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St John the Evangelist, Elkstone, Gloucestershire

(51°48′30″N, 2°2′57″W)
SO 967 122
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Worcester
now Gloucester
  • Jon Turnock
25 June 2014

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Elkstone village is situated at one of the highest points in the Cotswolds. It is located off the A417 between Gloucester (10 miles to the north-west) and Cirencester (8 miles to the south-east). There is an abundant supply of Great Oolite and Inferior Oolite limestone in the locality, with the remains of a quarry less than 1000 metres south-west of the church (Herbert, 1981, 210).

Elkstone church is one of the Romanesque architectural jewels of the Cotswolds. It is constructed of coursed rubble and ashlar, presumably quarried from the local area. The structure comprises a square-ended sanctuary, chancel, aisleless nave, west tower and south porch. 13thc additions include the chamber/dovecote above the east end and the windows in the south walls of the chancel and sanctuary. New windows were inserted into the nave and north wall of the sanctuary in the 14thc. The W tower dates from the 15thc (Herbert, 1981: 217-8).

The most important 12thc survivals are the south nave doorway, the chancel and sanctuary arches and vaults, and the corbel table. Some carved fragments have also been reused as masonry in various parts of the church, including the 13thc dovecote.


Prior to the Norman Conquest, Elkstone comprised two manors in Rapsgate Hundred, each held by separate men called Leofwin. By the time of Domesday Book the manor had been acquired by Ansfrid de Cormeilles. No church is recorded (Moore, 1982: 169 d). The manor descended with the Cormeilles family until the early 13thc (Herbert, 1981: 212). Before 1175, King Henry II confirmed the tithes of the manor to Cormeilles Abbey, Normandy.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Interior Decoration



Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae

Loose Sculpture


Alterations and renewals

It has been suggested that the church originally had a central tower situated above the chancel, and this was removed when the structure was remodelled in the 13thc. There are notable differences between the masonry of the nave, which is constructed of rubble, and the chancel and sanctuary, which are constructed of ashlar. The fact that 12thc carved fragments are found in the walls of the east end suggests that this section of the church was largely rebuilt in the 13thc. This would explain why all corbels, bar one, have been lost from the east arm of the structure.

The chancel arch was taken down and ‘carefully’ rebuilt in 1849 (Herbert, 1981: 217-8). It is clear that much of the sculpture here, and probably also on the sanctuary arch, has been recut or renewed, and this presumably occurred during the 19thc restoration campaign. The dragon head on the south side of the chancel arch is especially suspicious since it does not conform to 12thc styles and techniques.

The south nave doorway has clearly been reset, as evidenced by the fragmentary tympanum. Many aspects of this doorway look to have been recut or renewed, including the outer capitals, the inner west capital, the outer order of chevron and the inner jambs. Originally, the inner order could have been composed of a continuous order of lateral chevron using those fragments now reset around the south nave window (cf. the south nave doorway at Quenington church). Crucially, the carved section of tympanum, the order of beakheads, the inner east capital and the apex mask look to be original. Almost all of the corbels appear to be authentic, however SN14 looks to be a modern replacement.

Lost Romanesque features

The function of the rectangular panels that are decorated with intersecting arcading and fish scale is unclear. One possibility is that they are sections of string course from the original exterior of the chancel and sanctuary.

Sanctuary vault corbels

The north-east corbel may have been carved in situ, which would explain the poorly executed face of the lion. The south-east corbel looks to be unfinished. Judging from the shape of the projecting stone, it seems that the sculptor had planned a design and arrangement similar to that on the north-east corbel.


The south doorway tympanum appears to be a visual adaption of passages from Revelation (4:1–5:14). Christ is shown in Judgement on the heavenly throne, holding the Book of Life, and pointing to the sacrificial lamb. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists: Matthew (the angel), Luke (the calf), Mark (the lion), and John (the eagle). Luke, Mark and John all carry scrolls inscribed with their respective names, but only John’s name is still legible. The surrounding vegetation includes clusters of fruit, probably grapes, which seem to convey the beauty of heaven and/or symbolise Christ as the True Vine. It has been posited that the male and female heads on the 2nd order of the same doorway depict the patron and his wife (Anon., 2000: 1). While this is an intriguing theory, it is impossible to confirm.

