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St Mary, English Bicknor, Gloucestershire

(51°50′21″N, 2°36′34″W)
English Bicknor
SO 581 158
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Worcester
now Gloucester
  • Jon Turnock
15 May 2014

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English Bicknor is a village located in the Forest of Dean, close to the borders of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, and occupies an elevated position above the River Wye. The church is situated within the outer bailey of an Anglo-Norman castle, of which only the earthworks survive.

St Mary’s church comprises a chancel, aisled nave and west tower. The original 12thc. church was apparently cruciform in plan with a central tower. The nave arcades and their accompanying sculptures date from the later addition of nave aisles which probably occurred towards the end of the 12thc. The most notable 12thc. Romanesque features are the nave arcades, of which the NE arch is the most richly sculpted.

Many additions and alterations were made to the church after its original foundation. The base of the tower dates from the 13thc., and the upper stages were added at the end of the medieval period. The present-day chancel was a late medieval addition that looks to have been extensively reconstructed during the 19thc. restoration campaign.

The font may also be a product of the 12thc, but without any sculpted decoration it is impossible to be sure.


There is no documentary record of a church at English Bicknor in the 11thc. or 12thc. Domesday Book (167 c) records that the manor of English Bicknor was held by William, son of Norman, in the late 11thc. At that time it was a very small landholding of half a hide with only six smallholders and no apparent church or priest. The manor first passed to Uluric de Dena, and then to Miles of Gloucester c. 1131 as a gift from King Henry I. (Regesta Regum, vol. 2, no. 1723, 255)


Exterior Features

Exterior Decoration


Interior Features







The early sculpture in the NE nave arcade and the reset chancel fragment are of greatest contextual interest.

The NE nave arcade is not in its original position having been dismantled, moved and reset. Thurlby (2013, 66, 85) is surely correct in identifying it as the former chancel arch of the smaller 12thc. church, presumably moved slightly north of its original position and rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise when the E end of the church was extended at a later date. At least two sculptors seem to have been responsible for the figurative carvings. Beakhead no. 6 is less controlled than the other heads and suggests an amateur craftsman attempting to emulate the style of a more accomplished sculptor.

Several of the beakheads on this arch are related to sculptural motifs found at other regional churches. Beakhead no. 2 is comparable to another beakhead on the south doorway of St Peter, Windrush (left-hand jamb of the 2nd order, 4th beakhead from the bottom). They have the same pointed ears, indented foreheads, almond-shaped eyes and fluted scale decoration on their maws. Beakhead no. 3 is comparable to a reset corbel inside Windrush church which depicts a grotesque head restrained by an inverted T-shape muzzle. Similar bear-like heads with almond-shaped eyes and muzzles can be seen on the south doorway of All Hallows, South Cerney (2nd order, 7th from left), on a corbel at St Mary, Temple Guiting (south chancel exterior), and another corbel at SS David and Mary, Kilpeck, Herefordshire (apse exterior, labelled A4/T30 in CRSBI Kilpeck report). Beakhead no. 7 is comparable to another wolf-like head enriched with groove patterns on the south nave doorway at Kilpeck (2nd order, 2nd voussoir from left, labelled no. 2 in CRSBI Kilpeck report). It should also be noted that the 2nd order of the English Bicknor arch and the corresponding order of the south doorway at Kilpeck have the same forms of roll and hollow mouldings and frontal chevron (Thurlby, 2013, 85).

If the English Bicknor sculptures were later imitations of those at Kilpeck, as King (1995, 83) suggested, the former must have been carved after c. 1134. 1134 was the year in which Kilpeck church was gifted to St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, by Hugh, lord of Kilpeck. Either the church and its sculptures were complete by this time or the construction project was imminent (Thurlby, 2013, 259). The implication is that English Bicknor church was founded after Miles of Gloucester acquired the manor c. 1131 and this places Miles as the probable patron of the church, an identification first suggested by Thurlby (2013, 85). The strongest clue that St Mary’s was a seigneurial church is its location within the former outer bailey of the castle, a configuration that is mirrored at Kilpeck and many other sites.

Thurlby (2013, 85) has expressed uncertainty as to why the English Bicknor sculptures are so closely related to those at Kilpeck. One explanation is geographical proximity. English Bicknor is less than 20 miles SE of Kilpeck, making it possible that the sculptors working at the former were familiar with the sculptures at the latter. A more arresting notion centres on the affiliation between Miles and Hugh de Kilpeck. During the succession dispute between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, Miles allied with the Empress and was appointed Earl of Hereford in July 1141. With this title he was able to claim the services from one and a half of Hugh’s knights’ fees (Walker, 1960, 209-10). Miles could have been personally familiar with Hugh’s new church at Kilpeck, and in this context the English Bicknor sculptures can be understood as a visual expression of the men’s shared political allegiance.

