St Mary’s ChurchForest of Dean
English Heritage
Kempley
Gloucestershire GL18 2BS
 
 

 

Kempley is a small village in the Forest of Dean district of Gloucestershire, close to the border with Herefordshire. It is 12 miles (19 km) north-west of Gloucester and is 5 and 8 miles (8 and 13 km) respectively from the market towns of Newent and Ledbury.

There are two Anglican churches in Kempley, one built in 1903 (St Edward’s) and the exquisite 12th century Church of St Mary, standing all alone in the fields 2 miles away.

St Marys is a hidden gem – not only is it hiding in the fields of Kempley, but hidden inside this modest little church, are walls covered with medieval frescoes and tempera wall paintings.

This little church is very simple, consisting of a stone-built chancel and nave with a timber-framed south porch and a squat west tower. Started around 1095, most of the building dates from the 12th century, with the tower added in the 13th century.

St Mary’s is not just famous for its rare and well preserved wall paintings; it also has the only surviving early12th century untouched, wooden roof in England. It is also the earliest open roof to be found in North-West Europe. The porch and tower doors are also unique.

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History
Nine hundred years ago, the manor of Kempley belonged to one of the most powerful men in England – Baron Hugh de Lacy of Longtown Castle, near Hereford. Hugh was the trusted counsellor of King Henry I (1100–35).
 
It was probably Hugh de Lacy who built Kempley church, perhaps commissioning the remarkable paintings in the chancel as a memorial to his father, Walter de Lacy, a Norman baron and veteran of the Battle of Hastings.
 
The west tower of the church was built during the 13th century, when the Welsh wars of Edward I exposed Kempley to reprisal raids.
 
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Made Redundant
We might think that being made redundant is something that only happens to working people, but it can happen to churches too. Kempley villagers used to live on the banks of the stream and that is where their church was built. Unfortunately, repeated floods drove the villagers to the higher ground, 2 miles away.
 
By the late 19th century it was decided to build a new church in the heart of the village dedicated to St Edward the Confessor. St Mary’s was declared redundant in 1975 and was placed in the hands of English Heritage in 1990.
 
Local residents, fearful that it would become just another ancient monument unloved and uncared for, negotiated with English Heritage to establish a unique management whereby the church was looked after on a day to day basis by a local keyholder and other residents. Thus the Friends of Kempley Churches was formed.
 
The Friends have achieved their aim. The minute you walk in, you can see and feel that this is a much loved church. A jug of wildflowers adorns the alter and the furnishings are dusted and polished.
 
The Wall Paintings
The barrel vaulted chancel is covered with Romanesque frescoes depicting geometrical designs and biblical characters. They are true frescoes – painted on wet plaster using ground natural ochres with an occasional use of the very expensive azurite compound for touches of blue and green. indeed this is the earliest known identification of it in English wall painting. Metal pigments such as silver were also used but these have not survived the centuries.
 
The work is very fine and delicate, and remarkably well preserved. The murals have been dated to 1120 AD, and. are said to be “the most complete set of Romanesque frescoes in northern Europe.”
 
The subject of the paintings in the chancel seems to be the Last Judgement. In the centre of the barrel-vaulted ceiling is Christ in Majesty. He sits upon a rainbow, his left hand holds an open book in which are written the monograms IHC and XPS. His right hand is in the process of benediction. He is surrounded by the sun, moon and stars, seven golden candlesticks, and the symbols of the four Evangelists. In each corner are winged Seraphim.
 
Flanking Christ, on the north and south chancel walls, stand the twelve apostles, with the Virgin Mary and St Peter closest to the chancel arch.
 
The top part of the architrave of the simple round headed windows and the chancel arch, are decorated with a chequer board design. Above the windows there are representations of the heavenly Jerusalem, and between the windows and the east wall there are two figures with the hats and staffs of lay pilgrims. These are thought to be Hugh and Walter de Lacy.
 
The identity of the bishops painted on either side of the east window is not known, but they may be early Popes.
 
Wall paintings of this kind are very rare in England and their muted colours and treatment of drapery are typical of the Romanesque style of painting in France. The artist may well have been a French monk from Hugh de Lacy’s own foundation at Llanthony Secunda Priory in Gloucester.
 
The paintings in the nave are tempera and from the early 14th century. Tempera is painted on to dry lime mortar, using a mixing medium such as egg yolk.
 