The corbel scheme appears to carry many layers of meaning, although the symbolism is often difficult or impossible to decipher. SN3 may have originally depicted Pisces, symbolised by two fish connected at the mouths by a cord, as seen on the Kilpeck south doorway. Corbels SN6-8 have been interpreted as a secular hunting scene with a lord on horseback and a hound confronting a stag (Thurlby, 2008: 22). The griffin is typically regarded as a symbol of evil or uncontrolled ferocity, but those on corbels SN9 and SN10 have foliate tail terminations like the Evangelist symbol for Mark which could suggest some form of positive symbolism was intended. The avian creature and centaur on corbels SN11 and SN12 appear to be part of the same scene with the centaur firing his arrow at the creature. It is unclear whether the centaur was intended to portray Sagittarius, convey some Christian message regarding the battle between good and evil, or perhaps both. The projection on the eroded figure of corbel SN17 looks distinctly phallic and could indicate a male exhibitionist. Corbel NN2 may represent the Tree of Life as seen on various reliefs, particularly tympana, attributed to the Dymock School and Herefordshire School.

Relationship to regional sculpture

The sculpture at Elkstone is closely related to corresponding decoration at a group of near-contemporary churches in the Cirencester area. Zarnecki proposed that the same sculptor/workshop was employed at both Elkstone and Siddington church. This is suggested by the comparable plasticity of the carvings and common motifs such as the bird beakheads, sabre-toothed heads and beakheads with extended arms that grip the neighbouring heads (Zarnecki and Henry, 1979: 25). Equally, both churches have tympana depicting Christ enthroned and feature dragon heads as ornament. There are parallels with the south nave doorway at South Cerney in the form of voussoirs depicting bearded men, dragon heads and eight-petal flowers (Turnock, 2014: 89, 96). At Barnsley church (Gloucestershire) there is a corbel behind the organ and another on the north chancel that present men with rope-like hair and beards that form a continuous mane like Elkstone corbel NN9. Furthermore, there is a corbel at Barnsley that depicts a ram (cf. Elkstone corbel NN1) (Turnock, 2014: 97). Another ram corbel can be seen at Quenington church. The N nave doorway at Quenington is decorated with flowers and grotesque heads emitting foliage that are worth comparing to Elkstone (Turnock, 2014: 97).

Wider relationships and influences are perceptible. Thurlby’s research emphasises the influence of the Herefordshire School and Gloucester on the sculptural schemes at Elkstone. The arrangement of the lion motifs on voussoir no. 10 (south doorway) and the corbel in the sanctuary at Elkstone, particularly the looping tail, is characteristic of the Herefordshire School (see, for example, the fonts at Shobdon and Eardisley). Grotesque heads emitting foliage like that on the Elkstone tympanum can be seen at Hereford Cathedral (north nave arcade) and Kilpeck (south doorway). The relationship between Kilpeck and Elkstone is particularly pronounced. Both have sanctuary vault keystones that are carved with four grotesque heads. The unusual motif in which two serpents emerge from the mouth of a grotesque can be seen on the south doorways at Elkstone (inner east capital) and Kilpeck (2nd order voussoir) (King, 1995: 88; Chwojko and Thurlby, 1997: 19; Thurlby, 2013: 72). Comparable corbel designs at Kilpeck include rams, twisting and biting serpents, and a muzzled creature. Other sculptural depictions of muzzled creatures can be seen across the region; for example, at English Bicknor, Windrush, Temple Guiting (Gloucestershire) and Beckford (Worcestershire) (Turnock, 2014: 57-8, 131). The theme of hunting is also present on the Kilpeck corbel table in the form of at least one stag and a scene in which a hare/rabbit appears to hang limply from the mouth of a hound (Thurlby, 2008: 22; Thurlby, 2013: 111, 118).

In the western parts of the nave and north aisle of Gloucester Cathedral, formerly St Peter’s Abbey, there is a grotesque apex mask and large ornamental beads that have been compared to the respective motifs at Elkstone (Chwojko and Thurlby, 1997: 19–20; Turnock, 2014: 98). Thurlby has hypothesised that other motifs found at both Kilpeck and Elkstone may have originated from a common source, namely the lost cloister and west front of St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester (Chwojko and Thurlby, 1997: 19–20; Thurlby, 2013: 72). Also worth noting are the similarities between voussoir no. 11 on the 2nd order of the Elkstone doorway and a corbel in the Gloucester Cathedral chapter house. Both depict grotesque masks emitting two splays of fluted leaves.

King, on the other hand, has raised the possibility of influence from Old Sarum Cathedral on the sculpture at Elkstone, with Cirencester Abbey as a lost intermediary. The latter hypothesis hinges on the fact that Serlo, the first abbot of Cirencester (appointed 1131), was a former canon of Old Sarum. Fragments from Old Sarum that relate to Elkstone include beakheads, grotesque heads with heavily grooved faces, and masks with long pointed teeth. Carvings at Lullington church (Somerset) have been attributed to at least one sculptor who worked at Old Sarum, and a number of motifs, which include griffins, eight-petal flowers and dragon head label stops, overlap with Elkstone (King, 1995: 88).