The relationship between the sculptures of English Bicknor, Windrush and South Cerney can be explained by the fact that they were commissioned by either Miles or his son and successor, Roger, Earl of Hereford. It can be deduced that the manor of Windrush passed to Roger in 1137 as a result of his marriage to Cecily, the daughter and heir of Payn fitz John (Turnock, 2015, 55). The earliest record of Windrush church appears in a charter issued by Bishop John of Worcester between 1151 and 1157, where it is confirmed as a dependent chapel of Great Barrington church and a possession of Llanthony Priory (English Episcopal Acta 33, no. 128, p. 91). Another charter, issued in 1158/9, mentions Prior Clement of Llanthony being ceremonially invested with the keys to the church (English Episcopal Acta: no. 150, 105—6). The beakhead motif became increasingly common in the region from c. 1135, and its popularity peaked during the 1140s. This evidence accords with Roger commissioning the church after 1137 and emulating the patronage of his father.

The manor of South Cerney was a long-standing possession of the family which belonged to Miles from c. 1126 and passed to Roger at the end of 1143 (Turnock, 2015, 86). Domesday Book (169 a) records that the manor was served by a priest, so presumably a church existed by 1086. The aforementioned sculptures of the S doorway are evidently the product of a 12thc. rebuilding campaign. This may have coincided with the construction of South Cerney castle which was initiated by Miles shortly before October 1139 (Gesta Stephani: 92-95; Historia Novella: 62-63, 72-73). There was a flurry of activity around the church between 1145 and 1153 which may accord with the rebuilding. Initially the monks of Abingdon Abbey appealed to Pope Eugenius III asking him to place South Cerney church under papal protection. The monks of Abingdon had a historic claim to the manor of South Cerney which was rejected after the Conquest, and their appeal to Rome may have been part of a scheme to reclaim these rights. Eventually, c. 1153, the church was granted to St Augustine’s Abbey, Bristol, with the assent of the future King Henry II (Turnock, 2015, 86-7).

The sculptures at Reading Abbey, founded in 1121, may have served as an additional source of influence for the earliest carvings at English Bicknor. Zarnecki and Henry (1979, 24) were first to note the similarity between the English Bicknor beakheads and those from Reading Abbey. The concave diamond roundel on the hitherto unnoticed fragment reset in the north wall of the chancel at English Bicknor is a motif also found at Reading as well as Leominster Priory, the daughter-house of Reading Abbey (see Thurlby, 2013, 222-23, for a discussion of this motif). Thurlby (2013, 85) has highlighted the close association between Miles of Gloucester and King Henry I, the patron of Reading Abbey, as a convincing explanation for the similarities between the English Bicknor and Reading beakheads, and the same reasoning can be extended to the concave diamond roundel.

Possible influence from Old Sarum Cathedral should also be acknowledged. Building activity was certainly ongoing during the 1120s and 1130s, overseen by the wealthy and politically influential Bishop Roger. The beakheads from Old Sarum Cathedral, alongside those from Reading Abbey, are contenders for the earliest examples of the motif in England. Moreover, the concave diamond roundel motif has been found on fragments from Old Sarum (illustrated by Thurlby, 2013, 223). As already noted, Miles was a well-connected member of the Norman elite and it would be unsurprising if he deliberately sought to emulate the greatest patrons of his day. Even the layout of English Bicknor by the mid-12thc. resembled Old Sarum, though on a much smaller scale: the castle of the inner bailey juxtaposed with the church of the outer bailey.

There can be no doubt that Miles was making a statement about his own power and status. Within a decade of acquiring the manor, he had created a fortified administrative centre complete with seigneurial church, or at least the foundations of one. Expressing lordship in this region became of critical importance from the mid-1130s. Incursions by Welsh raiders were recorded in 1136 and 1139 (Gesta Stephani: 18-23; John of Worcester: 216-21, 228-29; Gilbert Foliot: no. 13, 49-50), and from 1139 Gloucestershire and neighbouring Herefordshire were riven by political fragmentation and localised hostilities as a result of the succession dispute between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (Thurlby, 2013; Turnock, 2015). At English Bicknor church, it is tempting to interpret the carvings on the former chancel arch and reset chancel fragment as a product of this impetus to define and visualise lordship in a border region.


R. Baxter, ‘St Mary, Kilpeck, Herefordshire’, CRSBI.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. P. McGurk, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1998).

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

English Episcopal Acta 33: Worcester 1062—1185, eds. M. Cheney et al. (Oxford, 2007).

Gesta Stephani, eds. K. R. Potter and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1976).

J. F. King, ‘The Parish Church of Kilpeck Reassessed’, in D. Whitehead (ed.), Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Hereford (BAA, 1995), 82-93.

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

Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, eds. H. W. C. Davis et al., vol. 2, no. 1723, 255.

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

J. A. Turnock, Reconsidering the reign of King Stephen: a contextual study of sculpture created in Gloucestershire between 1135 and 1154 (unpublished MA thesis, Durham University, 2015), http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/11024/.

D. Walker, ‘The ‘Honours’ of the Earls of Hereford in the Twelfth Century’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Association, 79 (1960), 174–211.

William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella: The Contemporary History, eds. E. King and K. R. Potter (Oxford, 1998).

G. Zarnecki and F. Henry, ‘Romanesque Arches decorated with Human and Animal Heads’, in G. Zarnecki, Studies in Romanesque Sculpture (London, 1979), 1–35.