The church of St Mary Magdalene in Winterbourne Monkton lies near the famous village and henge of Avebury. Monkton has religious connections going back to 928AD and was owned by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. This can be seen reflected in the village’s name of “Monkton”
There is a figure on the font in the church which has been referred to as sheela by the folklorist Ivan Bunn in his list of UK sheelas. At the time of writing his website now appears to be offline.
The font in the church is thought to date from the 12th century which would put it in the right period for sheela carvings. The figure however has no clearly defined gentials and has a number of other features which do not fit in neatly with it being a sheela. The head has no visible facial features the face itself being a scooped out hollow. The head also appears to have three horns or possibly a crown. There is a “bra” like structure on the chest which could indicate breasts. The arms of the figure are very odd, as you face the figure the arm on the left terminates in what appears to be a bird head while the right arm dissolves into a curl below the elbow (foliage perhaps?).The figure is splay legged with “something” appearing to emanate from the groin. This has been interpreted as foliage but as you can see from the photo on the left this “foliage” still retains some of the medieval red/orange paint. One of the ribs of the font has a definite bulge on it which looks to be deliberate and is missing from the rest of the ribs. (see below left)
The figure is one of the more puzzling figures I’ve come across and I’m not aware of any other figure quite like it. It seems to be more abstract than most medieval figures. It lacks the defined genitals which would definitely make this figure a sheela. Nevertheless it is an interesting and unique figure.
Thanks go to Carl Grigg for the photographs.
Close-up of the head showing the “horns” and scooped out face
It was Margaret Murray (1934) who first thought the figure located in St Peter’s Torksey was a Sheela na Gig, as a result, Andersen accepted this on her authority. In her account ‘Female Fertility Figures’ Murray writes:
‘At Torksey, in Lincolnshire, the figure is so worn and battered, although it is inside the church, that it is impossible to say whether the breasts were originally represented; the pose of the arms, however, leaves no doubt that this also is a Sheila-na-gig, though possibly of a late type’.
From Roman to medieval times Torksey was a very busy port set on a canal 80 miles from the sea, and much larger than Nottingham was at the time. But by the late 14th century the area started to decline but not before a small Cistercian Nunnery, and a Priory were set up. It seems St Peters was one of three churches, and served as a chapel to the Priory just to the east of the present church. Of these constructions nothing now remains, but it seems reasonable to assume the figure was formally located in the Priory buildings, and later moved inside the present church. St Peter’s Church was rebuilt during 1821-22 when the figure was probably painted with whitewash. According to Mr Burgess the Church Warden with was done by Victorian attitudes towards Pagan subjects. But it was during the restorations the vicar of the day insisted on putting the figure on display in the nave.
The figure is located inside the church, about 3 to 4 meters up on the west corner of the south wall, and measures roughly 60cm high by 22cm wide, and is framed in an arch. The whitewash is so thick, a lot of the original features are difficult to make out. However she seems to have two ‘pecked’ eyes, a gaping mouth, with a short stubby nose, and from the shape of her head may indicate some hair. The arms which seem to gesture towards her lower abdomen are mis-shaped, and her upper left arm seems to be missing. She is standing, although you may be forgiven for thinking she is seated. Although not clearly represented the genitals, or rather lack of them suggest she is female. Although the genitals of the figure are not evident, Andersen claims:
‘Like a few figures Torksey, for instance this Sheela is a standing figure with arms and hands down the sides of the body. There is no gesture towards the genitals, but these are very clearly marked, and sagging belly and genitals repeat an ugly feature of many Irish Sheelas.’
In her book ‘Explore Green Men’, published in 2003, Mercia MacDermot reported the presence of a ‘Sheela’ and a phallic male on the gatehouse of Tickhill Castle, just a few kilometers west of Austerfield. The castle located 9km south of Doncaster, is on private land which is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster who have refused access to the public for a number of years. Although blocked by a large wooden gate the medieval gatehouse and its carvings can be clearly seen from Castlegate Road. Viewing is difficult during the summer months due to dense tree foliage.
The castle at Tickhill was built by Roger de Busli (alternate spellings abound and include Busili, Buslim,Buslin, Buesli and more commonly Bully) from the land given to him by William I for his assistance in the invasion of 1066. Roger de Busli was a major landholder in the Domesday book holding 174 estates in Nottinghamshire. His seat of power was at Blythe but Tickhill was his main castle. Originally, a Motte and Bailey the castle was added to throughout the years, culminating in the 17th century Manor House. The curtain wall, and gatehouse was constructed during early 12th century (1129-30?), and the barbican added in the 13th century.
