Eardisley Church, Whitney-on-Wye and Winforton
PUBLISHED: 15:29 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013
The church font at Eardisley has many a tale to tell. Martin Griffiths reveals its secrets.
There is an ancient font to be found in the Norman Church of St Mary Magdalene, Eardisley, which tells a story of
family feuds, deadly duels and a quest for personal redemption. The font dates from the 12th century and is one of the most extraordinary examples of carving from what is generally known as the Herefordshire School of Romanesque carving.
The story, tells us something of the dramatic life of Ralph de Baskerville and his struggle for redemption following a
deadly duel fought with his father-inlaw, Lord Drogo of Clifford, just outside Hereford in 1127.
The Baskerville family had arrived in England in 1066 with the Norman Conquest and were lords of the manor for 500 years. (The remains of their castle are sited just behind the church and the gravestone of Sir Humphrey Baskerville who died in 1647 can still be found in the church vestry).
In 1127 however, a land dispute, possibly involving a dowry quarrel, resulted in the duel, which saw Lord Drogo killed. Ralph now sought a pardon from Pope Innocent 2nd and in return for forgiveness and a chance of heavenly
reward in the afterlife he gave the Church copious amounts of lands and rents. He was also required to give land to the Drogo family in recompense of the killing. Ralph's own life also changed dramatically after the duel and he was
eventually to become a monk at Gloucester.
The pictures carved so dramatically and elaborately into the font can be seen as a permanent statement of the events, which changed Ralph's life and how, with the help of the payments to the Church, he looked for forgiveness
through God and Christ.
The iconography of the font, which can be also seen at Kilpeck and Castle Frome churches, is a blend of Celtic,
Saxon and Anglo-Norman influences. There is intricate, tightly woven latticework around the foot and rim of the font and the bowl is divided into three major, interwoven parts.
Each part tells a chapter of the Ralph Baskerville story. The two men engaged in armed combat represent the duel between Ralph and Lord Drogo. The two fighting knights are dressed in tightly fitting ribbed tunics and wear pointed helmets. One has a sword raised above his head while the other is thrusting his spear into his opponent's thigh. The evil forces of the entwining stems catch both figures. There is also a carved lion on the bowl and in this case it is thought to represent the power of evil.
As found in the letter of Saint Peter. Chapter 5 verse 8, 'your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.' This lion is entangled in the stems of evil so probably adds weight to
the idea that it represents Ralph being saved from the lion and therefore evil.
There are three other figures on the font and they are that of God holding a book and Christ who is dragging a much
smaller figure diagonally towards God and the cross. On Christ's shoulder sits a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. This gives us a representation of the Holy Trinity, which has long associations with baptism and also shows Christ rescuing a figure from hell.
This figure could be a reference to Adam but the rescued figure is wearing a knight's trousers as opposed to being naked as is usual with Adam so is thought to be a ontemporary reference to Ralph being rescued from hell by Christ. The chalice shape of the font fits in with the idea of the cleansing of sins through baptism combined with the Eucharist.
The font is one of many spectacular carved pieces of the period but also has some unique features. The theme represented on the font is often referred to as 'The arrowing of hell' and was a popular piece of symbolism in the Middle Ages.
It represents the struggle of the individual soul against the power of evil and the saving power of Christ. It certainly seems that following the feud and the duel Ralph decided that his life should take a different path, which he hoped would lead to his eternal salvation. The font at Eardisley is an extraordinary representation of this, the second duel in
his life - trying to save his soul from damnation!
Acknowledgements: The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture. Malcolm Thurlby and Eardisley Church brochures.