The font at St. Mary’s Parish Church, Luppitt, East Devon
The small parish of Luppitt, nestling in the Blackdown Hills, lies a few miles from Honiton. I came across Luppitt a few years ago when researching the very colourful Sir Peter Carew (d. 1575) of Mohuns Ottery in the parish of Luppitt. This Devonshire gentleman led an extraordinary life with various ups and downs. He was a traveller, adventurer, courtier, soldier, MP, High Sheriff, prisoner, and gaoler. His elder brother Vice-Admiral Sir George Carew went down with the Mary Rose on the 19th of July 1545. Both George and Peter had a wildness in their natures which at times was rebellious but at other times they managed to conform and serve their sovereign. The 16th C produced some extraordinary gentlemen in Devon like these two and Sir Walter Raleigh and his brothers. The spirit of adventure, exploration, impetuousness, and chivalry must have been strong in the Devon air during the 16th C.
However, for this visit to the small parish of Luppitt in the Blackdown Hills, I was headed for the church and to see the baptismal font. Although the thought occurs to me that perhaps Sir Peter Carew and Vice-Admiral Sir George Carew were baptised in this very font.
Historic England states that the font is possibly late Saxon or early Norman[i], which could date it to the 11th C. The relief is deeply carved, and the images overall survive well. It is sculpted from Membury stone[ii] in a square shape with a round interior bowl. The rim is moulded. The main part of the shaft and the base is 20th C.[iii] The font is sited in the west end under the tower. Whether it started off life in this area is another question. It seems a bit inconvenient for the bell ringers today.
Each face of the bowl is distinct in its imagery but there are links to the scene on the next face. Each corner has a carved face. Presumably the font has been set up in the way it was always meant to face.
Membury stone is part of the Upper Cretaceous chalk group. This type of chalk with flint nodules lies in beds forming the hills and cliffs of part of southeast Devon. At places like Beer this type of stone is exposed in the sea cliffs. Inland it can be found at Membury, a village around four miles northwest of Axminster in in the Blackdown Hills in East Devon. When Beer stone is first quarried it is soft and easy to saw, shape and carve. It then hardens with exposure to the air. It does suffer from flaking if used in building externally. However, it’s characteristics made it sought after for decorative work.[iv]
The east face is the first scene and faces towards the nave and chancel. This face is a martyrdom. It is a couple of men in the process of driving a large nail into a head. A martyrdom is another form of baptism, a ‘baptism by blood’. It may refer to Severus, a bishop of Barcelona, who was martyred in 304 AD. The main story of Severus was that he was martyred during the persecution of Christians by Diocletian. In this version he was beheaded. Another version tells of his martyrdom by having a nail driven into his head by Visigoths.[v] The font shows just a head. Maybe the two versions are combined. The two men have ‘skirts’ and ankle boots. They could represent Romans, Visigoths, Vikings, or Anglo-Saxons.
The arms and movement of the two men is curious. The one on the left holds the nail above the head but where is his other arm? Are the two men holding up shields above their heads that act as hammers? Perhaps that is why we cannot see the left arm of the man on the left as his arm would be covered by his neck and head and his hand is hidden as it holds the shield from the inside.
The man on the right swings his right arm across his body with another large nail. His left hand reaches up into the possible shield object above his head. This nail seems to point us on to the next scene and is just touching the swishing tail of ad centaur whose upper body appears on the next face.
Head of a bearded man. Below is the body of a centaur. The hind quarters of the centaur and tail appear on the east face. This bearded face appears to be human-like. Could it represent the person who commissioned the font? Or maybe a saint for intercession in the sacrament of Baptism.
The centaur that straddles both the east and north face holds a spear with both his hands. There is a dragon-like creature on the right turning its head to face up to a serpent-like creature. The serpent emerges from between the dragon’s back legs and squares up, fangs bared to the dragon’s fangs bared. The dragon has spines running down its head and neck. They both have different representations of skin. The centaur, standing with his spear appears to be overseeing the serpent. The dragon has a leash around its neck which loops in the space between the two. The leash is tied to a branch that emerges from the mouth of the head on the northwest corner.
