Sunday, March 24, 2013

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire


Cotswold character

As my British readers will know, Spring is late here this year. There is snow in the hills around the town where I live, and the wintry weather makes journeys to explore buildings less frequent. So here is a carving from my local church here in Winchcombe, which I can photograph by walking a couple of hundred yards up the road (or by standing in my garden).

The church of St Peter, Winchcombe, was built in the 15th century, and is one of those spacious, late-Gothic buildings that on the Cotswolds are often referred to as "wool churches", because the money to build them came from the region's rich wool merchants. The origin of this church is slightly different, though, in that funds for it were provided by the local lord, Ralph Boteler, first Baron Sudeley, who had been a soldier involved in England's campaigns in France and a holder of high office at the English court.

The grotesque carvings high on the outer walls of the church are among the most vigorous to have survived anywhere in England. There are various theories about their subjects, though there is little hard evidence about who they portray. Their presence on the walls of a church is testimony to the close relationship between the grotesque and the sublime in medieval art and thought – and to the sense of humour that links us to our forbears.

7 comments:

potok said...

As I recall this is thought to be a caricature of the building foreman for the church. The stonemason obviously really liked him. Ralph Boteler is meant to be up there too with a rather fine moustache.

Ron Combo said...

Splendid!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Potok: Yes - although John Stevinson has offered alternative theories in his publications about Winchcombe church.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ron: Thanks!

Joseph Biddulph said...

The fifteenth century was supposed to be the period when everyone was going through the trauma of the Wars of the Roses, etc., but it was a great building period, and both the architecture and its ornaments reveal a great sense of joy in living and some impish humour. Winchcombe of course was the burial place of that extraordinary child saint, St Kenelm king of Mercia - perhaps you could show us St Kenelm's Well when it stops snowing? I am wondering if there was some sort of residual Mercian nationalism reflected in the Perp. buildings of the S W Midlands? The cult of St Kenelm is also associated with Clent and Halesowen, and I suppose it was for the benefit of the court of the Welsh prince temporarily residing at Halesowen that the St Kenelm story was translated into Middle Welsh,as per my article in The Blackcountryman magazine. St Kenelm is mentioned in Chaucer (Nun's Priest's Tale?) as well as in the South English Legendary (printed in Bennett & Smithers, Early Middle English Verse and Prose, OUP)- which seems to show some familiarity with the landscape at Winchcombe?

In the Cotswolds it seems to be taken for granted that every single thing shall be built in Cotswold stone - but surely there are economic reasons for this, and particular quarries were involved cf. Barnack stone. How important were the quarry masters and stonemasons in "selling" their product to the local congregation, and imposing their style of workmanship on the individual buildings? Is there any evidence for this? (The comparison I make is with the churchyard crosses in Glamorgan and Gwent, which are generally SO SIMILAR that I have concluded they were made by the SAME PEOPLE, some late medieval "CROSSES-R-US")

Philip Wilkinson said...

Kenelm seems to have been a popular saint, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries. Quite a few of the people who mention him (Florence of Worcester, Richard of Cirencester) have links with this part of England, but by no means all. Yes, Chaucer mentions him in the Nun's Priest's Tale.

I don't know of any close studies of architectural details or sculptural elements that would allow one to attribute different building projects to the same masons, but I dare say that if one looked at, for example, patterns of window tracery, or mouldings, something like that might emerge. I have the impression that there are gargoyles and grotesques on various Cotswold churches might be attributable to the same carver, but would need to look more closely to develop this hunch further.

Thud said...

That looks pretty much how I have felt working outside the last few weeks.