The gatehouse is decorated with four pediments inlaid with small crude statuettes and slabs. The carvings are considered of late 11th or early 12th century ornamentation. There are five human figures amongst the decorations but of the two are of particular interest.
To the right is a rather squat figure which could be MacDermot’s suggested Sheela, where both arms held down the trunk, come to rest at the lower abdominal area. Two short legs are held straight, and at an angle of the body. Although an outline of a head is just evident, no features can be seen.
The figure to the left is more complex, and could be male or female. It has a long slender body, its large head contains a broad nose, and the position of the two nares is evident, as are two small eyes. Two arms are held close two the body and come to rest, cupping the genital area, where fingers are clearly discernible. If a female, the pudenda consists of a circular hole, and like the Church Stretton figure seems to contain a stone. The rather large pelvic area, which may suggest the figure is female, is supported by two short legs. If the figure is male, the large pelvic area becomes the figure’s hands (a little too large when compared to the size of the figures arms however). In effect the large hands are holding the base of the penis. The hole may be a socket where a penis was inserted. Both figures are rather worn, and it is difficult to be certain.
Although fairly common in Ireland, secular/castle Sheelas are very scarce on the British mainland. The only known other known example can be found in Haddon Hall. However while sheelas on castles may be rare in Britain sheelas associated with castles are more common. Kilpeck, Devizes, Holdgate and the possible sheela figure at Bredwardine are all castle churches and are intimately connected with their accompanying castles often forming part of the castle complex.
Interestingly a definite sheela na gig lies around 5 miles to west in the village of Austerfield in church built by another member of the Bully family, John de Bully. This figure, dating from around the same period as the gatehouse, adds weight to the likelyhood of these worn figures being exhibitionist with local sculptors being familiar with the exhibitionist motif. Like Kilpeck and Holdgate these castles were the main castles for their lords and all are connected with sheela na gig carvings. Tickhill is another example where we have (possible) exhibitionist figures associated with the main castle of a powerful local Norman lord. It seems that sheelas and status are connected in some way (this idea is currently being explored by Dr Theresa Oakley).
Text John Harding and Keith Jones
Photographs copyright Keith Jones
Other worn figures on the castle the last with some facial features still evident
Abstract corbels, an astrological tympanum, St Michael slaying the dragon and host of other architectural features make Stoke Sub Hamdon a veritable feast of medieval carving.
The church has been added to many time over the centuries resulting in a many different features from different times. The church is thought to have been originally built in 1100 the first version of the church not having a tower. This figure and a later nude figure on the church is discussed in the paper Two Sheila-na-gigs at Stoke Sub Hamdon by Paul Ashdown in Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 1993.
The figure can be found on the left side of the church as you enter from the main gate. Walk past the tower and you should find a series of Romanesque corbels. The picture below indicates the exact position.
At first glance the figure is unremarkable just a face staring out from a squatting body. However when you go directly beneath the figure you can clearly see a cleft indicating either buttocks or a vagina. Unfortunately it is hard to from the carving which it is meant to be. There also seems to be some indication of hands pulling a the cleft apart but this not clear. While the figure is undoubtedly exhibitionist is it a sheela? Well it has all the characteristics of a sheela except for the fact that it’s exhibitionist nature is not immediately obvious. It is not as “in your face” as the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas and has less of an impact. In fact you have to go out of your way to discover that the figure is indeed exhibitionist at all. The same goes for the later figure on the rear of the church (see below) mentioned in Paul Ashdown’s paper.
This later figure (right) can be found on the rear of the church high up on the back wall. It consists of a nude figure with it’s mouth wide open which is blocked by a piece of rubble. The figure is missing the right hand limbs but gestures to the vulva with it’s left hand. The vulva is not immediately obvious and it was only due to the fact that we had read John Ashdown’s paper that we noticed it. In fact both myself and Keith Jones missed this figure on several separate visits despite the fact we were looking for figures of this type. The figure appears to have been moved from elsewhere and looks like the type of gargoyle figure you see adorning later medieval church towers. If this is the case then the figure would have faced head outwards with the feet on the tower while a channel would have been set to make waste water emerge from the mouth. If this description holds true then the vulva would have been facing the church and would not have been immediately obvious. There is also some indication that the vulva may have been carved at a later date than the main figure as it appears to be out of line with the main body. If you look at the photograph above you can see that if you draw a vertical line through the vulva it points to beyond the figure’s left shoulder rather than straight up to the head.
