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The Stone Beasts of Breedon-on-the-Hill

I mentioned the church at Breedon-on-the-Hill in my last post as it used to be commonly said that an effigy of the griffin of Griffydam was set into a wall there. The truth is that housed within this unique old church is probably the finest collection of Anglo-Saxon sculptures in England, among other things...so let's take a visit to the Priory Church of St Mary and St Hardulph now.


An Anglo-Saxon monastery was established here in 675, within an existing Iron Age hillfort and also very likely on top of an old pagan shrine. This monastery became an important religious centre and was thought to have been the resting place of at least four saints, including our St Hardulph. It is believed that this is the Romanised version of Eardwulf, and many historians have agreed that this was most likely Eardwulf the King of Northaumbria. He was deposed and fled from his kingdom and along the way is thought to have lived in the Anchor Caves in Derbyshire before making it to the continent and then Rome. He returned to England but died soon after, possibly while living as a monk, and is thought to have been canonised as St Hardulph and entombed at Breedon-on-the-Hill.


The stone carvings from that period here are simply incredible. Intricate knotwork, scrolling vines, strange beasts from fantasy all reside here next to mounted warriors and wise old priests. Some of the weird long-legged creatures are even biting each other. Perhaps the finest carving here is known as the “Breedon Angel”, thought to be the image of Gabriel and the oldest representation of an angel in Britain. A Mercian cross shaft is kept inside the church, minus it's holy head, and this stands next to a curious stone block with a very interesting image carved on one face. It appears to show a bearded man taking a drinking horn from...or passing the horn to...another man seated on a bench. What could it mean? I am not a biblical expert so no religious story springs to mind, and it has been conjectured that it may be something to do with “the Vikings”.


This brings us back to the church itself, as the area all around was terrorised by Danes with the monastery probably being trashed as well as the Great Heathen Army advanced. A century later the site was restored by a grant from Edgar the Peaceful then rebuilt in the Norman style after the Conquest, becoming an Augustinian priory. This larger, sprawling setup was too much for most to keep running and by time of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries it was already abandoned and dilapidated. A welathy local family, the Shirleys, made an offer on the old place to be repurposed as their private chapel and family burial site and so work began to restore the Priory Church of St Mary and St Hardulph to a state befitting its importance.


Today the dazzling alabaster memorials they had made for themselves can be seen by visitors, along with the monstrous private pew built for them after they agreed to allow the church to be used by the community. All the carvings from the old monastery were gathered up and set into the interior walls, quite randomly in some cases, so we have the Shirleys to thank for this at least.


Outside in the graveyard can be found the headstone of the resting place of John Johnson, the victim of the Earl Ferrers murder, something I'll be posting about soon.


With its dramatic clifftop setting this is a church with a striking look about it, and once up on the windswept plateau one can perhaps feel things as the early monks did when the wind really bites. As for the griffin, folklore maintains that this is what we have here, while others disagree as this fellow does lack the wings you'd expect of such a beast. In any case, this vitally important church is a must-see for anyone able to make the journey...or should that be pilgrimage?


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The Priory Church of St Mary and St Hardulph

Saintly images carved in stone

The "Angel of Breedon"

Intricate knotwork

Possibly an image of Mary

Fantastical beasts galore

An interesting juxtaposition - an Anglo-Saxon carving of mounted warriors over a later Medieval Green Man

Cats? Gazelles?

The beasts eat each other

The controversial "griffin"

Mercian cross shaft with other pieces

What do have we here? A bearded fellow taking a drinking horn from a seated person? What do you think is happening here?

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