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Eardisley Font, in Eardisley Parish Church, Herefordshire

The Eardisley Font

The baptismal font in St. Mary Magdalene Church of England in Eardisley dates from at least 1150. It is large and ornately carved, with the story represented by the carvings being interpreted in a number of ways. It has been an object of admiration and some research, and below are some extracts from the county historian Watkins (1897), the architectural historian Pevsner (1963), and the local writer Gorvet (1994). Gorvett, in particular, makes explicit associations with the Baskervilles.

Watkins sets the scene in his history of the Hundred of Huntington when he writes of the Parish of Eardisley and its ancient church:

Late-Victorian lithograph of the font
[in Watkin: 46]

At the west end of the Church is one of the finest of specimens of a Norman font to be found in the kingdom.

The exterior is adorned with so-called Runic ornamentation, forming repeated knots which interweave with each other. This extends for ten inches and immediately above is cable moulding.

On the outside of the basin are sculptured in relief a leopard and five human figures. ... The fourth and fifth figures wear similar conical head-dress and are engaged in combat. One is armed with a strong spear which is thrust through the left leg of his opponent who confronts him with what may be a pastoral staff held in the left hand, while his right hand holds a sword in a horizontal position over his shoulders, as it intending to inflict a wound.

This font dates from about 1160 (A.D.). The round hats and striped dress are the hats and dress of the period in England. The first and second figures represent the rescue by Christ or Faith of a soul attacked by the devil, who "goeth about as a roaring lion". The third figure seems to type the rest and peace of a good conscience. The pastoral staff near the fourth man may merely be luxuriant ornamentation, and then the fourth and fifth men would figure the angry conflicts of the present world, the "wars and fighting" which abound in it. Above the whole is a broad band of interwoven Runic ornament, carved with great skill.[Watkins: 49-50]

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a series of county-by-county architectural history travelogues beginning in 1951. The Buildings of England: Herefordshire was the 25th in the planned series of fifty when it was first published 1963. The series was intended to complement the Victoria County History series with a specialised focus on architecture and the built environment.

Pevsner paints a picture of the font as a work of art:

left: The Harrowing of Hell; right: The Duel
[photo D. Nutt, in Stevens]

The font of Eardisley is, side by side with the font of Castle Frome, the most exciting piece of the Norman school in Herefordshire, for composition and even more for preservation. The composition admittedly is not harmonious, but it makes up in dynamic and dramatic force what it lacks in balance.

The font must be of c.1150. It is circular and bowl shaped. The short stem is decorated with regular knot patterns. The bowl has a plaited band at the top, and below a bold frieze of events, figures, and ornament, all intertwined and with no division between motifs or scenes. The chief scenes are two knights fighting and the Harrowing of Hell. They are separated by an unexplained three-quarter figure standing slightly swaying. He has a halo and holds a book. The folds are typical of the Herefordshire School: ropy and parallel. To his l. the two men are fighting, one with a spear, the other with a sword. The man with the sword gets frighteningly entangled with a long flag of knots and plaits. The two men are brothers of those on one of the shafts of the portal at Kilpeck. The Harrowing of Hell shows Christ energetically pulling a little man out of a limbo of twisted knots like tentacles. For no easily understood reason, the rest of the space is filled by a large lion; a splendid beast, its tail flung up from under its leg to above its head. Its long claws are also a Herefordshire motif.

The figure of Christ is shorter and resembles the figures of the chancel arch at Kilpeck rather than those of the portal. The Eardisley font is thus a mixture of the two Kilpeck styles and thus presumably a little later than Kilpeck (though earlier no doubt that the font of Castle Frome). [Pevsner: 121]

David Gorvett, local historian, prepared a well-written revisionist history and interpretation of the font in the early 1990s, drawing upon several earlier published histories as well as a sensitivity to the religious character of the depictions.

left: sketch of the font detail; right: detail showing the the combat scene
[drawings J. Hawes, in Gorvett]

The Font here at Eardisley displays a lively and unusual, high relief style of carving, dating from the early 12th century. This spirited style is found only in Herefordshire, other good examples being the font at Canon Frome and thge famous doorway surround at Kilpeck. It seems that a local group of stonemasons, inspired by a pilgrimage between 1131 and 1143 to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and influenced by the carving style they had seen there, brought their own traditions to bear upon their work, producing this remarkable blend of Celtic, Saxon and Anglo-Norman cultures.

The principle carvings on the Eardisley Font represent the struggle for the soul of an individual between the power of Evil and the saving grave of Christ. It was a favourite piece of symbolism in the Middle Ages and is often referred to as "The Harrowing of Hell". Examples of it are to be found all over Western Europe depicted in painting or in carving in wood and stone.

The lion represents the power of evil - as in the letter of St. Peter Ch. 5, v.8 "your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour". ...Another unique feature appears. Two armed men are engaged in what looks like a duel. One has his sword raised above his head in an aggressive manner whilst the other has run his long spear through his adversary's leg. Nowhere else in Western Europe has this been reported in a representation of the 'Harrowing of Hell". Over the last two centuries this has either been ignored or put down to the over-exuberance of the masons!

It is possible that we have an explanation for this today, and that it has to do with the Baskerville family who were Lords of the Manor of Eardisley for some 500 years from the 11th century onwards. Recent research into the early history of the Baskervilles indicates that in the early 12th century the ruling Baskerville of the time, Ralph the first, became involved in a land dispute with his new father-in-law, Lord Drogo of Clifford. It may have been connected with his wife, Sibil's, dowry. Ralph, being of an impetuous nature it seems, reacted badly when his father-in-law decided to withdraw the lands involved. He refused to accept and challenged Lord Drogo to mortal combat to settle matters. The fight took place at Whitecross, Ralph was the victor and his father-in-law died of his wounds.

Ralph was now in real difficulties, not least of all in his chance of heavenly reward in the life hereafter. He sought a pardon from the Pope, part of which was to give some of his lands to the Drogo family as recompense and the other part was to make copious donations of rents, tithes and land to the Church. His life-style shows a distinct change, too, with his becoming a monk at Gloucester and ending his life there in around 1194 - a born-again Christian.

Could it be that the Font is a commemoration of those events in Ralph's life and that he may have commissioned the Herefordshire masons to create it? A permanent statement of the event which changed his life and caused him to renounce evil and seek God's forgiveness through Christ.

The masons certainly put all their creativity and belief into their commission. It was thought at that time that by portraying evil in a physical form one could drive it of its power, so the carving of the Devil-lion prevents it from being active and the dreadful wickedness of the killing is distanced. Then the whole is bonded by the symbolism of the two native cultures of the time in Eardisley - the Celtic knotwork round the top and the Saxon equivalent at the bottom.

The Font is, as the lat Rev. Frank Willford wrote, "...a work of art, extraordinary in it's richness and vigour; give thanks that it has been preserved through the years for our beholding.".

Lord Drogo de Clifford and Sir Ralph Baskerville:
the earliest known depiction of a Baskerville


References and reading

  • Gorvett, D., St. Mary Magdalene, Eardisley, The Font, Hereford 1994
  • Postcard, 12th Century Font, Eardisley, Hereford, Graham (Printers) Ltd, 028 8224 9222, nd.
  • Pevsner, Sir Nikolaus, The Buildings of England: Herefordshire, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth 1963/1977
  • Stevens, R.H., Eardisley Parish Church, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, Eardisley Church Council, Eardisley n.d. (c1980)
  • Watkins, Rev Morgan G., Collections Towards The History and Antiquities of the County of Hereford, in Continuation of Duncumb's History: Hundred of Huntington, Jakeman & Carver, High Town Hereford 1897