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Shobdon Arches, Shobdon, Herefordshire

(52°15′46″N, 2°52′39″W)
Shobdon Arches, Shobdon
SO 402 631
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Herefordshire
now Herefordshire
medieval Hereford
now Hereford
  • George Zarnecki
17 May 1989, 19/20 May 1993, 4 Nov 1994, 30 August 2001, 13 October 2007 (RB)

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Feature Sets

The Shobdon Arches are the remnants of the 12thc. church demolished in 1751, from which some features were saved and by March 1752 erected in Shobdon Park, about quarter of a mile N of the original site, and now known as the Shobdon Arches. The demolished church was replaced by an elegant Gothic-revival structure dedicated, as was its predecessor, to St John the Evangelist. This church houses the original 12thc. font. The Arches and the font are works of the so-called Herefordshire School of sculpture. The central feature of the Arches, which face due S, is a large arch, which was undoubtedly the chancel arch. This is flanked by two smaller arches, set somewhat to the back, and these were certainly doorways. They are joined to the central arch by diagonal walls with rectangular openings, above which are tympana, which originally must have been integral parts of the doorways. The gables above the arches, the pinnacles and other embellishments are 18thc. inventions in medieval style.

A general view of the church before its demolition was recorded in Britannia Illustrata, vol. 2, London 1715, pl. 64, and although not very accurate (the church tower, which still exists, is shown to the E of the nave instead of to the W), it depicts a large porch over the S doorway. In 1987 the Shobdon Arches Trust was formed under section 42 (3) of the Charities Act (Shobdon Arches Trust Charity no. 1046365) and as a result extensive work of consolidation of the Arches was carried out and completed in 1997. This work was entrusted to Richard K.Morris and Associates, Historic Buildings Consultants, whose booklet The Shobdon Arches contains much valuable information. In 1980 English Heritage commissioned Photogrammetric Cover of the monument.

It seems convenient to describe the Arches beginning with the central one, followed by the L and the R arch and then the L and the R tympana, and finally the pilasters flanking the side arches, made up of chevron jambstones. To avoid repetition, it should be stated here that all the bases and capitals had originally cable neckings, that all bases are bulbous-shaped and all capitals are block-shaped. All shafts, unless otherwise described, are monolithic.

All three arches are recessed. They are very weathered, some features are missing and one shaft (no.2) was stolen in 1982 and only two pieces of it were eventually recovered. They are now tastefully incorporated in their original position. In the description of the Arches an invaluable help is given by the lithographs published by G.R.Lewis in 1852 based on his drawings made eight years earlier and, to a lesser extent, by the engravings by L.I.G.Wood, made before 1805. The plaster “restorations” made for the Great Exhibitiion of 1851, which were photographed in 1933 before their destruction in the Crystal Palace fire in 1936, are rather misleading and of little help. More useful are some old photographs.

The numbering of the bases, the shafts and the capitals in the descriptions which follow, are those used by Zarnecki (1950) and accepted by Reid and Wray (1989), while the arches are given double numbers, referring to their supports and thus the arch above the shafts 1 and 6 bears the number 1. - 6. All plinths are work of 18thc. masons. This report was drafted by George Zarnecki and completed by Ron Baxter, who supplied the photographs.


In the Domesday Survey Shobddon is called Scepedune, and in the Hereford Domesday of 1160-70 it is called Sob(b)edon(a). Dūn in place names means hill

Since the foundation of Shobdon and its early history has been discussed elsewhere in some detail (see e.g. Zarnecki, 1994), it is here only briefly summarized. The chief source is the Wigmore Chronicle (Dickinson and Ricketts (1969) which states that Shobdon was the property of the de Mortimers, whose caput was Wigmore Castle. It was Hugh I de Mortimer who gave Shobdon to his steward Oliver de Merlimond who decided to replace the wooden chapel then existing at Shobdon by a stone structure. The Chronicle gives no dates but it can be deduced that while preparations were being made for the building of the church, de Merlimond went, c.1125, on a pilgrimage to Compostela and on the journey back home, was entertained by the canons of St Victor Abbey in Paris. On his return to Shobdon the church was completed and consecrated by the Bishop of Hereford, Robert de Bethune, c.1131-2. By c.1135 Shobdon became a priory of the Augustinian canons of the Order of St Victor, with three canons sent from Paris. In the troubled years of the civil war a quarrel broke out between Hugh de Mortimer and his steward as a result of which Oliver de Merlimond was deprived of Shobdon in 1143 and shortly afterwards the canons moved to various locations until eventually they settled near Wigmore where they built an abbey under the patronage of Hugh II de Mortimer. Thus Shobdon reverted to the status of a parish church until it was demolished in 1751. The two doorways and the chancel arch were saved and by March 1752 re-erected in Shobdon Park as a romantic ruin and have since been known as the Shobdon Arches. After a period of neglect Shobdon Arches Trust was formed in 1987, followed by the consolidation and restoration of the monument.


