Church of SS Mary & DavidHereford
Kilpeck
Herefordshire HR2 9DN
 
 
 
Kilpeck Church is an isolated hidden gem in south-west Herefordshire, England and just 5 miles (8 km) from the Welsh border. It was built in about 1140 and is home to the finest collection of Romanesque sculpture in England. What is remarkable about this church is that it has survived, intact and unaltered, for over 850 years to the present day.
 
In medieval times Kilpeck was a fortified settlement with a large castle which was demolished by order of Parliament in the 17th century. All that remains of the once thriving village is a farm, a few cottages and the ancient church standing on a raised mound.
 
There has been a church at Kilpeck since the earliest days of Christianity. Records in the Book of Llandaff show that "Kilpeck church with all its lands around" was given to that diocese in 650 AD. Of course, in those days it would have been built of wood and dedicated to St David, a local Celtic holy man, not the well-known patron saint of Wales.
 
Not long after the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror gave Kilpeck to his kinsman William Fitz Norman. The present church was founded c.1134-1145 by Fitz Norman’s son Hugh de Kilpeck.
 
The lovely little church has a simple plan – just a narrow nave, an even narrower chancel with a rounded apse. The only additions have been a 14th century window and door in the south side at the east end, a wooden gallery with Elizabethan and Jacobean elements, and a belfry in the 1840s.
 
The red sandstone carvings decorating the door jambs, window arches and roof corbels are as sharp and fresh as the day they were carved in the 12th century. Figurative and abstract designs decorate the West window and South door and the roofline is populated with cartoonish corbels, some humorous and some quite shocking.
 
The Herefordshire School
This extremely distinctive style of carving is referred to as ‘The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture’ and is the name given to a hypothetical group of contemporary master masons working in Herefordshire and Worcestershire during the 12th century.
 
The School drew its themes from the pilgrim routes in France and Spain and incorporated the artistic traditions of the Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards. Some of the carvings reflect everyday medieval life, characters from medieval fairs, mythical beasts and symbolic creatures, while others are abstract decorations. Unusually, very few have explicit Christian themes although the central carving over the South door is of a winged angel.
 
Church Exterior
The exterior of the church has the most lavish decoration.
 
- West Window
The west window has a lovely rope design on the shafts and arch, and profiles of Green Men on the capitals.
 
- South Door
The outer columns of the south door are carved with snakes, the tail of one in the mouth of the other, up on the right and down on the left. The snakes may represent evil, but may also represent new life since the snake is "reborn" by sloughing its skin each year. The snake sometimes also represents healing through the virtues of its venom.
 
The inner column on the right is decorated with foliage, with a pair of birds at the bottom and a type of Green Man figure on the capital.
 
The inner column on the left has two very interesting warrior figures, sometimes called Welsh Warriors. They wear curious caps, quilted jackets, trousers (an unusual feature in art) and a soft-looking shoe. The lower warrior carries a lance and the upper a two-handled sword with double shaft and hand-guard.
 
The tympanum (semi-circular wall decoration) over the south door has a lovely carving of the Tree of Life. Over this are two orders of arches crammed full of terrifying creatures.
 
Some of the carved figures are from The Bestiary, a popular medieval guide in which real and mythical beasts were used to represent moral teachings.
 
These carvings are quite horrific, e.g. a Mantichore, described in The Bestiary as “having a triple row of teeth set in a man's head on a lion's body and a tail with the sting of a scorpion. It eats human flesh and seduces man from the paths of virtue with the voice of a Sibyl”.
 
On the capital of the left-hand pillar is a Basilisk, supposedly born from the egg of a cock, hatched by a toad or serpent that could kill with a glance if it saw you first.
 
- Roof Corbels
No less intriguing, if less accomplished, are the grotesques of the corbel- table, best preserved round the apse. Originally totalling 89, a few corbels are now missing, but the remaining 85 are intact and in excellent condition.
 
The sculpted heads exhibit a wide variety of imagery presumably in an effort to educate an illiterate populace. Many were probably suggested by Hugh de Kilpeck; however, many also seem to be simply entertaining or the ideas of the individual carvers.
 
The corbels feature abstract Celtic designs, others are figurative, and some mythical. One is an explicit Sheela-Na-Gig of a woman holding open her vagina. Others are everyday creatures such as an upside down pig, a dog and rabbit, two doves, musicians, wrestlers and acrobats. All the life of a busy and crude Herefordshire village is depicted on its church, with no respect for decorum or piety.
 
Church Interior
The austere interior has changed little since 1140 except for being white-washed in the post-Reformation style.
 
- Chancel & Apse
The chancel arch is decorated with figures carved from a large piece of sandstone and were originally painted. The figures are quite different from those on the exterior - elongated, stylized and almost Gothic.
 
The identities of the figures are not known, but each has distinguishing characteristics. The saint with a key on the left column is the only one to carry a recognizable symbol, identifying him as St Peter.
 
The hairstyles of the figures on the north and south columns identify them as representing completely different characters (one has a tonsure, the other’s hair is uncut) and they are holding their crosses in different ways. The lower figures on each side are priests: the one on the right holds a holy water sprinkler while the one on the left holds a scourge.
 
The apse was once divided from the chancel by a screen, and it may be that relics were placed here. Perhaps Hugh de Kilpeck brought relics back from the First Crusade in 1096 and built this church to hold them.
 
The apse contains an early example of rib vaulting, carved with a chevron design. The intersecting ribs over the altar are decorated with four identical heads. Similar heads can be seen in other churches but their significance remains a mystery. The glass in the apse windows was designed by Augustus Pugin in 1849.
 
Apart from the extraordinary carvings, the two greatest treasures in Kilpeck Church are the very early Norman font and the even earlier Holy Water Stoup.
 
- The Font
The huge font near the entrance is very plain with none of the Herefordshire School type of decoration. It stands on small pillars which are almost certainly exterior shafts of windows from Kilpeck Castle. Metal pieces in the rim are from a lock installed after 1236, when it became law to secure fonts against the theft of Holy Water. The font has its own decorated stopper, which can be seen on a windowsill in the chancel.
 
- Holy Water Stoup
Another great treasure is the stone holy water stoup, now under the chancel arch and used to display flowers. This originally stood by the door, where worshippers would have ritually washed before entering the church. It is much older than the church and possibly even pre-Saxon. It represents hands around a pregnant belly and has snake feet.
 
Facilities
On sale in the church is an informative and interesting Guidebook, postcards and CDs. Copies of 'The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture' by Malcolm Thurlby are also on sale.
 
There are no toilet facilities.
 
Guided tours
Available by arrangement with the Churchwarden, Tel: +44 (0)1981 570 209.
 
One thing that is easy to overlook is that Kilpeck church is part of a much larger Norman complex including a castle and defensive enclosure. The Church stands between the remains of Kilpeck Castle and the six acre deserted medieval village whose main road still serves as an access road to the Church. The extension of the church graveyard to the south west actually stands within the castle bailey, and although little of the castle itself can be discerned, the earthwork defenses are readily apparent.
 
Today, Kilpeck village is home to less than 150 people, but Kilpeck Church is still a place of worship, with a service held at least once every three weeks. For more information click on the ‘Contact’ weblink below.
 
Contact & Further Information
 
Getting There
- By Car
Kilpeck Church is 10 miles (16 kms) from the City of Hereford, south of the A465, in Kilpeck village, Grid Reference SO 445305, Kilpeck, Herefordshire
 
Google Maps - Church of SS Mary & David