clear. The foliage pattern (right) is more damaged but there is enough left to discern that this was quite a sophisticated design. The outer face is much more damaged. To the left of the of this is another bird motif but the position of the head precludes another “pecking bird” (see above).

Footnote - The Sheep and Goats Carving

The claim that this is a fragment of a coffin was always very dubious. It would have to have been a very ornate coffin and, given the style of the carving, a very ancient one. The material looks all wrong too - a sort of marble-like, finish. Malcolm Thurlby’s book totally undermines this theory. It is, he says, a plaster cast of a door capital of St Giles Hospital Church, Hereford which was demolished in 1682! The capital was built into the wall of Williams Almshouses in the same street. I haven’t seen this but I am sure that Malcolm knows what he’s talking about here.

However, Malcolm Thurlby, although acknowledging the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd in this scene does not conclude that the theme is of the separation of the sheep form the goats. He talks only of “two animals”. Well, they must surely both be goats or rams given their swept-back horns, so I reckon the Church Guide has called this correctly.