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St Stephen, Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire

(51°47′7″N, 2°19′13″W)
Moreton Valence
SO 780 097
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Worcester
now Gloucester
  • Jon Turnock
30 April 2014

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Moreton Valence is a village 6 miles SW of Gloucester. St Stephen’s church stands in a secluded position located just off the A38 and about a mile east of the River Severn. It is a parish church comprising a C12th nave and chancel with the additions of a C15th-century west tower and a late C15th or early C16th south aisle. The most important Romanesque survivals are the north nave doorway, which features an elaborately-sculpted tympanum, and the chancel arch.


According to the DB, Moreton Valence belonged to the Whitstone hundred and was held by Durand of Gloucester. The inhabitants of the manor are listed as 4 villagers, 6 smallholders and 4 slaves. There is no record of a church or priest at this time. By the early C12th the manor had been tenanted to the Parvus family and the stone church appears to have been built during their tenancy. A charter, datable between 1148 and 1154, details that Moreton Valence church, along with Whaddon church, was granted to Hereford Cathedral by Roger Parvus after his brother, William Parvus, became a canon at the cathedral (Capes, 1908: 12; Walker, 1960: 203–4).

Immediately north of the church is a moated site, believed to be the vestiges of a hall built by William de Valence in the mid-13th century (Elrington et al., 1972: 208–13; National Heritage List for England, no. 1016767).


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Interior Decoration

String courses


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae


The wording of Roger Parvus’s charter implies that Moreton Valence church was completed by 1154, as opposed to the building project being anticipated or only recently commenced. Unfortunately the charter cannot confirm whether the church was granted to Hereford Cathedral immediately after its completion, or whether a period of time elapsed before Roger Parvus decided to make the donation.

The inscription on the south impost of the chancel arch appears to confirm patronage from the Parvus family. According to the Victoria County History (Elrington et al., 1972: 213–5), it reads:






The letters that the present author has discerned seem to confirm the accuracy of this transcription. In translation, it records that the church was made and dedicated to Christ, the Virgin Mary and St Stephen through the agency of someone called Parvus. Unfortunately there is no date, but if the inscription dates from the 12th century, as the VCH suggests, it may be contemporary with the earliest fabric.

Despite the simplicity of the chancel arch in comparison to the north doorway, there can be little doubt that the two are roughly contemporary and the work of the same craftsmen since both arches have two orders with almost identical mouldings. In one of his earliest works, Zarnecki (1951: 30, fig. 31) suggested a date of c. 1120 for the tympanum of the north doorway. On the basis of its relationship to other 12th-century artworks, discussed below, and the date of Roger Parvus’s charter, the present author wonders whether the tympanum could have been carved closer to the middle of the century.


The five circular shapes to the left-hand side of St Michael where observed and described by Keyser (1905) over a century ago when the tympanum was probably in better condition. He observed these as ‘several figures, probably intended for rescued souls’. If these shapes were once figures, it is more likely they represented the heavenly army that fought beside Michael as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘And there was a great battle in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon.... And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil’ (Revelation, 12:7–9). After all, the Book of Revelation is surely the scriptural basis for the tympanum.

The iconography of Michael fighting the dragon is peculiar to Western Christendom. In Carolingian representations the archangel is shown triumphant above a small vanquished dragon, whereas by the early eleventh century the dragon had been enlarged and Michael given a more aggressive pose. The Moreton Valence composition of Michael lunging to the right with a shield belongs to the later Northern tradition, although the lance is more typical of Continental iconography (Alexander, 1970: 88–98). There are many other Romanesque sculptures in England where St Michael is positioned on the left holding a shield, including reliefs at the churches of Harnhill (Gloucestershire), Kingswinford (Staffordshire), Southwell, Hoveringham (Nottinghamshire), Hallaton (Leicestershire) and Garton-on-the-Wolds (Yorkshire). The Southwell and Hoveringham tympana have both been dated to c. 1120, however they lack the naturalism and control that can be seen on the Moreton tympanum (Zarnecki et al., 1984: 123; Kirsop). Only the reliefs at Hallaton and Garton-on-the-Wolds mirror the Moreton tympanum in depicting Michael with a conical shield and lance, yet they differ in showing the archangel trampling the dragon.

