St Michael, Castle Frome, Herefordshire

Feature Sets (4)

Description

The church is a simple two-cell building of local sandstone. The RCHME calls it 12thc., Taylor and Taylor 'Saxo-Norman, but probably post-Conquest', and Pevsner 'Early Norman'. This last view seems most appropriate. Four round-headed and deeply splayed windows are part of this early church: one is in the N wall of the chancel, two in the N wall of the nave and one (now blocked) in the S wall of the nave. There are also three original doorways and a chancel arch. The most outstanding feature, however, is the font described by Pevsner as, 'one of the masterworks of Romanesque sculpture in England. It would arrest attention in any country.'

History

In 1086 Castle Frome belonged to Roger de Lacy, who inherited numerous estates in Herefordshire and Shropshire from his father Walter I, who died in 1085. The caput of the family was Weobley (q.v.). Lacy demesne land included 58 manors valued in 1086 at £234.00 at least, an enormous sum for the time (Wightman, 147). Castle Frome is named Brismerfrum in DS (10, 30) after its pre-Conquest owner Brihtmer and in DBH (44) it is called Brichtmer(es)froma and Castelli in the margin. The castle, of which only a small mound survives 350 yards E of the church, is described by the RCHM (2:49) as motte and bailey. VCH (1:225) suggests that this mound is the site of Walter de Lacy's keep. It is quite probable that the church was built by Walter, who was a generous benefactor of church buildings. Who paid for the magnificent font is more difficult to say. After Roger's banishment in 1096, the Lacy estates passed to Roger's brother Hugh I, who died c.1115 and whose only child Sybil married Payn fitzJohn, who thus inherited the Lacy fortune, though not the whole of it (Wightman, 175) Payn fitzJohn died in 1137 but Sybil survived him and the font could be due to her generosity, though this is only a conjecture.

Benefice of Bishop's Frome with Castle Frome and Fromes Hill.

Features

Exterior Features

Doorways

S doorway, chancel

This has square jambs supporting a large rectangular stone with, in its upper part, a sunk semi-circular field, imitating a tympanum. This is linked by a chamfer to the lower half, which thus becomes a pseudo-lintel.

Dimensions
h. of opening 1.67 m
h. of stone 0.55 m
w. of opening 0.64 m
w. of stone 0.98 m

S doorway, nave

This is beneath a porch built in 1878, has square jambs, a square head, and a round relieving arch of twelve voussoirs, enclosing a plain lintel and an ashlar tympanum.

Dimensions
h. of opening 2.18 m
w. of opening 1.15 m

W doorway, nave

This is similar to S doorway, nave, but is much restored

Dimensions
h of doorway to top of plinth course 2.12 m
h. of opening 2.01 m
w. of opening 1.16 m

Interior Features

Arches

Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Round headed, of two square orders interrupted at springing-level by imposts, chamfered and with simple horizontal grooves. A small human head is carved in the south impost.

Furnishings

Fonts

The font consists of two parts, the cup-shaped bowl and stem and the base formed by three supporting figures. Like the font at Eardisley, evidently by the same sculptor, the rim of the bowl is decorated by a wide band of three stranded interlace. The principal subject carved on the bowl is, very appropriately, the Baptism of Christ. The diminutive Christ is shown full-frontal and nude. Both his hands timidly cover his naked body which is half-immersed in a circular pool of water represented as concentric circles, on which are superimposed two pairs of fishes, facing Christ. Christ has no nimbus. His face is almost child-like save for a thin, incongruous moustache. The chin is damaged. To the L is John the Baptist, nimbed, shown as a priest with a maniple incorrectly worn on his R hand, which is giving the blessing. St John wears a long vestment reaching his feet, which are bare and have the characteristic Herefordshire School ankle-bones. There is a second, shorter vestment on top of it with a zigzag hem and finally, a chasuble over the shoulders and this forms a concentric pattern on the breast. While St John is shown in profile, his face is not turned towards Christ but towards the onlookers, his L hand is raised and touches the Hand of God emerging from above with a gesture of blessing and at the same time is touching the head of Christ. Immediately to the R is the dove of the Holy Spirit also touching the head of Christ with its beak. Thus, as well as being the representation of the Baptism the scene also illustrates the doctrine of the Trinity. To the R is a pair of confronted doves, presumably representing the virtue of purity regenerated by baptism, followed by the symbols of the four Evangelists: the winged ox of St Luke faces L towards the doves. To the R is the winged lion of St Mark, facing R, head to head with the eagle of St John. Next is the flying angel of St Matthew, the only symbol which has a nimbus and holds a book. The R hand is damaged by an act of recent vandalism. St Matthew's symbol is facing the Baptism of Christ. Below these figural representations, the entire remaining surface is filled with irregular single-banded interlace. The font is made of local red sandstone, the upper part much lighter in colour.

