ORLETON CHURCH Herefordshire

The village of Orleton lies just east of the B4361 about halfway between Ludlow and Leominster.
(grid reference SO 494671 - nearby postcode SY8 4JN)

Orleton 1
Photo: © Philip Pankhurst (CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Orleton originally belonged to Queen Edith, the widow of King Edward the Confessor. After her death in 1075 it passed to the Mortimers of Wigmore. By 1291 the church had been granted to the Mortimer abbey at Wigmore.

Orleton church has a Norman nave, although its one surviving original window is now blocked by the building of the tower (probably in the thirteenth century). The west door would appear to be a reset twelfth century structure. The thirteenth century south door has been blocked, while the north door is probably early fourteenth century. The chancel with lancet windows is probably of a similar date to the tower, while the roof and some fragments of medieval glass may well be fourteenth century. There is a fine early font with carvings of nine apostles.

Orleton 2                                                   Orleton 3
Photos: © David Ross http://www.britainexpress.com

Within the church are some extremely interesting carvings said to relate to the involvement of Roger Mortimer (d1330) with Queen Isabella. On one side of the chancel, there is the head of Edward II with his alleged lover, Piers Gaveston, hovering in the background. Edward's queen looks across at them from over the pulpit, apparently alone. Her lover, Roger Mortimer is, however, looking down on them all from the apex of the chancel arch (just visible). Supporting him, on either side of the arch, are two bishops. Adam Orleton, Bishop of Hereford was a great supporter of Roger Mortimer.

But see below for Ian Mortimer's thoughts on these carved heads.

Notes by Paul Remfry
For more photographs click here
For a detailed description of the church click here

Comments on the Carved Heads at Orleton by Dr Ian Mortimer

These are clearly curious carvings. Often one finds royal heads like this on tombs from the period but to find them freestanding, so to speak, on the wall of a church is unusual. The main question that comes to mind is 'are these Edward II, Isabella, Orleton, Mortimer etc?'. In considering this we need to be aware that the historical associations of a place like Orleton can lead to suggestions, which in turn lead to rumours, which in turn lead to traditions and eventually accepted facts. As far as I know there is no direct medieval evidence for the identity of these figures.
I doubt very much that the references are based on more than the above-mentioned suggestion/rumour/tradition/fact model. The main reason for my scepticism is the reference to Piers Gaveston. Patrons of livings normally only paid for sculpture when they wanted to commemorate someone, and though that often included the king and queen of the day and their ancestors, such commemorations usually only included the donor's own immediate family and ancestors. Roger Mortimer's endowment of Leintwardine Chantry, for instance, included prayers for Edward II and Edward III and their wives, himself, his own wife and their ancestors and children. The only additional name to this list was that of Bishop Burghersh of Lincoln, Roger Mortimer's closest political ally and a kinsman of his son's wife. So, as the Mortimers were lords of the manor of Orleton from Domesday, either the Mortimer lord of the day or the parishioners would have needed to have some reason to commemorate Gaveston if that face is indeed his. I cannot think of any reason for them to want to do this, especially as he was not local and had no strong connection with the Mortimers after Roger Mortimer bought himself out of Gaveston's wardship in 1306. Indeed, Gaveston was widely considered a traitor in the early 14th century, so very few people would have wanted to commemorate him other than his own family (who came from Gascony). He was slain in 1312 in the presence (and with the approval) of Roger Mortimer's close ally, Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford (d1322), who was hugely influential in the area. To put up a commemorative image of Gaveston in the earl's territory would have been a hugely defiant and dangerous political act for the parishioners (whose church would have been subject to inspection by the bishop). So I very much doubt that head has anything to do with Piers Gaveston. It is far more likely to relate to someone for whom prayers were said locally, such as a member of the Mortimer family.

I notice that the stones are structural in function. Those of the king and queen seem to have been intended to hold up a vanished rood loft, being (it seems) directly opposite one another. The smaller head above the king's one was probably echoed by a similar structural head above the queen's on the other side, making the rood loft safe for a choir to stand in on such song-filled events as Ascension morning. As for the heads on the arch of two bishops and the head at the apex of the arch: these also are structural. The official listing on the English Heritage website gives the arch and windows as thirteenth century. This also suggests the two heads once supported the rood loft but mentions no others. If this arch was indeed built about 1300, then the faces are more likely to be Edward I and Margaret of France than Edward II and Isabella.

Looking at the royal faces in detail, they are in some ways reminiscent of manuscript illuminations of Edward I and his son, Edward II, when the latter was young. That was before Edward II was married (1308), of course. They are certainly not from much later in the 14th century for three reasons: (1) the hairstyle of the queen is 'ramshorn' (misleadingly painted red, it seems) and the wimple is attached to this in a typical c.1300 way; (2) the king is clean shaven and after about 1322 most images of Edward II show the stylised image of a king with a beard (and in the later 14th century Edward III wore a beard); (3) the crown is distinctively of the sort habitually work by kings in the late 13th cent. The king's and queen's hair colour has presumably been repainted over the centuries. With the caveat that these are stylised images created by a man who probably had not seen the king close up but rather wanted to represent the king and queen by showing a king and a queen, one can say this. Edward I is generally portrayed without a beard and likewise Edward II until about 1322. Henry III is generally portrayed in his later years with a beard. So this king is probably meant to be either Edward I or Edward II in youth. On balance it is likely that the sculptures are 1280-1320, so there are only two options for the kings (Edward I and II) and only three for the queens (Eleanor, Margaret and Isabella).

It may be significant that Adam of Orleton, the most prominent person to take his name from the village (among quite a few at this time, presumably promoted by the Mortimers) was born about 1272. His rise to prominence and his position thus belongs more to Edward I's reign than Edward II's. Indeed, of all the bishops of Hereford who were unlikely to commemorate Edward II in stone, Adam comes top, being the very man who started the rumour that Edward II was a sodomite (when he was in arms against him in 1326). But if Adam was commemorated in this stonework, then the date is likely to be no earlier than 1300. So that probably rules out Eleanor as the queen's head.

For all these reasons, I suspect that the secular head is not Gaveston but a local notable, probably a member of the Mortimer family. The bishops are either bishops of Hereford - probably Saint Thomas of Cantilupe (d1282) and perhaps Adam of Orleton (in his own lifetime), or, if late 13th century, Cantilupe and St Thomas Becket of Canterbury (who was the object of widespread veneration at this time). As for the king and queen it is possible that they are Edward II and Isabella, but equally possible that they are stylised images of Edward I and Margaret. It is unlikely that any accounts will be found to prove the matter one way or the other. However, a greater accuracy in dating the stonework might one day be possible, and this would allow us to say with greater confidence which King Edward and which queen is depicted here.

Ian Mortimer