There is stylistic evidence to suggest that the Moreton Valence sculptor was inspired by the work of the regionally influential Herefordshire School. The Moreton tympanum is comparable to two other tympana associated with the Herefordshire School in the nearby villages of Ruardean (Gloucestershire) and Brinsop (Herefordshire). These two tympana depict St George rather than St Michael, yet their compositions are similar in that the saint is positioned on the left and pierces the dragon through the mouth with a spear. The Ruardean tympanum is particularly akin to that at Moreton; both saintly figures are in dominant positions, each with his head at the apex of the stone, Michael’s wings mirror the position of George’s cape, and the dragons turn their heads to receive the lance blow. These tympana are also technically similar being carved from single stones and surrounded by plain voussoirs. In addition, the Moreton tympanum has been compared to a Herefordshire School-inspired sculpture found at Alveley (Shropshire), now fragmentary, which has been dated after 1155. Hunt and Stokes (1997: 30) suggested that this fragment was once part of a relief that depicted St Michael fighting the dragon with a spear. A small portion of the serpent’s scaled body is visible on the bottom left-hand corner of the fragment and the inclined posture of the archangel’s upper body is suggestive of a spear thrust.

As noted above, the dragon on the Moreton tympanum has a trefoil tail and its forelegs are obscured by a cluster of foliage. These foliate motifs are associated with the dragon alone and appear to have symbolic importance, perhaps representing the entangling forces of evil. A similar idea has been suggested for certain foliage designs on sculptures attributed to the Herefordshire School; for example, the scene of two sparring knights bound by tendrils on the font at Eardisley has been interpreted as a social commentary on the sinfulness of violence (Zarnecki et al.; Thurlby, 2013: 104, 195; Hamer, 1992: 273; Hunt, 2004: 212; Wood, 2012: 6).

Equally, the Moreton sculptor could have modelled his work on representations of St Michael in other media. A walrus ivory tau-cross head believed to have been made at Winchester between c. 1140 and c. 1150 features St Michael battling the dragon (Zarnecki et al., 1984: 223; V&A). The archangel is shown in half-profile with a pair of wings and holding a conical shield in his left hand. There is visible damage to his right arm and wing, but based on his posture it seems that he originally held a lance which he plunged into the dragon’s open mouth. Such ivory carvings are rare, although this piece raises the possibility that there were other portable sculptures of St Michael in the region which could have inspired the delicate forms and surface details seen on the Moreton sculpture.

These style comparions coupled with the available documentary evidence suggest that craftsmen could have been employed at Moreton Valence later than 1120, probably closer to the middle of the 12th century, and almost certainly before 1154.


J. J. G. Alexander, Norman Illumination at Mont St Michael 966–1100 (Oxford, 1970).

Anon., ‘Tau-cross head’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, online at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73082/tau-cross-head-unknown/.

W. W. Capes (ed.), Charters and Records of Hereford Cathedral, 840–1421 (Hereford, 1908).

K. Morgan and B. S. Smith, 'Moreton Valence: Church', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10, Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds, ed. C R Elrington et al. (London, 1972), pp. 208-215.

E. Hamer, Patronage and Iconography in Romanesque England: The Herefordshire School in Context (Unpublished PhD thesis, Chicago, 1992).

J. Hunt, ‘Sculpture, Dates and Patrons: Dating the Herefordshire School of Sculpture’, Antiquaries Journal, 84 (2004), pp. 185–222.

J. Hunt and M. A. Stokes, ‘Sculpture and Patronage in a Shropshire Manor: A Group of 12th-Century Sculptures from Alveley’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 150 (1997).

C. E. Keyser, ‘Notes on a Sculpted Tympanum at Kingswinford Church, Staffordshire, and Other Early Representations in England of St Michael the Archangel’, Archaeological Journal 62 (1905), pp. 137–46.

National Heritage List for England, Historic England, no. 1016767, online at http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1016767.

M. Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture (Logaston, 2013).

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

S. Wood, The Eardisley Font (Eardisley, 2012).

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

G. Zarnecki et al., English Romanesque Art 1066–1200 (London, 1984).