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Hello. I am Dr Marianne Ailes of the University of Bristol and I want to introduce you to the extraordinary and spectacular wall paintings at All Saints’ Church, Claverley, in Shropshire, England. You can use this as a guide to help you to understand the paintings either on a visit to the church, or to whet your appetite and perhaps encourage you to head into rural Shropshire. You will not be disappointed.
As you approach the church from the south, notice the Old Vicarage, a late medieval timber-framed building to the left.
From the outside the tower dominates the view. The lower part reveals the Norman (twelfth-century) origins of the church. You may want to walk round the outside of the church to get a sense of its dimensions and layout, before you go in. The entrance is just to the left of the tower.
When you enter the church, you are immediately struck by its most remarkable feature: a 15-metre frieze of knights fighting each other along the north aisle wall just above the round Norman pillars. This was once part of a very extensive programme of wall paintings. The frieze has stylised trees and a decorative border, recalling the Bayeux Tapestry, the famous 11th-century embroidery which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Further images fill the spandrels (the masonry between the arches) below. The main frieze and the images below it date from the early 13th century. The upper level is a 15th-century addition to the church.
This depiction of fighting knights on the wall of a parish church is unique in Britain. A few, indeed very few, such apparently secular subjects appear in church paintings elsewhere in Europe. The Claverley paintings are special in their scale and in their survival in situ, in a parish church, one that is still used as a place of worship. There is no consensus about exactly what the paintings represent, or whether they should be read from left to right or right to left. There are, however, some clear allusions in the paintings which might explain why they are here.
When first discovered during renovations in 1902, it was thought the narrative scenes might depict a real battle; perhaps the battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which I mentioned earlier.
A favoured interpretation for much of the 20th century was that the wall paintings represented the battle between the Vices and Virtues. In the 5th-century poem Psychomachia, which was very popular during the Middle Ages, seven Virtues battle against seven Vices. Is the apparently gigantic figure, falling dramatically upside down from his saddle, the Vice, Pride, brought down by the Virtue, Humility? Unfortunately, the wall paintings do not depict seven knights on each side and it is not clear which knights are meant to be Virtues and which Vices. But even if it is not a representation of the poem, this does not mean that it could not have been read by the medieval worshippers as representing a battle between Good and Evil. Some of the narrative allusions we find in the frieze would fit such a didactic reading.
It has also been suggested that the knightly figures are milites Christi or ‘knights of Christ’. This is an important consideration since, at the time the paintings were made, people were familiar with the allegorical idea of ‘Christian soldiers’ putting on the armour of God, an image found in the New Testament Book of Ephesians, and also with actual fighting ‘knights of Christ’, warriors going to the Holy Land on Crusade.
The warrior with an eagle on his shield could represent an emperor. It could be Constantine the Great who, in the 4th century, declared religious tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, whose recapture of Jerusalem in 630 was integrated into a popular crusade narrative. Or the knight might be Charlemagne, the 8th-century Frankish emperor who ruled over much of Western Europe. Myths and legends of Charlemagne were widespread and associated him with crusading activity, particularly in Spain. It may be that different people would have seen different allusions in these images even in the Middle Ages. Heraldry itself, the use of identifying emblems on a shield, did not exist at the time of any of these emperors, but in the early thirteenth century it would have been unthinkable for any nobleman, let alone an emperor, not to have a coat of arms. The simple cross on the shield of the knight behind the supposed emperor may similarly recall crusading warfare.
Other aspects of the frieze again might recall Charlemagne’s wars in Spain. Legends developed around these conflicts, transforming Charlemagne’s wars in Spain into crusading warfare, although they took place some 300 years before the First Crusade was called in November 1095. In the year 778 Charlemagne was returning across the Pyrenees mountains when the rear guard of his army was attacked and massacred by what were probably Basques. By the 12th century this had been transformed into an attack by ‘Saracens’ or Muslims. This myth spread through a popular French epic poem called La Chanson de Roland, the Song of Roland.
The allusions on the walls of Claverley church, however, very probably recall another version of the Roland legend. This was described in the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, which circulated across Europe in several languages. It was known in early 13th-century England in both Latin and French, and had recently been translated into Anglo-Norman, the form of French then spoken in England. According to this account one night, when on campaign in Spain, Charlemagne’s men prepared for battle. They put the shafts of their weapons, spears or lances, into the ground. In the morning some of these lances had burst into flower. These special lances belonged to the warriors who would be martyred that day. When the rear guard, which was led by Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, was attacked, Roland refused to blow his horn to call for help until his men had given their all, by which time there was no possibility of help coming before they were killed.
