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St John the Baptist, Preston, Gloucestershire

(52°0′28″N, 2°28′8″W)
SO 679 345
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Hereford
now Gloucester
  • Jon Turnock
15 May 2014

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Preston is located at the extreme north-western corner of Gloucestershire, a mile from the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border. It is roughly equidistant from Hereford and Gloucester. There is no longer a settlement at Preston. The church of St John the Baptist is located off the B4215 next to Preston Court. It comprises a chancel and nave with N aisles and is constructed from coursed stone. The majority of the fabric appears to date from the early 12thc, although earlier masonry and substructures cannot be ruled out. The N aisle was probably added in the 13thc and there is small 14th-c timber porch over the N nave doorway. There was a timber W tower in the early 18thc but this has since been demolished. There are three small round-headed windows that appear to be part of the original church fabric: one at the W end, the second immediately E of the N porch, and another, now blocked, at the E end. They are devoid of sculptural decoration. Apparently the church was restored in the 19thc (Jurica (2010), 314-15).

The only surviving Romanesque sculpture at the church is a tympanum above the N nave doorway and a single corbel.


Domesday Book records that the manor of Preston was held by St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, both before and after the Norman Conquest (Moore (1982), 165 c). There is no mention of a church. A spurious charter from the late 12thc records Preston chapel as a possession of Gloucester Abbey in 1100 (Hart (1863), 250-52; Barrow (1993), no. 4, p. 4); however the first genuine account of Preston chapel occurs in a charter issued by Gilbert Foliot while he was bishop of Hereford (1148-1163). This records that the chapel and cemetery at Preston had been dedicated by his episcopal predecessor, Robert de Bethune (1131-1148). The wording of the charter implies that the dedication had taken place not long before Bishop Robert’s death in 1148 (Hart (1863), no. 386, p. 375-76; Barrow (1993), no. 48, p. 47). The late 1140s was a turbulent time for the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border area where Preston is situated, owing to a tenurial conflict between Roger, earl of Hereford and Gilbert de Lacy. In 1149 Earl Roger charged William de Braose with his castle at Dymock and ordered that William fitz Alan hold and defend Upleadon (Coplestone-Crow in Thurlby (2013), 29). Preston, which lies roughly 3 miles north-west of Dymock and less than 10 miles north-west of Upleadon, must have been particularly exposed. The notification issued by Gilbert Foliot c. 1148 states that he had made Upleadon cemetery a refuge for the poor and implies that Robert de Bethune had made similar arrangements for the chapel and cemetery at Preston, presumably shortly before his death (Brooke et al. (1967), no. 301, p. 366).


Exterior Features


Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae


Relationship to regional churches

Tympana depicting the Agnus Dei are found across England; however there is a notable concentration in the south-west Midlands, in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The example at Preston can be compared to examples at Upleadon (recut), St Nicholas’ church at Gloucester, Elkstone (Gloucestershire), Castlemorton (Worcestershire), Byton and Pipe Aston (Herefordshire). In terms of style and arrangement, the Preston lamb is most akin to its counterparts at Castlemorton and Upleadon, if the latter is regarded as a sensitive recutting that conveys the original features. This would suggest that the same sculptor worked at all three sites. The Preston tympanum has been associated with the Dymock School, perhaps owing to use of dummy voussoirs (Jurica (2010) 315), although the Agnus Dei motif is not found among the main group of churches associated with the school. Other depictions of the Agnus Dei appear on sculpture attributed to the Herefordshire School, namely two corbels at Kilpeck and a voussoir of the Shobdon arches.

Corbels depicting a pair of human heads are found across the British Isles. Many corbels depicting single human heads can be seen at Kilpeck, and angle corbels with human heads can be seen at Fownhope, yet another church associated with the Herefordshire School.

Dating and patronage

There can be little doubt that the construction of Preston chapel was initiated and overseen by the monastic community of St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester. Gethyn-Jones (1979), 8, 71, judged the Preston tympanum, corbel and pillar piscina to be contemporary and dated them to the end of the 11thc. This interpretation is undermined by the fact that sculpted corbels did not become a common architectural feature in England until the following century, particularly in the second quarter of the 12thc. The relative plasticity of the Agnus Dei, and its relationship to corbels at Kilpeck dating from c. 1134, reinforces the opinion that at least the tympanum and corbel date from the second quarter of the 12thc. Gilbert Foliot’s notification that Preston chapel had been consecrated by Bishop Robert (1131-1148) seems to provide documentary confirmation for this time bracket. Based on Gilbert’s personal interest in the chapel, it is possible that the building campaign took place during his abbacy (1139-1148).

Iconography and historical context

The appearance of the Agnus Dei at two chapels belonging to Gloucester Abbey that had been consecrated as refuges during the 1140s appears to be no coincidence. As a religious symbol, the Lamb of God was invoked to bring peace, as in the Eucharistic chant: ‘Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, give us peace.’ In this sense, the invocation of the Agnus Dei has been associated with the Peace of God movement during the conflicts of Stephen’s reign, where prelates sought to prevent violence (Dalton (2000) 100-01). Gilbert Foliot was particularly vocal in his condemnation of secular conflict while abbot of Gloucester and bishop of Hereford. It is tempting to interpret the Preston and Upleadon tympana within this context as devices for encouraging peace and invoking spiritual protection (Turnock (2014), 143-44, 156).


J. Barrow, English Episcopal Acta 7: Hereford 1079-1234, Oxford 1993.

Z. N. Brooke, A. Morey and C. N. L. Brooke (eds.), The Letters and Charters of Gilbert Foliot, Cambridge 1967.

P. Dalton, ‘Churchmen and the Promotion of Peace in King Stephen’s Reign’, Viator 31 (2000), 71-120.

E. Gethyn-Jones, The Dymock School of Sculpture, Chichester 1979.

W. H. Hart (ed.) Historia et Cartularium Monasterii Sancti Petri, Gloucestriae, vol. 1, London 1863.

A. R. J. Jurica (ed.), A History of the County of Gloucestershire, vol. 12, Woodbridge 2010.

J. S. Moore (ed.), Domesday Book: Gloucestershire, Chichester 1982.

M. Thurlby, with B. Coplestone-Crow, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture, Logaston 2013.

J. Turnock, ‘Reconsidering the reign of King Stephen: a contextual study of sculpture created in Gloucestershire between 1135 and 1154’ (unpublished Durham University MA thesis, 2014).