A feature that occurs on many churches in Somerset is the Hunky Punk. The grotesque carvings are particularly numerous in the county and the term comes from Somerset dialect.
The term derives from 2 old English words – ‘hunkers’, which is squatting on haunches, and ‘punchy’ describing short, squat legs and a thick body.[i] Hunky punks can be found on the tops and corners of towers, string courses, the tops of stair turrets or on the side of porches. These grotesques are different from gargoyles in that they are a decorative rather than functional feature. Gargoyles, whilst similar, have the function of acting as drains to direct water off the roof often through the mouth.
The featured image above is from Castle Cary Parish Church in Somerset. It maybe a gargoyle as there does appear an opening. However, it gives the idea of a springing creature.
The woollen cloth industry generated wealth in late-medieval Somerset, and it meant that there was a programme of church and church tower remodelling during the 2nd half of the 15th C up to the Reformation in the mid-16th C. The style of church architecture was the Perpendicular. Teams of accomplished masons had plenty of work.
Peter Poyntz Wright who has written on Hunky Punks and Towers in Somerset mentions a rare survival of a tower building contract between the Parish of Dunster and John Marys of Stogoursey. This contract specifies the height, wall thickness, number and type of buttresses, windows, labour duties and a completion date. The date of the contract and the completion date was 3 years.[ii] This demonstrates that towers went up in a short space of time, considering the building season in the dryer months and little danger of frost – i.e., between Easter and the harvest. Preparatory work could be done in the winter such as digging of foundations, quarrying stone, haulage, stone dressing, and stone carving.[iii] The carving of the hunky punk could have been a winter activity for craftsmen.
The master mason would have his handpicked team of around 6-8 men with different levels of expertise. Some highly skilled, some versatile in tasks and apprentices. The master mason himself would have the highest level of skill. Some tasks were within the scope of most of the team such as laying the blocks of stone for the tower. Others would have been skilled in the mortar preparation and laying, carpentry, scaffolding, design (templates), carving, roofing, and glazing.[iv]
From the 13th C onwards, stone carving was done at ground level in a workshop. Prior to this period carvings were done on the stones in situ.[v] The idea has earlier origins in the Norman or Romanesque period and back further to ancient Greece and Rome. The church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire has images that on the corbel table that are decorative and not architecturally functional.
A fiddler – the proportions are not a concern – the arm holding the fiddle is nearly twice as long as the other. Kilpeck Church carving.
An occupational hazard if building or carving from the stone in situ.
Is it a foot with long toes on the left-hand side or a hand reaching up to save him? Kilpeck Church carving.
By the beginning of the 14th C carving themes were beginning to move from the religious to the grotesque. A kind of revival back to Celtic design and Romanesque. The Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) had meant a restriction on secular carving.[vi] The practice would also have been affected by the Black Death (1348-9).
However, the split from Europe because of the Hundred Years War started the English Perpendicular phase of ecclesiastical architecture. In Somerset the carving of the late-medieval period found its own unique typology.
These carvings are such a feature on Somerset towers it seems likely that there was a master carver with a workshop. That is not to say there was just one master carver or one workshop but the idea of the elevation of carving as a desirable skill with a desirable product was present. Carving was not just limited to figures but also included pinnacles, window tracery, window mullions, parapet tracery, pillars, capitals, and mouldings. Some of the repetitive work could be from formed templates and not require as much skill to create. However, the free expressive work of individual carving is a much higher level of skill.[vii]
A crocketed pinnacle from Isle Abbots Church – this would have been carved from a template as it needed to be repeated.
Whilst it is a difficult to infer the original intention of the subject matter, the idea of the grotesques possibly has some grounding in the function of warding off evil and reminding the secular community to reflect on morality as evil is everywhere.
Hunky Punks can often be found on church towers and stair turrets. Here is a fine set at Castle Cary on a stair turret tower.
