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East Brent (Somerset)

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Dedication : St Mary & St Hardulph       Simon Jenkins: ***                                      Principal Features : Pre-eminent Collection of Anglo-Saxon carvings.

It’s an odd place is Breedon. When it says “on the hill” that’s exactly what it means. You can see from a long way off and it really does just sit on top of a hill.  It’s an odd-looking place too. The picture on the left has not been distorted: it really is very short and squat. This is because what you see today is the original chancel and crossing tower. It doesn’t look very interesting either: a few Early English lancet windows at the east end and the usual hotchpotch of gothic windows and naff faux-battlement and a too-large clerestory. The colour of the stonework doesn’t do much for it either. If the unpromising  exterior persuaded you to give it a miss, however, you would be making a big, big mistake!

Breedon, like so many places, traces a history back to the c7 political and religious upheavals. A monastery was founded here in AD676 as an outpost of Medehamstead (modern Peterborough) by King Aethelbert of Mercia, son of the pagan King Penda. Penda and his offspring appear many times on these pages.

Did I say back to 676? Well, in fact, it is now believed that the church stands within the precincts of an Iron-Age fort and there is speculation that a pagan shrine stood here.

The Vikings rampaged through this area and caused the monastery to decline. After the Norman Conquest Breedon was given to the

Augustinian house in Nostell, Yorkshire. They founded a priory here in 1122. A new chancel was built in c13 and this is largely the church we see today. In c15 the clerestories and aisles were added.

The priory declined again and did not, of course, survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries. One Francis Shirley was looking for a place to for himself and his family to be interred and bought the priory from Henry VIII. The monastic buildings were demolished but the parishioners successfully petitioned to be allowed to use the monastic church as the parish church. Only the chancel and the c12 crossing were saved to form the “new” parish church. The nave was lost completely. The north aisle is filled with Shirley family monuments.

Incredibly, rich Saxon carvings in the form of friezes and panels that adorned the walls of the original Saxon minster were preserved through all this upheaval over a period of 1400 years. There are Greek and Byzantine influences to be seen and all of this should help to give the lie to the suggestion that between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans poor old England went through artistic “Dark Ages”.

The east end with Early English lancet windows typical of the c13 when this surving part of the church was constructed.

Looking west to a somewhat untidy west end. When you remember that the whole church here was once merely the chancel, however, is it any surprise that they were strapped for space...?

...especially when the north aise is crammed with effigies! Monuments do nothing for me but this Shirley monument of 1598 is a lavish one, and we should not, perhaps, begrudge immortality to the saviours of the church and its treasures!

Some detail from the monument. Note the fine decoration in the underside of the arches.

It is around the side chapel of the south aisle that we now see most of the Saxon treasures arrayed for all the world like some sort of art gallery!

These appear to be saints - and I love the moustache on the chap on the right! It is suggested that this panel would have adorned a stone coffin.

A lion.

The (somewhat byzantine)Virgin Mary. Although she has been artistically arranged between two friezes of what appear to be saints, there is no connection with them.

Rather bizarrely we seem to have a leg descending here next to a couple of amphora and a box. It is so sophisticated that some believe it to be much later.

Some unidentifiable beasts having a bit of a scrap!

A group of birds intertwined with leaves. The friezes we see on this page were made in 5.5 metre sections and would have adorned both the inside and outside walls of the original church and they would have been painted. Because the nave walls are now believed to be from the original Saxon church it is possible that some of these friezes are in their original positions.

One of the more elaborate panels. This one is believed to be c9. The men are either swinging censers or holding some kind of branch or staff.

This is, sadly, only a reproduction of the most famous of Breedon’s treasures - the “Breedon Angel”. This is a full-length “portrait”. The use of the third finger and the thumb to give the blessing is of a Byzantine tradition and the delicate folds of his dress is similarly byzantine. The original is secreted away in the bell tower where only the privileged are allowed to see it. Still, at least it isn’t mouldering away underground in the British Museum!

This piece is carved in two dimensions. See also the image above.

I love this little devil peeping out from a joint in the masonry.

Amidst all of the saints, madonnas and fantastic creatures, this section of frieze is my favourite simply because it is decorative rather than crowded with symbolism.

This cross shaft was found by workman in 1959 embedded in the church wall after they removed a buttress. The significance of the upper image is not known, but the lower panel is believed to be the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge from the Adam and Eve story.

Either Christ or one of the Evangelists giving a blessing.

This piece is set into the side of one of the capitals. It is described as “inhabited  vinescroll ornamentation” and is Mediterranean in origin.!

Another fragment from a cross shaft.

The Shirley pew - almost a separate room within the church! The arms above it show a date of 1627.

A Romanesque doorway and window in the tower. The inner decoration of the doorway arch is somewhat unusual - is it original? The window, on the other hand, clearly is. This is a reminder, perhaps, that apart from the nave walls which may have been original Saxon, the tower - which was the crossing tower in the 1122 church - is the oldest part of the church remaining.