This head is broad with a dominant nose and tablet-like teeth. From its mouth sprouts the foliage that dominates the next scene. A green man, whose image will be found in many a church and cathedral later in the medieval period. He has one good eye and one blind eye – could he be Odin from Norse mythology, who is blind in one eye?
The leash on the dragon is tied to one of the fronds coming out of ‘Odin’s’ mouth. The left eye is blind.
The west face is a swirl of foliage. Perhaps a forest or symbolic generally of nature.
The southwest corner is another regular head, which has been smoothed over. I cannot imagine it was weathering as the rest of the font carving is distinct. Maybe many years of being touched or rubbed. Perhaps serving as saint’s image like St. John the Baptist, touched by for those asking for intercession? The foliage continues under this head and into the next scene.
Here we have animals. The central figure is possibly a lion or a wolf. Above it is what seems two birds pecking at its body. The foliage from the scene from the north side comes in around the main animal in loops. Below the main animal is what appears to be a dog chasing a rabbit or hare. It is an active scene of prey and predator meaning. Is the large animal the wolf Fenir or Norse mythology? Or one of Odin’s wolves, Geri and Freki? Are the birds on pecking on the wolf’s back Huginn & Munnin, Odin’s Raven’s?
The southeast corner has a ‘tongue sticker’ face. An apotropaic symbol to ward off evil.
The more I look at this baptismal font the more I am drawn to the idea of it being made by someone of Viking or Danish descent. Then was the battle of Pinhoe in 1001, where the Vikings defeated the Saxons. In 1002 King Ethelred (the Unready) ordered a mass killing of all Danes (13 of November 1002: St. Brice’s Day massacre). In August 1002, Sweyne (Forkbeard), King of Denmark attacked and lay siege to Exeter. The Minster Church of St. Peter (not yet the cathedral) was pulled down. When his son Canute became king in 1016, he rebuilt the abbey church.[vi]
Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard’s father, converted to Christianity in circa 960 and from around 970 ordered to rejection of the old gods in Denmark. Whilst Danes had appeared to become Christians, they had kept up with worshipping the old gods too. Harald set about clearing up the matter and that there was only one God.[vii] Could it be that this font is a mix of the old Norse religion and Christianity? Whilst it could have Anglo-Saxon roots, the Anglo-Saxons had been Christian for around 400 years.
A baptismal font is, of course, Christian. However, it has a strange flair of Norse about it and reminds me more of a decorative cauldron (such as the Gundestrup Cauldron) than a font. The stone is local, so it is likely carved locally. I wonder if some of the other symbols can be interpreted to support a possibility of someone of Viking or Danish origin carving it for a patron that appreciated it. But probably my flight of fancy. It is intriguing and its symbolism has unfortunately been lost in the mists of time.
Wagner, John, The Devon Gentleman: A Life of Sir Peter Carew (Hull: The University of Hull Press, 1998)
[i] ‘Church of St Mary’, Historic England List Entry 1307043, (1955), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1307043?section=official-list-entry [accessed 27 Mar 2023].
[ii] ‘Church of St Mary’, Historic England List Entry 1307043.
[iii] ‘Church of St Mary’, Historic England List Entry 1307043.
[iv] ‘Strategic Stone Study: A Building Stone Atlas of Devon’, English Heritage, (2012), http://www.devonbuildingsgroup.org.uk/uploads/Devon_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf, p 23. [accessed 26 Mar 2023).
[v] ‘Severus of Barcelona’, Wikipedia, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severus_of_Barcelona#cite_note-9> [accessed 26 Mar 2023].
[vi] ‘The Danes attack Exeter – 1001 and 1002’, Exeter memories, http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_events/battle_pinhoe.php [accessed 27 Mar 2023].
[vii] Irina-Maria Manae, ‘Harald Bluetooth & the Conversion of Denmark’, World History Encyclopaedia, (2021), https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1733/harald-bluetooth–the-conversion-of-denmark/ [accessed 29 Mar 2023].