30 April, 2016

Kilpeck Church: the South Door

The small parish church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, in Herefordshire, is justly famous for its remarkable Norman carvings.  For example, the Green Man on the right-hand capital of the south door.

Green Man, south door of Kilpeck church
Kilpeck is a small village south-west of Hereford (see map link) below.  The name is recorded as Cilpedec in the Book of Llandaff, meaning ‘the cell of Pedec’.  ‘Cell’ in this context refers to the dwelling of a Christian holy man, presumably the eponymous Pedec. Nothing further is known of Pedec.

Map link: Kilpeck

The first mention of the church is in the Book of Llandaff, written in the early twelfth century, which records that the church of Cilpedec in Erciog,  with all its lands around, was given to the Bishop of Llandaff in around 640 AD. 

Erciog, also called Erchyng or Archenfield, was an independent early medieval kingdom located in approximately what is now the southern part of Herefordshire. In Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1185, the area was still considered Welsh and subject to Welsh laws, and it remained in a Welsh church diocese (first Llandaff, later St David’s) until the nineteenth century.

Kilpeck was given by William the Conqueror to a Norman lord after the Norman Conquest, and the son of this Norman lord, called Hugh de Kilpeck, built the present church in about 1140. The exact date is unknown, but it was given to the Abbey of Gloucester in 1143 and so was presumably built before then. It presumably replaced whatever earlier building was on the site when it was given to the Bishop of Llandaff, perhaps a chapel or a hermit’s cell.

It is a small church with a chancel, nave and semi-circular apse at the east end.

Kilpeck Church from the south west

The most spectacular feature of the church is the magnificently carved south door.

South door of Kilpeck Church
The two outer columns are carved with twining snakes, each snake biting the next one’s tail.
Snakes on the south door of Kilpeck Church, right-hand column

The guidebook says the snakes might illustrate the defeat of the dragon of evil, or that they might represent the continuous cycle of life as the snake can be considered to be ‘reborn’ each year when it sheds its skin.  They remind me of the intertwining serpents in Norse/Viking jewellery. In the twelfth century the Normans were not that many generations on from the Norse adventurers led by Hrolf (also called Rolf, or Rollo) who founded the dukedom of Normandy in 911, and I wonder if they retained some of the artistic tastes of their ancestors.

The inner column on the left shows two warriors standing one above the other.  They seem to be wearing pointed caps, quilted jackets, long trousers and soft-looking shoes.

Warrior on the south door of Kilpeck Church, left-hand column
This costume does not look obviously similar to the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry, with their mail shirts and helmets with nose guards. It is not known exactly what the warrior figures represent – perhaps the equipment of the local fighting men.

The South Door is not the only example of carving at Kilpeck, which also boasts a series of astonishingly well-preserved corbels. More on the corbels in another post.

The Parish Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, 2000. Guidebook available at the church.