Thursday, 11 December 2014

Alstonefield Church

During the summer I visited Alstonefield Church. It was a late June day and the wild flowers rich in colour crowded round the grave stones. It was a place to take in the wonderful countryside and reflect.  Alstonefield is interesting in that some of the oldest gravestones in the country stand in the church yard. The oldest I saw belonged to Alice Green who died in April 1518. There seem to be others of a similar age. The beginning of the 16th century is a very interesting time. Within a 50 year period from 1490 to 1540 a person like Alice would have heard of new countries being found  across the western sea, new ideas of Luther and Calvin were challenging the orthodoxies of faith , books were published on the new printing presses to spread new ideas. I wonder if Alice Green was aware of the radical transformations.  Or was Alstonefield too remote a backwater place that by the time of her death in the second decade of the 16th century the news had not reached the community?

Inside the church are impressively ornate pews carved by a local craftsman sometime in the 1630s as well as a Jacobean three decker pew with sub ordinate clerk’s seat and the family pew of the Cotton family painted green and also dating from the 17th century.

One item I had not seen before. It was discovered in the rubble several years ago and now  fixed on the wall. It was described as a head of Sheela Na gig, a carved fertility figure from about 1100. The figure is usually quite a sexually graphic one. A very good example , if not explicit one is outside the 12th century Church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire. There is some debate on whether Sheela Na gigs were first carved at around the time of the Norman Conquest or whether they are from an earlier time and are representative of a pagan tradition that clung on in the more remote areas. Another interpretation is that they were  warnings against lust.

It has been suggested to me that the Alstonefield figure is not a Sheela Na gig at all, but the remnants of the head of the triple goddess. A better example of the stone head of this deity exists not too far away  in a porch at Grindon Church. The triple goddess theme is common to a number of religions including the Celts and the Norse. In Irish tradition the Morrigan are depicted as three powerful goddesses who influence power, battle and sovereignty. Some suggest that Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend is a later representation of the Morrigans. The Norns in the Norse tradition are female beings who control the destiny of the Gods and men. And some neo pagans believe that the early Christian Church accommodated ancient beliefs such as the Goddesses in their own beliefs in for instance the Three Marys.

Whatever the stone represents, at some point in the past the Alstonefield figure was wrenched from the wall and buried in rubble to resurface in the early 21st century. Perhaps it was the result of the early Protestant zeal directed at idolatry and graven images that first occurs  in the period that Alice Green lived.