The supporting base originally consisted of three figures, each carved from a separate block of stone. The crouching figures have suffered a great deal over the ages and it was probably during the restoration of the church in 1878 that the numerous fragments were cemented together, some in the wrong order. Prior to being brought to London for the exhibition 'English Romanesque Art 1066-1200', the font was cleaned and the cement repairs removed by Harrison Hill Ltd in 1983. In the process the base was reassembled correctly. However, the figures are very mutilated and only one retains its head. They were all crouching, their backs supporting the font, the upper parts of the bodies projecting considerably forward, the hands joined together at floor-level. Such supports in Romanesque art are frequently slaves (eg. the Bari throne) or animals. It has been suggested that the figures supporting this font have their hands chained and are the symbols of evil (Marcouse). The evidence for the chains is dubious, but it is likely that the figures signify sin.

Dimensions
ext. circumference at top 3.36 m
h. of bowl 0.76 m
h. with the base 1.00 m

Comments/Opinions

Early Romanesque doorways with their sunk tympana are clearly a Norman importation. The blocked doorway in the N wall of the W tower of Jumieges Abbey provides a good parallel for the three Castle Frome doorways even if the pseudo-lintel at Jumieges is gabled. The font has many iconographic and stylistic similarities with other sculpture by this master within the county, most particularly at Eardisley, Shobdon, Kilpeck and Leominster. Related fonts are found at Shobdon and Eardisley (both Herefordshire), Chaddesley Corbett (Worcestershire) and Stottesdon (Shropshire). The supporting figures of the base are usually considered as influenced by Italian sculpture (Zarnecki (1950), 313-316; Pevsner (1963), 99-100) but this is not entirely convincing. Fonts supported by human figures, animals or grotesque creatures abound in Europe and one of the earliest (1107/18), the bronze font by Rainer of Huy at Liege (Lasko (1972), 162, pl.169) standing on ten (originally twelve) oxen, is Mosan and has no connection with Italy. There are two stone fonts in Herefordshire, in Hereford Cathedral and at Sutton which have protomes of lions at the base, for which parallels can be found in Denmark and Sweden rather than in Italy, e.g. the font at Loderup, illustrated in Nordstrom (1984), fig.21. Thurlby (1999) raises the possibility that the form was imported from Germany, pointing to Robert de Losinga's Bishop's Chapel at Hereford as evidence that such links existed by the late 11thc. German parallels offered are the fonts at Freckenhorst, Westphalia, and Freudenstadt, Würtemberg. Zarnecki and Thurlby agree in dating the font close to work at Shobdon and Kilpeck, ie. c.1140, and both too suggest patronage by Payn fitz John's wife Sybil de Lacy after Payn's death in 1137. Pevsner's dating of c.1170 is totally untenable, but his reputation has ensured that this is the date given to visitors to the church in the literature available there.

Bibliography

  • English Romanesque Art 1066-1200 (exh. cat.). London 1984, 178 (no.139).
  • Herefordshire Sites and Monuments Record 6874. Now available online at http://www.smr.herefordshire.gov.uk/db.php/p
  • T. S. R. Boase, English Art 1100-1216. Oxford 1953, 80 and pl.23
  • F. Bond, Fonts and Font Covers. Oxford 1908, 50, 158-9, 167.
  • A. W. Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture, II, After the Conquest. Oxford 1934, 142
  • C. S. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia. London, 2002, 19.
  • E. S. Prior and A. Gardner, An Account of Medieval Figure-Sculpture in England. Cambridge 1912, 159, 167
  • P. Lasko, Ars Sacra 800-1200, Harmondsworth 1972, 162, pl.169
  • R. Marcous√©, The decoration of Norman baptismal fonts in relation to English 12th-century sculpture. PhD (University of London) 1940, 247-250.
  • G. Marshall, Fonts in Herefordshire. Hereford (Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club), I (1949), 14-15.
  • F. Nordstrom, Medieval Baptismal Fonts. An Iconographical Study, Umca (1984) Fig. 21
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Herefordshire. Harmondsworth 1963, 99-100.
  • RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Herefordshire, 2: East, 1932, 48-49.
  • L. Stone, Sculpture in Britain: The Middle Ages. Pelican History of Art, Harmondsworth 1955, 70 and pl.47b.
  • H. M. and J. Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Cambridge, I, 1965, 152.
  • M. Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture. Logaston 1999, 118-22 and passim.
  • Victoria County History: Herefordshire. I, 1908, 225.
  • W. E. Wightman, The Lacy Family in England and Normandy 1066-1194. Oxford 1966, 147.
  • G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210. London 1953, 14-15, 55 and figs. 28 and 30.
  • G. Zarnecki, Regional Schools of English Sculpture in the Twelfth Century: the Southern School and the Herefordshire School. Unpublished thesis, University of London, 1950, 313-316.

Location

Site Location
Castle Frome
National Grid Reference
SO 668 459 
Boundaries
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Herefordshire
now: Herefordshire
Diocese
medieval: Hereford
now: Hereford
Dedication
now: St Michael and All Angels
medieval: not confirmed
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
George Zarnecki