THE FONT, ST MARY MAGDALENE, EARDISLEY

EARDISLEY is a village in west Herefordshire. The font in the church is remarkable not least for having survived the depredations of Puritans, museum curators and thieving gentry. Best guess as to its age is early 12th century. It is probably made of sandstone.

Similar work can be seen in several other places in Herefordshire - Canon Frome, Shobdon, and most notably Kilpeck. The style appears to be something of a local speciality, nothing like it occurring elsewhere in Britain. That said, there are stylistic elements which are found in Anglo-Saxon crosses, Celtic and Pictish ornament and other European carving e.g. at Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Parthenay-le-Vieux 200 miles south-east of Paris.


The subject matter depicted is not entirely clear. Generally the theme seems to be the struggle between good and evil exemplified by Christ's saving an imperilled soul - depicted wearing short trousers but apparently not a child as bearded! Christ is possibly being assisted in plucking the mortal from the coils of evil destiny by the Holy Ghost represented by the somewhat ambivalent dove-like bird that looks more than a little hawkish. The lion (possibly the immediate source of danger?) is, like the dove, ambiguous. Lions were generally considered bad news - after all, they eat people and had been nourished by fresh Christians on many a gladiatorial occasion. But they were also sometimes good, representing St Mark, Christ, the Lion of Judah etc. Your mediaeval lion connoisseur was generally in no doubt as to which was which. Good lions were able to sleep with their eyes open, whereas bad lions could not. This lion has one eye open and one shut and would therefore appear goodish. Or baddish.


Also shown are two fighting men, who seem extraneous to the Harrowing of Hell theme - if such it be. One possible explanation is that they represent the fight which took place at Whitecross between Ralph Baskerville, the then Lord of the Manor of Eardisley and his father in law, Lord Drogo of Clifford. Their quarrel may have been over a dowry. In any event Lord Drogo died of his wounds. Ralph saw the light and eventually became a monk. One suggestion is that the font may have been commissioned by him in part atonement as a gift to the church, which also relieved him of large chunks of his more readily negotiable wealth. Tactically my money is on the swordsman to win, but he is more girt about by the coils of destiny than the spearman, so who knows?


Having come across this page David Gorvett, who styles himself “erstwhile chronicler of Eardisley” offered the following;

I understood that in this case the Lion is Old Nick himself. Ecclesiastes says “The devil goeth about the world like a lion seeking whom he may devour.” As you diplomatically suggest, the link with Ralph Baskerville is circumstantial but there are other pieces of evidence - eg. Vatican Library - which record Ralph's visit to Rome in penance which then included the donation of parts of his lands to the founding of Gloucester Abbey where he ended his days as a monk.

The masons, who very probably made the font, were members of a group who have become known as the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture. They were much more than masons with an artistic flair; they were revolutionary (in a political sense) too. Within what they could get away with in a strongly feudal system they left all sorts of challenging statements in their work - but that's a cause of argument with those who seem to believe that mediaeval man never soiled his mind with ‘politics’!

© Duncan Linklater, 2017

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