Once again we are faced with the question of the definition of a Sheela na gig. This figure lacks the overt exhibitionism of the Kilpeck and Oaksey figures in much the same way as the earlier Romanesque corbel on the other side of the church. Nevertheless it is displaying it’s vulva (if not in an immediately shocking way) This and the fact that stylistically it appears to much later than the usual Romanesque period, makes it one of the latest vulva displaying figures in the UK.
The rest of the church is very interesting with many different carvings dotted around it. There are some corbels which very abstract in design and would not look out of place in an Escher drawing. In addition to these some carvings (see below) are very odd defying a simple explanation of what they are meant to represent.
Tympanum over the main door to the church containing the astrological symbols of Saggitarius and Leo.
Interestingly the Sagitarius/Leo motif is duplicated on the font at Hook Norton including the explicit naming of the figures with inscriptions.
Mr. Martin Stevens found this carving in the garden of his house. It combines both male and female organs in the same carving. I’ve not seen anything else like this but would be happy to hear from anyone who knows of a similar figure. Unfortunately there is absolutely no indication of how old the figure is or where it originated. No other remains were found in the garden and while the building is old it there is no history that would give any clue to it’s origin. Mr Stevens has taken it to various museums and while they have expressed a mild interest there has not been much information forthcoming. When Mr Stevens found the carving it was fairly clean the patination you see is a result of it being stored in his garage.
This figure is in private possession and is not viewable.
The ruined chapel at Kilvickeon, dedicated to Ernan, son of Eoghan nephew of St. Columba, near Scoor on the Ross of Mull is thought to date from the late 12th or early 13th centuries. This places it just in the time period when most UK mainland sheelas seem to have been carved. If this figure is a sheela then it would be a fairly late example. The figure is embedded eight-feet above the ground on the east wall of the church The figure is about 16 inches high and around 4 inches wide at the bottom. The remains of the head extend forward several inches giving the figure a feeling of depth. The right side of the head appears to be missing. What appear to be the weathered remains of arms reach forward to a hold an shallow oval depression on the front of the figure.
Is this a sheela na gig?
Once again we have a very worn figure which is very hard to interpret due to the weathering. However the oval depression held open by the vestigial arms and the seemingly hunched shoulders do indicate that the figure may have once been an exhibitionist. However in it’s current state it is impossible to state with any certainty that it was orginally a sheela na gig but it does have more going for it than a lot of other worn figures.
My thanks go to Marc Calhoun for supplying the above information and the pictures of this less well known and remote figure.
This figure is located in the ruined church at Kildonan on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced Egg) in Scotland. The church is named after St Donan a contemporary of St Columba. St Donan was martyred in his monastery on Eigg either by Viking raiders or the local queen in 617 or 618. His death was either by beheading or fire depening on which account you read. The church which currently houses the alleged sheela sculpture is thought to be a 16th century construction but there is evidence of earlier religious settlement in four cross slabs which date from the early medieval period. Records also list a religous settlement here in 725 so it would seem that the monastery continued after St Donan’s death.
Is this a sheela na gig?
According to the plaque on the wall of the ruined church it is a sheela and also according to the book “Eigg The Story of an Island” by Camille Dressler (Polygon, Edinburgh 1998) where Ms Dressler titles it a “Carving of the sheela na gig, an aspect of the Celtic mother goddess”. Unfortunately as you can see on the exceptionally clear photograph by Sarah Price on the right, there is little evidence of a vulva on display. In fact the sculpture seems more to be “hands in lap” than exhibitionist. The raised area either side of the head seems to suggest wings or possibly a pillow. In fact if you take the head on its own then the figure becomes more like the winged angels heads you see on 18th century tombstones. The overall shape of the sculpture is also suggestive of a tombstone. The lower part of the slab is damaged and while there is a depression it is distinctly un-vulva like and seems to be more case of damage due to weathering. In its favour the site of the church seems to have been in use throughout the period when most sheelas were carved and there are also the figures on Rodel and Iona which also would lend weight to this figure possibly being a sheela. However like this figure on Eigg neither of these figures is unequivocally a sheela na gig. So taking into account all the evidence it would seem the definition contains a fair amount of wishful thinking.
