Selections from



From chapter two - Mother church

The Green Man

    One very widespread and equivocal image to be found on and inside churches is the type of foliate head known as the green man. He comes in two forms: the earliest kind, the foliate mask, where the face itself is made up of leaves; and the green man proper, where he spews branches from his mouth (and sometimes eyes and nose). He certainly originated as a pagan woodland deity, but he was gradually taken over in the popular iconography of the Romanesque church. By the 13th century, he had become an image of the sin of luxuria (concupiscence or lust), his basic animal nature symbolised by the rampant and lush growth pouring from him. Later green men are often clearly in agony, torn apart by the writhing foliage bursting out of their mouths, but the early foliate masks are often enigmatically serene, and the superb mediaeval green man at Sutton Benger wears an expression of sorrowful patience.Hawthorn king: Sutton Benger's melancholy green man

    The earliest green men in Wiltshire are Norman. One is at Devizes St. John’s, on the capital of the pillar to the right of the sanctuary step, the other at Great Durnford. Besides the king of them all at Sutton Benger, you will find mediaeval green men at Mere (a misericord, and two small ones at either end of the chancel screen), and several among the roof-bosses in the cloisters at Lacock Abbey. Victorian green men are quite common: there are several on the outside of Sutton Benger church, another at the top of a water-pipe at Holt, and a fine grinning demon’s head in a bracer of the wooden ceiling in the north aisle of Edington Priory church. No doubt there are many more that I have yet to discover.

    Whatever the intentions of the Romanesque and mediaeval churchmen who commissioned carpenters and stonemasons to carve green men upon their churches, nowadays the green man has acquired a whole new suite of meanings. He is ‘the symbol of our oneness with the earth’, a powerful ecological ‘green’ image; he is a ‘fertility figure’, in parallel to the Sheelas we have already met; he is Robin Hood, the Jack-in-the-Green, the May King and a dozen other figures from English folklore. And Pagans today have woven him into their beliefs as an aspect of the woodland god, Herne, Cernunos, or Pan. I wear a modern pendant showing a foliate oak mask with tree-branch antlers, fringed with acorns arranged like knuckles: the green man as oak king and horned god of the woodlands. The green man is the most successful of symbols, reinterpreted and reinvented from the early centuries BC down to the 21st century, sometimes revered as god or nature spirit, sometimes reviled as an image of base lusts, but always present, always surviving, always reinterpreted in the architectural language of the time.



From chapter three - Echoes of war

Egbert’s Stone

The location of Egbert’s Stone, where Alfred gathered his army before the battle of Ethandun, has been a subject of debate for many years. There are several possible locations, but clear evidence is very slight, and the conclusions drawn by historians are really only based on calculated guesswork. Wiltshire folklore indicates two sets of sarsen stones which are in the right general area and which might be Egbert’s Stone. The first is the boundary stone (ST773312), which was traditionally set up by Egbert at the side of the river Stour where the borders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset meet. The place where three roads or boundaries meet is a powerful place in folklore, and this might indeed be a favoured location for a meeting-place.

'Egbert's Stones' at Kingston DeverillThe other place is at Kingston Deverill, where some sad-looking sarsen stones are propped together in an enclosure near the church. We are told in Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine that in 1877 "certain large stones were examined: they are called ‘Egbert’s Stones’ or ‘King’s Stones’ and are spoken of by the Saxon Chroniclers; they were brought by a farmer from King’s Court Hill, where King Egbert is traditionally said to have held court…" By the time Maud Cunnington examined the stones in the 1920s, the folklore had become a little more general, and the saying was simply that the stones on the hill had been the meeting-place of kings. In this case we are probably seeing an instance of misinterpretation of the place-name Kingston, which means not the ‘King’s Stone’ but the ‘King’s enclosure of land’. On the other hand, ancient sites, stones and barrows and hillforts, have been used as meeting-places down the centuries, and misinterpretation of a site’s place-name does not preclude use of that site as a meeting-place.



From chapter five - Uninvited guests

Abbey ghosts

Malmesbury Abbey, haunt of monks and music    One very typical type of ghost is the phantom monk or nun. These are very widespread, perhaps because some ghost sightings report vague, misty or smoky figures, whose shape suggests flowing robes of neutral colours. Not surprisingly, ghostly monks and nuns tend to be seen around churches or monastic ruins… At Malmesbury, music has been heard in the ancient abbey. "On summer evenings, too, one can often see a group of people standing at the back of the abbey listening for the ghostly playing of an organ which it is said can at such times be heard. Some of them even described to me the music – thin, reedy sounds faint on the evening air." In the churchyard a ghostly monk has been seen, at dawn, searching intently among the gravestones. He seems in the end to find whatever he is looking for, for he throws up his hands in apparent joy, and sinks into the ground.





From chapter six - Black dogs, big cats and other beasts

The traitor dog

    South of Upton Lovell where Water Street crosses the river Wylye stands Suffers Bridge (ST942401). The village name is derived from William Lovell, who held the manor in 1428. The village and bridge names are linked in a tale that once again seems carefully constructed to explain them: -

Horse chestnuts shroud Suffers Bridge     The story is that Lord Lovel, being besieged in his Castle, escaped into Boyton Woods, and from thence into the river, where he hid himself under a bridge. His pursuers sought him everywhere in vain; at last they let loose his favourite dog, who went straight to the spot and stood there whining, and so betrayed his retreat; he was dragged out and carried away prisoner, and that is why the place is called Sufferers’ Bridge.







text Katy Jordan, 2000 | images Richard Pederick, 2000