While the images fit this narrative, the presence of such allusions poses questions. Who among the worshippers at this small parish church would have known the story, especially as it was then circulating in Latin and French, and not in English?
The frieze is only part of a larger scheme. An article published by artist Christopher Barrett in The Antiquaries Journal in 2012 suggests that the scheme as a whole tells the Legend of the Holy Cross. If you are standing in the church, turn your back on the fighting knights and look at the south wall.
The tree here resembles the flowering lance or spear on the frieze, but differs from it in not having a pointed head like the one on the north wall; it is probably therefore a stylised tree. There also appears to be a serpent coiling itself around the tree trunk which may recall the story of the Devil in the form of a serpent who tempts the first man and woman in the Bible, Adam and Eve, and Man’s subsequent Fall from Paradise. An angel stands to the left of the tree – perhaps the angel who guarded Paradise after the Fall. Barrett suggests this could be the beginning of the Legend of the Holy Cross, recounted in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, where Adams’ son, Seth, was sent to the gates of Paradise to ask God for some of the oil of the Tree of Mercy (Life) with which to anoint his dying father. The archangel Michael refused but instead gave Seth a branch of the Tree; this grew into another tree, the wood from which was supposedly used to make the Holy Cross on which Christ was crucified. Above the arch, to the right of the organ pipes, you can just make out another figure with an angel.
The arch in front of the chancel (containing the altar) shows traces of further painting, usually thought to be a Doomsday, a painting of Christ in Judgement on the Last Day, but it is impossible to make this out.
It is also worth looking for the exceptionally large consecration crosses on the west wall. Such crosses were often added to medieval churches when a building was re-consecrated following new construction or major alteration.
Turning back to the north wall with its frieze of knights it is worth noting that the two early emperors, possibly represented by the warriors carrying an eagle shield, were once specifically associated with the Holy Cross. Constantine’s mother, Helena was reputed to have found the True Cross, and Heraclius returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. In 1187 at the battle of Hattin, the forces of the Muslim leader, Saladin, had taken a relic of the True Cross from the Christian army, before going on to take, among other Christian strongholds, the Holy City of Jerusalem; this had provoked the Third Crusade. Both the north and south walls might, therefore, recall the crusades as well as the allegorical battle between Good and Evil. In fact, the crusades were sometimes portrayed in the literature of the day as emblematic of the conflict between Good and Evil.
At this point you may be wondering why these pictures were painted in a Shropshire parish church? Claverley was no ordinary parish church in that it belonged to the royal college of St Mary Magdalene in nearby Bridgnorth. The castle at Bridgnorth was an important royal stronghold and the home of the king’s local representative, the sheriff of Shropshire. Paintings such as these, evoking a crusading ideology, could have served as an encouragement for recruiting crusaders and raising financial support. Henry II had ordered chests to be installed in all churches to collect taxes to pay for the crusade; this injunction was reinforced when Pope Innocent III issued a similar edict across Christendom in 1199.
Now let us look at the images below the frieze in the spaces between the arches. David Parks of the Courtauld Institute in London has argued that these tell the story St Margaret of Antioch. Margaret refused to marry or disavow her new faith of Christianity. Her various tortures included being swallowed by a dragon and escaping when the cross she carried tore at the insides of the dragon. In one image she does appear to be emerging from the inside of a dragon while angels look on; she is wearing what appears now to be a grey gown, but would originally have been dazzling white lead. Another more damaged image clearly shows a hand holding a cross.
Along with the apparent allusions to Charlemagne’s doomed rear guard already mentioned we can see here a uniting theme of martyrdom, no doubt intended as an inspiration to the worshippers in the church congregation below.
When the upper story, the clerestory, was added to the church in the 15th century the tradition of wall painting at Claverley was continued. If you look up you can see paintings of pairs of saints or apostles which are more typical in a medieval church.
Looking down again below the impressive frieze, more painting can be found on the early Norman columns. The traces of a bearded saint or angel probably date from later in the 13th century. On the columns themselves can be found traces of painted masonry patterns intended to look like dressed stone; this was to make the building look more impressive.
So far, I have given you a guide to just the wall paintings at Claverley. However, it is important to consider these in the larger context of this beautiful parish church so make sure that you also look at the late medieval monuments and appreciate the delicate tracery of the windows and two fonts. One is thought to be Anglo-Saxon, the other Norman, or possibly an older font remodelled for Norman tastes.
You may want to read more about Claverley or about medieval wall paintings.
This guide is an outcome of the Leverhulme funded ‘Charlemagne A European Icon’ project based at the University of Bristol.