Norman Wisdom

The Normans embellished Saxon churches but they also built their own, and there is nowhere better to admire their artistry than Herefordshire

Architecture Culture & Anarchy History
The height of the mason's art: The 12th-century Church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck

When I was a small boy my father would drive me around the eastern counties looking at churches. This was principally for his amusement rather than mine — and there was nothing wrong with that, since children should learn early on that the world does not revolve around them — but I quickly learned various important things. I grasped much about the sweep of history, seeing nearly a thousand years of village life captured in one church after another through brasses, tombs, plaques and stained glass. I learned that, in East Anglia in those days at least, where there was a church there was, nine times out of ten, a pub (though this might have had something to do with the selection my father made). And, with repulsive precocity, I could by about the age of seven distinguish Perpendicular from Decorated, and echt Early English from its Victorian imitations.

But the style that held the most fascination for me, then as now, was Norman, or Romanesque. I was captivated by its sheer antiquity, its scale — the Normans did nothing by halves — and by the comparative crudity of its ornament. Many years after these travels with my father I went for a couple of days round some ostensibly Norman churches on the Sussex Downs with Enoch Powell, and it was in that excursion that my A-level command of Romanesque was elevated to degree status. Powell had known these churches since the 1940s, when his parents had retired to the Sussex coast, and had formed a thesis about them. What Pevsner (or rather Ian Nairn, who wrote that volume) had described as Norman churches were, he argued, nothing of the sort.

The Powell thesis was that these churches were all Saxon, from the ninth to the early 11th centuries. When the conqueror had arrived, he had decided that he would impose his will and the finality of his conquest on his subject people by obliterating, so far as possible, all traces of their culture. So he took Saxon churches such as those on the Downs and made them Norman. Triangular arches over chancels, or going in to bell-towers, or over niches were made semicircular, with Norman ornaments such as lozenge, zig-zag or dog-tooth carved upon them. Square or oblong capitals were recarved as cushions; the columns supporting them were reinforced as circular. By the time the conqueror’s men had finished the church would look, to all intents and purposes, as though it was one of theirs. They had, in fact, vandalised it: and Powell, as he leafed through Pevsner, tut-tutted that the obvious signs of this assault had not been spotted. The main clue was given in the sheer proportions of the Saxon church: dizzyingly high towers and walls of a sort the Normans did not build. Almost as obvious, high in the walls, was the evidence, over 900 years later, of where the earlier triangular arches had been, before being filled in or altered.

I suppose this should have put me off the Normans: but I am afraid nothing could cool my enthusiasm for their work. After all, they were not just vandals. England is littered with magnificent Norman work (and not just in churches and cathedrals: there are their castles too) that they really did create, rather than steal from somebody else and bastardise. To my shame, I had not realised that there was a repository of Norman culture in England that is so far unexplored by me: Herefordshire. My education was furthered by the arrival of the new, and quite magnificent, edition of the Buildings of England volume for the county (Yale, £35), in which Alan Brooks has revised and greatly expanded upon the work that Pevsner himself did in the county more than half a century ago.

The county abounded with monastic foundations, only traces of most of which survived the Reformation. A few retain extensive ruins. However, the conqueror’s churches are largely intact, and display the most outstanding evidence of the height of mason’s art in the later 11th and early 12th centuries. My sole knowledge of this before the arrival of this book was Hereford cathedral itself, and that is no mean spectacle. But Mr Brooks points us to the farthest corners of Herefordshire and, when we get there, shows us one little treasure-house after another: churches that have survived intact not so much being spared the reformers as being spared the worst excesses of Victorian restoration, and presumably because of their remoteness, the stability of the communities they served, and the scarcity (in the 19th century) of local money with which to inflict damage.

Hereford, Mr Brooks observes, has the West Country style of massive cylindrical piers familiar from Gloucester and Tewkesbury, but it also has early surviving capitals that while Norman to their roots show some Anglo-Saxon influence, which had encouraged some of the carvers to run riot. However, he tells us that if we seek sculpture from this period, we need to look in parish churches: and there are two of those immense rarities in England, complete Norman churches. “None in the whole country,” he tells us, “can be more thrilling than Kilpeck.” But Moccas isn’t to be sniffed at either: and both are apsidal. Peterchurch is “a rare example of a four-cell Norman parish church”, and at Fownhope the tower comes after the nave, having been a central feature before the east end of the church was lost. There are fine Norman towers at Eaton Bishop, Wellington and Bridge Sollers, which has a Norman arcade too.

But let us go back to that sculpture. This beautifully illustrated book (all the new Pevsners have colour photographs now) displays some breathtaking examples of Norman tympanums, the designs used to fill semi-circular spaces over doors in archways. The first work of the master of the Herefordshire school (though Mr Brooks calls it a “workshop”) was at Shobdon, though it has been removed and is part of a folly at the big house in the village. The master, and some of his associates, are visible in abundance at Kilpeck, but also at Fownhope and Rowlestone, Brinsop and Stretton Sugwas. An early excursion to this part of England appears quite essential. The only drawback is that if this new book becomes as popular as it should, Herefordshire will soon be overrun by Norman groupies.