Exterior Features



The uncredited comments that follow are George Zarnecki’s, which have been included in this form as a tribute to his groundbreaking work at this site.

The lavish decoration of Shobdon suggests that from the beginning de Merlimond intended it to be a priory. We know nothing of Oliver’s background but it is possible that he was born at Merlimont near Boulogne or Merlemont near Florennes in what is today Belgium. In any case the fact that he was christened Oliver suggests that his father knew and enjoyed some Roland story as recited by the Troubadours along the pilgrim routes to Compostela. In this Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and his companion Oliver, retreating from a campaign against the Saracens in Spain, were ambushed in the Pyrenees and met a heroic death. It is thus possible that de Merlimond’s pilgrimage was a family tradition.

The recorded pilgrimage of the founder through France to Compostela provides a clue to some sources of the decoration which are to be found in Aquitaine (Zarnecki (1950)). However, there are other stylistic elements present in the sculpture of Shobdon, which originated elsewhere. The twisting bodies of snakes on the labels of both doorways (and even more strikingly on the doorway at Kilpeck, (q.v.) are without any doubt derived from the miniatures of the celebrated Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus, monk of Liebana in the Asturias, who lived in the 8thc. The miniatures include the city of Babylon framed by twisting bodies of serpents. The mid-11thc. copy of the Beatus was made at the abbey of St Sever in Gascony (now in Bibl. Nat. in Paris, Ms.Lat.8878) and it is likely that the Oliver de Merlimond’s party passed through St Sever and noted the striking miniatures of the Beatus book (Bord and Skubiszewski (2000)).

There were certainly at least two sculptors working in Shobdon, of which one can be identified as the "Aston Master", who carved the tympanum in St Giles at Aston (q.v.) and who also worked at Rock, Ribbesford and Chaddesley Corbett (all Worcs.), Stottesdon and Alveley (Salop). Shaft no. 4 at Shobdon is certainly by him as are many other features. He had some knowledge of N Italian sculpture but he also borrowed decorative motifs from the old Germanic sources (Zarnecki (1990)) which were in use in Britain throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and traces of which are found in Romanesque art not only in Herefordshire. The monumentality of the two tympana stands in sharp contrast to the decorative character of the shafts and arches. The striking feature of the two doorways is the use of the radiating voussoirs (also at Brinsop and Kilpeck), which demonstrate clearly the indebtedness of the design to Aquitaine.

Even in their dilapidated state the arches are very important as a very well-documented monument and one which gave rise to a vigorous regional school of sculpture.


Anon, The Churches of Shobdon and Their Builders, Hereford, 4th ed. 1973.

R. Baxter, ‘Whose Heritage? The Problem of Shobdon Arches’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 163 (2010), 154 – 176.

L-J. Bord and P. Skubiszewski, L’image de Babylone aux Serpents dans les Beatus, Paris 2000.

B. Coplestone-Crow, Herefordshire Place-Names, BAR British Series 214 1989, 180.

J. C. Dickinson and P. T. Ricketts (ed.), ‘The Anglo-Norman Chronicle of Wigmore Abbey’, Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, 39 (1969), 413-46.

F. Henry and G. Zarnecki, ‘Romanesque Arches decorated with Human and Animal Heads’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 20-21(1957-58), 1-34.

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

D.Kahn (ed.), The Romanesque Frieze and Its Spectator, London 1992.

J. F. King, ‘The Parish Church at Kilpeck Reassessed’, D. Whitehead (ed), Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Hereford (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XV), Leeds 1995, 82-93.

G. R. Lewis, The Ancient Church of Shobdon, London 1852.

R. K. Morris, ‘The Herefordshire School: Recent Discoveries’, in F. H. Thompson (ed), Studies in Medieval Sculpture, London 1983, 198-201.

I. Pfuell, A History of Shobdon, London 1994.

M. Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture. Logaston 1999, 71-86; 211-20.

G. Zarnecki, ‘Regional Schools of English Sculpture in the Twelfth Century: the Southern School and the Herefordshire School’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1950, 238-39.

G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210. London 1953.

G. Zarnecki, ‘Germanic Animal Motifs in Romanesque Sculpture’, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 11, No. 22 (1990), 189-203.

G. Zarnecki, ‘The Future of the Shobdon Arches’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 146 (1993), 87-92.

G. Zarnecki, ‘The Priory Church of Shobdon and its Founder’, in D. Buckton and T.A. Heslop (ed), Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture presented to Peter Lasko. Stroud 1994, 211-20.

G. Zarnecki, ‘La sculpture romane des “Marches Gauloises”’, M. Baylé (ed.), L’architecture normande au Moyen Age. Caen 1997, 91-109.

G. Zarnecki, ‘The Romanesque Font at Lenton’. J. S. Alexander (ed), Southwell and Nottinghamshire: Medieval Art, Architecture and Industry. British Association Conference Transactions XXI, Leeds 1998, 136-42.