Thanks go to Sarah Price for the photograph and the information on the plaque.
This figure is reported in Images of Lust as being a possible Beakhead sheela unfortunately it is covered in a thick layer of whitewash which makes identification and study of the figure difficult. When Keith visited the church the vicar informed him that the whitewash was due to be removed at some time in the near future. It would be interesting to see what type of figure would be revealed. I hope to have more information on this figure when I visit it in person.
History and other figures
Although this figure is covered we can make some inferences about it’s likelihood of of being a sheela na gig. The carving the rest of the church appears to be Romanesque so we are at least in the right period for an exhibitionist figure.
Other whitewashed figures in the church.
There are some very good pictures of the carvings at this website below
The church of St Helen’s, Bilton in Ainsty is situated on the B1224 York to Wetherby road. Although the church dates from Saxon times, it was considerably altered under Norman influence.
As you enter to church through the porch walk over to the vestry in the top right hand corner. The twin sheelas are situated corbel table, near the eastern wall. Formerly both corbel tables in the vestry, and Lady Chapel. were on the outside wall prior to the extension of the church in 1869.
The sheela nearest to the east wall has very broad shoulders, and haunches. Although it is claimed by Roberts ‘with her arms held on her abdomen’, her hands holds the lower part of the genitalia, which broadly occupy her trunk up to her neck.. The other is said to be ‘badly damaged hacked at, presumably because, the right arm and the hand held beneath it suggest a very patient posture.’ Although the head and shoulders are reasonably well defined, the damage to the lower half of the sculpture is so bad, it is difficult to determine any features. There are several very interesting carvings found inside the church including a Saxon Cross, various corbels including monsters, and a mermaid stresses puller.
The church is kept locked, although a key is available from the Old Vicarage, Bilton.
This carving gets a passing mention in the book Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District being listed as one of the sheelas in Derbyshire. It is situated on the old chapel in the village of Alderwasley near Wirksworth. The chapel is a small building next to a church yard and is now being used as the village hall after a number of years lying derelict. The chapel is small, distinctly un-church like and dates from 16th century. It used to be the personal chapel of the Hurt family whose old alabaster coat of arms can still been on the front of the building where it hangs above the main door. The building is supposed to be haunted and some of the carvings on the building are quite eerie. (see the head carving below). David Clarke in his book Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District states that the carvings on the chapel are taken from an older building which used be at the site. However I can find no mention of a church or chapel on site the before this one (if anyone knows differently please get in touch). There is some evidence to suggest that the materials used to build the chapel have been robbed from another larger building. The stone on which the alleged sheela resides is very large for a building of this size with an even larger stone directly below it. It seems unlikely that the stones were cut to such a large size for a building as small as this chapel. There is a cemetery to the left of the chapel.
The chapel itself is mostly made up of a red sandstone with inserts of a much lighter grey stone There are a number of carved items set in a line into the front wall These are :
A malevolent looking stone head,
A decorated shield,
A foliate pattern
a plain protruding stone
Flanking the main door there are two worn heads both of which appear to be wearing hats
All of these items seem to be carved from a darker stone than the stone which the chapel is made of.
The main door to the chapel is surmounted by a decorated lintel which appears to be 16th century.
Is this a sheela na gig?
The carving is very weathered and and it is hard to determine whether it is a sheela or not. There is a cleft at the bottom of the carving and there seem to be hunched up knees and folded arms. The face is very weathered but you can still make out eyes and a mouth. The mouth seems similar to the Holdgate Sheela in that the lips are joined but again this is hard to know for certain due to the weathering. The date of the chapel would count against this being a sheela as it is far later than the usual Romanesque period. However if the stones of the chapel are taken from an earlier building then we may be able to discount this. Saying that I have yet to find any records of a Norman church or chapel at this site. The position of the figure on a quoin stone is similar to figures found in Ireland but is fairly unusual for a British sheela. The alleged sheela figure is by far and away the most worn of the carvings on chapel but this may be down to the faster weathering of the sandstone from which it is carved. It is worth noting that the only other sandstone carving on the chapel appears to be 16th century and is also worn although not to the same extent as the alleged sheela. All in all the figure is too weathered to be certain whether it is a classic sheela na gig or other type of exhibitionist figure.