These paintings warn of the dangers of temptation. One of the rarest images is the Wheel of Life with ten spokes representing the ten ages of Man. The window recess to the right is decorated with figures of St Anthony on one side and St Michael and the Virgin Mary on the other.
 
With the exception of the Wheel, the images are not so well preserved and a little difficult to interpret. I have included here an extract from the English Heritage audio tour:
 
“Easter Ritual: The rarest subject of all at Kempley is on the east wall of the nave, high up above the chancel arch. It’s a very puzzling subject because one can see the remains of four figures in front of what appears to be a great triangular expanse of drapery. There’s a cross right in the middle at the apex of that tent-like feature.
 
If you look at it carefully you can see that the three figures on the right-hand side are actually women, because of their white headdresses. On the left is an angel whose wings hang down behind him and it’s clear that this is the Three Marys at the Sepulchre.
 
The Marys are each shown carrying what look like three white ropes or scourges with little black tips at the end and you can see these hanging down over the drapery. These were the chains for censers which they’ve been holding for incense. And the censer bowls themselves would have been depicted in something like silver leaf which has now disappeared, disintegrated off.
 
The particularly rare feature of this scene at Kempley is that instead of representing it in the normal way, it’s represented as a contemporary re-enactment. Maybe it’s reflecting something that happened in a major church nearby like the Abbey at Gloucester.
 
At Easter, clerics would dress up as the Three Marys and the Angel and on Good Friday they would re-enact the burial of Christ, perhaps in the form of putting a cross in a replica of Christ’s tomb, and on Easter Sunday they would then take the cross out of the tomb symbolising Christ’s resurrection. And the tomb itself, as we know from documentary evidence at this period, would have often been in the form of a wooden structure covered by drapery, and this is precisely what’s shown in the Kempley scene.“
 
For an in-depth analysis of the wall paintings
 
The Roof
Tree ring dating has been used to confirm the age of St Mary’s timber roof. It has proved that the timbers come from trees felled between 1120 and 1150. This makes St Mary’s is the earliest surviving roof in the country to be identified.
 
It is also the earliest open roof to be found in north-west Europe. An open roof means that there are no tie beams going across at eaves level and you can look up and see the roof structure; with all the struts and collars and rafters.
 
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The West Door
When the church was built, the West door was an external door. When the tower was added, it became the internal door into the tower. Tree ring dating carried out on this door shows that the timber was felled between 1114 and 1144.
 
The door is also interesting due to its carpentry. The planks were all cut from a single tree and then they were jointed together so that they step in and out. These were fixed together with little nails; normally, little wooden pegs would have been used instead of nails.
 
The Tower
The strong, squat tower with its small pyramid roof was raised in the 13th century. It has no outside door and the windows are slits high up in the wall. It looks like a defensive structure so perhaps it was built as a refuge against Welsh rebels.
 
Inside the tower is an ancient chest dating from 1492-1522. The chest is made from a single block of oak. It is bound with iron and studded. In the belfry hang two 14th century bells.
 
The Porch
This picturesque entrance to the church was built in the 14th century from local oak timbers. It has a brick base with wattle and daub infill. The roof is unlined exposing the underside of the stone slates. You can see how they are fixed with wooden pegs. The weight of the slates prevents the roof frame from springing apart.
 
Because the door is of similar construction to the West door leading into the tower, it is believed that they were both made at the same time (c.1114-44).
 
An Audio Tour of St Mary’s Church, Kempley can be downloaded to you iPod, Android, mobile phone or mp3 player from the English Heritage website. We recommend downloading this audio tour before visiting St Mary’s. It is very interesting and will really enhance your enjoyment of the treasure that is this delightful church.
 
Admission
Free but a generous donation in the box would be appreciated.
 
Open
Daily from March to October 10:00 – 18:00 hours
 
Outside the above months the church is kept locked but admission can be arranged by special appointment. Call Mrs M Brooke who is the keyholder for St Mary's.
Telephone   +44 (0)1531 660 214
 
Group Tours
The Friends of Kempley Churches have the following 'Tours' website
 
Tardis Social History Project
 
St Mary’s is close to the ‘Daffodil Way’ Walking Path, and in spring the graveyard is filled with wild daffodils.
 
Getting There
-By Car:
Take the B4024 north to Much Marcle, for about 1 mile. There is a brown ‘St Mary’s Church’ English Heritage sign pointing the way.
 
The church is approximately 6 miles north-east of Ross-on-Wye.   
 
Google Maps - St Mary's Church, Kempley