St Nicholas, Corfe, Somerset

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Feature Sets (3)


The village of Corfe stands in wooded landscape at the foot of the Blackdown Hills, some 3 miles S of Taunton in west Somerset. It straddles the important route between Taunton and Honiton, over the Blackdowns. The church is at the N end of the village. St Nicholas’ is an 1842 rebuilding of a Norman church by B. Ferrey. The S aisle was added and the tower rebuilt in 1858 by C. E. Giles, and the chancel was restored in 1969. Construction is of squared & coursed blue lias. It consists of a 4-bay nave and S aisle, chancel and W tower. The nave arcade is neo-Romanesque, as is the chancel arch; both said to be based on the original. Original 12thc features are two corbels reset in the N nave wall inside and the font.


Corfe was not mentioned under that name in the Domesday Survey. It was part of the hundred of Taunton and Taunton Deane, which belonged to the Bishops of Winchester.


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Round-headed, single order jambs, multiple arch orders. This appears to have been rebuilt at the 19thc restoration, perhaps using some of the original material. Looking as though they might be original, the two label-stops are matching heads of a design which combines strongly characterised human features (including bold cabling around the lower part representing a trimmed beard) with animal ears (rather damaged in the S example). Other remarkable details include a close-cut beard under the chin, a strongly delineated mouth flanked by furrows (of age and/or stress), slightly puffed-out cheeks, pouches under the eyes and furrowed eye-brows. Whatever their date, they are well worth inspection.

Interior Decoration


Corbels in nave S arcade spandrels

The S arcade itself is 19thc, but two of the three corbels placed above the three piers are probably 12thc work, carved in a light grey, probably local, limestone rather than the Hamstone of the new arcade. Although differing in figuration, both corbels have a similar (and humorous) style ― which also accords with that in the chancel arch label-stops. That style is confident and bold, affectionate but also suggestive of caricature in representation.

Corbel over pier 1

The corbel above the E pier presents a head well wrapped in a wimple-type garment. A rather flabby but strongly characterised chin droops over the wimple, under a weak but sensuous mouth. The nose is long and straight, the eyes suggesting simplicity although that may just be the effect of simple moulding. The forehead is mostly hidden behind an innermost part of the headgear. Very prominently featured are two wing-like projections of hair escaping from the headgear: rather a vain touch perhaps, in contrast with the solemn incognito imposed by the dress. Overall, then, the sculptor has depicted a defined personality asserting itself despite (even because of) ecclesiastical uniform.

Corbel over pier 2

The corbel above the central pier presents a head unconstrained by heavy headgear. The unrestrained luxuriant hair cascades outwards from a central parting, down the sides of the head (covering ears), to flow on to the shoulders. The beard is represented by cabling (as in the chancel arch label-stops), with very effective emphasis under the open vigorous mouth. A remarkable feature is the moustache, although the left side (along with almost all the nose) is damaged.

Two corbels in N nave wall

They are set in the N wall of the nave, and are in Hamstone or similar and are identical in their design of chamfered rectangles progressively tapered to points, rather like capitals except for their bottoms. The face is decorated with bold incisions spraying upwards and outwards from the terminal points. These incisions are halted by arrowhead motifs. Thus there is play between (implied) upward movement and the implication of an abacus weighing against such movement. There are other decorative incisions: laterally from the lower ends of the arrowheads (enhancing the sense of a relatively massive block at the top of each corbel); and, on the E example, vertically up from the arrowheads with additional ones halfway between (which, of course, militates against the playful effect I have tried to describe).

The stone of the corbels is not consistent: that of the W example is relatively fresh and coarsely grained; its incisions look cleaner and there are apparently none vertically. It may be more heavily restored, or a copy of its companion.




Located at W end of nave, more or less level with the W pier of the S aisle and on its side of the central aisle. There is today a most satisfying space around it, giving it due prominence & allowing easy examination and appreciation.

The bowl is in white stone, and the pedestal (which appears modern) in hamstone or similar. The bowl has been very considerably worn and there is damage on the side now facing SW: a large chunk has been hacked off. In the same stone as the pedestal, the unmoulded plinth is massive. Between my two visits (the second on 17 March 2005), the previously roughly square became an octagon (guide marks for the cutting can be seen on the images).

The modern pedestal is in the form of a central column with four smaller shafts at the corners. There is no attempt to articulate or to make comfortable the junction between it and the bowl. The outer columns are defined top and bottom by simple rings. They have capitals square in plan which chamfer into unmoulded imposts. Their bases are of the conventional Attic pattern: two tori separated by a scotia. The central column has a bottom ring but no moulding at the top.

Unlike in the finely designed and executed genuinely Norman pedestal bottoms described elsewhere (notably the original Romanesque ones in Purbeck marble, e.g., at Brushford), there is no attempt to relate/integrate the bottom mouldings of the five columns. The lowermost rings of the corner columns merely cut into that of the central column. Also, the size of the Attic mouldings is not finely differentiated in proportion to the different circumferences of central/corner columns.

The mouldings at the top of the corner columns are unusual and not very comfortable: from bottom to top, a delicate torus, then a cushion resembling a squashed capital, lastly a square shallow block chamfered from the cushion.

The gently tapered bowl is animated by its decoration. In low relief, this depicts interlacing arches, underlined and set off by an utterly plain ring around the bottom of the bowl. Underneath the arcade & representing its plinth, originally continuous but now damaged in places, runs a simple ring. The squared shafts of the arcade are simple except for being chamfered on each edge. The simple bases look as if they are meant to represent mouldings of two tori. Capitals and imposts are also rough and rudimentary. To judge by extant detail on some of them, arches were defined by raised outside edges, the inner recess being decorated with beading. There are now 18 shafts remaining of the 21 I estimate to have been cut originally.

The otherwise uniform arcade design is startlingly interrupted (on the side now facing N) by a palmette at the top of one pier. The usual base is replaced by one more massive but in proportion with the heavier head; the shaft is similar to the others but is shorter, its top being swallowed by the bottom of the palmette which resembles a mouth. (Just as the bottom-most lobes resemble eyes and the five leaves above resemble a head: so that there are amusing analogies with the common Romanesque motif of a mask with a shaft in its mouth).

Around the top of the bowl, roughly adjacent to the arching and now interrupted by the very worn rim, there runs a cable-moulding. The lead lining extends part way across the rim, and there are remains of lock-fittings.

Depth of basin 0.32m
Ext. diameter of bowl at rim 0.69m
Height of bowl 0.46m
Int. diameter of bowl at rim 0.53m


English Heritage described the font as a 'very interesting Norman font with interlocking arcading and carved palmette.' Pevsner was less effusive, 'circular, Norman, with interlaced arcading.' The chancel arch label stops and the corbels reused in the S arcade spandrels are by the same skilful carver.


  • Somerset County Council, Historic Environment Record 40913.

  • EH, English Heritage Listed Building 270966.

  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset, Harmondsworth 1958, 133.

  • VCH, Victoria County History: Somerset, VII, London 1999, 223.

Exterior from SW
Exterior from ENE
Nave and S aisle from NW
CORFE, groundplan of St Nicholas's by C.E. Giles 1858-59. Image from Church Plans Online (Published by the NOF Digitise Architecture England Consortium).


Site Location
National Grid Reference
ST 232 197 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Somerset
now: Somerset
now: Bath & Wells
medieval: Sherborne (to 909), Wells (to 1090), Bath (to 1245), Bath & Wells (from 1245)
medieval: not confirmed
now: St Nicholas
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Robin Downes 
Visit Date
29 September 2004