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All Saints, Billesley, Warwickshire

(52°12′33″N, 1°47′10″W)
SP 147 568
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Warwickshire
now Warwickshire
medieval Worcester
now Coventry
  • Harry Sunley
March 2006

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The rectangular aisleless nave has a transept on the easterly end of the south side, which served as a vestry. A gallery at the west end is accessed by an open tread stairway. The chancel is apsidal with a diameter 0.7m less than the width between the exterior of the present nave walls. The chancel arch is approximately semi-circular, but probably of c 1692, the date Pevsner gives for this present church. The west respond of a Norman north arcade was discovered in 1980-81, partly buried in the north wall and visible through the open treads of the gallery stairway, but inaccessible. There is an area of herring-bone work in an area under the south-east window of the nave. The main Romanesque features are two loose sculptures, held firmly by metal bands for security both in the vestry.


Much of the present church is basically a rebuild of 1692 by Bernard Whalley, but with an essentially medieval nave and tenuous signs of an earlier church. These include remnants of medieval window frames, herringbone work on the south wall, and as mentioned above, the remains of a respond of a Norman north arcade. The apse may have been built on an earlier foundation.

The following account of the discovery of the sculptures has been extracted from Morris (1983 and 1996). In 1980, a skirting board was removed from the west jamb of the arch to the vestry, disclosing signs of a carving. The plaster was removed to disclose the full feature. It was removed, and conserved by the late Professor Robert Baker, and then displayed at the exhibition of Romanesque Art at the Hayward Gallery in 1984. It has since been returned and is now on display in the vestry.

Earlier, one face of the ‘shaft’ had been visible when it was a part of the exterior filling of the vestry west doorway, where only the side of the figure with a nimbus was visible. This one side was recorded in 1945 for the VCH, but was removed in 1981, disclosing the other three sides. It now accompanies the tympanum.


Interior Features


Loose Sculpture



This has already been described and discussed by many exponents in the field of the Herefordshire School. The following quote is from Professor George Zarnecki (1984)

In his article on the tympanum Dr Morris [1983] rightly attributes it to the Hereford School. Amid tightly interlaced stalks of foliage with leaves are a man, a snake, a dove and a dragon, now headless. The man wears the characteristic trousered dress found so frequently in the works of the school, for instance on the Eardisley font and the Monmouth Museum slab. The meaning of the sculpture is fairly obvious: a man is pursued by evil forces, personified by a snake and a dragon, and he strives to escape towards a dove, a symbol of purity.

Attention has been drawn by many writers to the very close similarity of this figure and its garb to those on the Eardisley font (Morris, 1983: Zarnecki,1984: Hunt and Stokes, 1997: Thurlby, 1999, et al). The headgear with straight hair emanating from the back; the V neck, ribbed shirt and sleeved, with the changing rib pattern, corded belt (but the Eardisley has more coils) and the flared trousers are all common features, also with the Alveley ‘Man in Foilage’ sculpture.

Morris (1997) suggests that it was located over the south door to the nave, facing the former manor house and village.

This sculpture is by far the most easterly of the Herefordshire School, and is of different stone, limestone, probably from the not far distant Cotswolds. It is thus likely that the sculptor travelled, rather than the sculpture.

The estimated width of the tympanum is 1145 mm. At a symposium of the Corpus Romanesque in 2002, the author proposed, as a result of research, that a unit of measurement used in England in the Romanesque period and immediately afterwards was a foot of about 280 mm. Applying this to the base of the tympanum, a width of exactly four feet of a foot of 286 mm was found. (Leominster west door yielded a foot of 284 mm). This is yet another coincidence that makes the use of such a foot so likely. The thickness is too variable for making any such deductions.


The spigot hole on the upper surface suggests that it a member of a vertical structure, such as a cross, and it might be assumed to have originally held sculptures on all four face, before one being re-cut as a door jamb, although not all necessarily contemporary. The greater erosion, compared with the tympanum, suggests a more open location, such as the churchyard.

Frontal Sculpture.

The most likely interpretation is the ‘Tree of Life’. The foliage is deemed unusual by Dr Jeffrey West (Morris 1996) who can parallel it to 10th century art as on a carved slab excavated at St Oswald Priory, Gloucester. This leads to the suggestion that the shaft sculptures are not of one period.

Left Side Sculpture.

The left hand figure, complete, is very similar in apparel to that in the Eardisley font scene of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, as is also the staved ‘wedge’ cross. This carving has been regarded as a ‘Harrowing’ by Morris (1996), Thurlby et al. Thurlby reported on it whilst still in the wall, when it was thought to be a tympanum. The right foot is on a step, above the left, implying ascent. The Eardisley figure is inclined, however, which gives it a certain dynamism that this figure lacks. The person being ‘rescued’ is much smaller, but, instead of being dragged, seems more in company with the Christ figure, although its body is missing. Having said this, they are certainly of the same school as the tympanum, and probably the same sculptor. Morris (1996) attributes this carving to the 12th century, compared with the 10th century for the figure on the front of the shaft.

Right Side Design

The simple and lightly scribed lozenge design is in complete contrast with the other two faces.

Patronage and Dating

The dating of the ‘Tree of Life’ on the front face on the ‘shaft’ has been considered 10th century (see above). The right face of lozenges is deemed by Morris (in discussion) from its quality to be more twelfth century than tenth. The tympanum and the left face of the shaft can be taken as being of similar dates. Hunt and Stokes [1997] have traced the patronage of Billesley, in chronological order, to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, the transition being before 1153, but cannot determine in whose time the sculptures were carved.


R. Cramp, Grammar of Anglo-Saxon Ornament, British Academy, 1984, p xvi

J. Hunt, ‘Sculpture, Dates and Patrons: Dating the Herefordshire School of Sculpture’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol 84, 2004, p208 and n 99

J. Hunt and M. A. Stokes, ‘Sculpture and Patronage in a Shropshire Manor. A Group of Sculptures from Alveley’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol CL, 1997, p41

R. K. Morris, 'The Herefordshire School: Recent Discoveries', Studies in Medieval Sculpture ed Thompson F H, Soc of Ants Occasional Papers (New Series) III, London, 1983, p 198

R. K. Morris, All Saints’ Church, Billesley Warwickshire, The Churches Conservation Trust, March 1996.

N. Pevsner and A. Wedgewood, The Buildings of England, Warwickshire, Penguin, 1974 reprint, 93.

H Sunley, The Quest for the Linear Measure used in Norman England, CRSBI Newsletter, 2002.

M. Thurlby, The Hereford School of Romanesque Sculpture, Logaston Press, 1999

Zarnecki et al, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, p177.