The closest sculptural parallel to the centaur corbel at Elkstone, with its lithe body, splayed tail and bow, is a mid-12thc loose capital from Winchester that can be associated with the patronage of Henry of Blois (Zarnecki et al., 1984: 186).

The sculptors

The tympanum, 2nd order voussoirs (south doorway), and most of the south nave corbels that depict figures appear to be the work of a single, highly skilled sculptor. The less accomplished carvings, namely the inner east capital of the doorway and most of the corbels on the north side of the church, look to be the work of one or more assistants. Most of the geometric work is very controlled and could have been carved by the more skilled sculptor or a completely different craftsman. Overall, it seems that a small atelier of sculptors worked at Elkstone guided by a master.

Dating and patronage

There is no documentary evidence to assist in the dating of the Elkstone sculptures. Many have opted for a later 12thc date, namely c. 1160-1170 (Zarnecki, 1951: 62; Zarnecki and Henry, 1979: 25; Herbert, 1981: 216; Verey and Brooks, 2002: 356; Moss, 2009: 18). However, not all of the sculptures appear to belong to the same phase. The point-to-point chevron on the chancel arch suggests a date no earlier than the middle of the century. On the other hand, the east sanctuary window, with its back-to-back chevron and flowers, looks to be later since it is stylistically disconnected from the sculpture of the south nave doorway. Breaks in the surrounding masonry seem to confirm that this window was added at a later stage, perhaps towards the end of the 12thc. Based on the previous discussion of the Elkstone south doorway and corbels, and their relationship to other regional sculpture dating from the second quarter of the 12thc, the present author would suggest a date c. 1150.

The mid-12thc church and its sculpture can be attributed to a member of the Cormeilles family. At this time, the head of the family and lord of the manor was probably Richard de Cormeilles, lord of Tarrington, who was active from c. 1134 until his death in 1175/76 (Keats-Rohan, 2002: 410-11). He was evidently a close associate of the earls of Hereford, Miles (d. 1143) and Roger (1155), and supported Empress Matilda’s claim to the English throne (Brooke and Brooke, 1946: 185; Walker, 1960: 210; Coplestone-Crow in Thurlby, 2013: 19). Richard de Cormeilles membership of the earldom of Hereford affinity, which included Hugh of Kilpeck, the patron of Kilpeck church, would explain the common motifs at Kilpeck and Elkstone, as well as the relationship between Elkstone and several Gloucestershire churches that can be attributed to earls Miles and/or Roger. These include Barnsley, Quenington, Siddington and South Cerney (Turnock, 2014: 48-93).

St John the Evangelist, Elkstone, can be defined as a seigneurial church, commissioned by a secular lord to visualise his status and piety. Status is conveyed by the quality of the sculpture and the emulation of motifs associated with prestigious patrons. The corbel table hunting scene, in particular, is a quintessential illustration of elite status in the form of a leisure pursuit. Perhaps the equestrian figure was intended as an effigy of the patron, although such notions stray firmly into conjecture.


Anon., Elkstone Church, Gloucestershire, 2000.

Z. N. Brooke and C. N. L. Brooke, ‘Hereford Cathedral Dignitaries in the Twelfth Century - Supplement’, Cambridge Historical Journal 8:3 (1946), pp. 179-85.

E. Chwojko and M. Thurlby, ‘Gloucester and the Herefordshire School’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 150 (1997), pp. 7–26.

N. M. Herbert (ed.), The History of the County of Gloucestershire: Volume 7, Oxford 1981.

K. S. B. Keats-Rohan, Domesday Descendants: A Prosopography of Persons Occurring in English Documents 1066-1166, Woodbridge 2002.

J. F. King, ‘Possible West Country Influences on Twelfth-Century Architecture and its Decoration on Normandy before 1150’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 139 (1986), pp. 22–39.

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

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

R. Moss, Romanesque Chevron Ornament, Oxford 2009.

M. Thurlby, ‘Reflections on “The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture”’, Journal of the Ecclesiological Society 40 (2008), pp. 20–29.

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

D. Verey and A. Brooks, Gloucestershire: the Cotswolds, New Haven 2002.

D. Walker, ‘The “Honours” of the Earls of Hereford in the Twelfth Century’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 79 (1960), pp. 174–211.

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

G. Zarnecki et al., English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, London 1984.

G. Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066–1140, London 1951.