At Castle Cary there are a fine set of gargoyles and some hunky punks. I did a post on the gargoyles at Castle Cary – the link is: Castle Cary Moustachioed Gargoyles
In terms of the subject matter of Hunky Punks – what types can be recognised? Here is an initial list:
Yale or Goat-like creatures (some with chains)
ISLE ABBOTS CHURCH
The parish church of St Mary the Virgin is to be found on the Somerset Levels at Isle Abbots. On its west tower there are 8 hunky punks. There are a few on the north side of the church too.
Isle Abbots Church: West Tower.
The top of the tower has 8 Hunky Punks placed evenly around it.
Plan of the hunky punks on the tower.
Starting at the upper part of the tower on the southeast corner and moving clockwise the hunky punks are:
(a) Southwest Corner: A horned creature with a furry neck and chest, pointed ears, hooves, and sharp teeth. Maybe a sort of antelope or dragon. It doesn’t have boar’s tusks and is unlikely to be a yale.
This creature sits above the west entrance to the church. Its head is turned towards the approach to the west door. The jagged horn-like feature that starts at its head and arches back to be attached to the wall behind is possibly not a horn but an eroded feature. Probably not a wing as that would be attached to the body rather that the head.
There is another creature on the north aisle exterior that has horns coming from the top of its head and reaching back to fix on its body. It is less fierce that the hunky punks on the tower with rounded ears and a dog-like snout.
(b) West Centre: A creature with a furry main, jagged teeth and sharp claws.
This hunky punk sits direction above the west door, looking straight out at those approaching. It is positioned as if it going to pounce at any second and cause great injury.
(c) Northwest Corner: A seated man playing the bagpipes with 2 chanters.
His left hand is resting on his behind. It has a sense of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (published circa 1400, printed by Caxton’s press in 1476). It has a sense of the bawdy about it and the idea of ‘rough music’ that the Church probably warned against as it led to sin. The bagpipe player is turned to look away from those approaching the west door. However, the side turned towards the approach is where his hand rests on his behind and the chanter he is not blowing is somewhat phallic. His gaze is away from the village and across the fields. Perhaps a warning to villages that want to indulge in too much merrymaking!
(d) North Centre: A cat or lion-like creature.
This is possibly representing a lion-type creature. Part of this hunky punk has fallen away. In Peter Poyntz Wright’s book on Hunky Punks in Somerset a photograph shows this carving intact. The book was published in 1982 and revised in 2004. I am not sure when this part broke off. What it does demonstrate is that the carving appears to be in sections and the junctions of a section has failed and fallen off. Poyntz Wright speculates that this simpler carving, not being up to the standard of some of the other, may have been carved by an apprentice.[viii] The hind quarters are somewhat large and stocky.
Hunky Punk at Combe St Nicholas parish church. The lower section has fallen off and left the feet attached but the legs and lower part of the body are missing. Similar way the one at Isle Abbots has failed.
(e) Northeast Corner: Winged cat or lion-creature with paws, 4 incisor teeth, wings, and stone in its mouth.
This creature is ready to fly away from the tower. It has a cat-like face and teeth, but no lion’s mane. It could reflect the idea of a lioness or panther. The feet are cat-like too, the back ones showing fierce claws. I don’t think it is a ‘tongue sticker’ with the long part broken off, as the incisor teeth are holding the stone in place. Perhaps the idea is that the stone can be dropped at any time, referring to sin or it is a protection warning off evil.
(f) East Centre: A dog-like creature with a puffed-out chest and long, hind legs that are bent for it to squat.
With this carving the junction can be seen where the carving was fixed to the tower. It may have had sharp teeth, but weathering has meant they are not visible. As a central figure it is not at an angle and is poised to pounce and sprint straight ahead. The long legs suggest this hunky punk would run fast.
(g) Southeast Corner: A dragon-like creature with a scaley chest and neck, 4-toed back feet with vicious looking claws, dragon-like ears, a pimple on its head (something broke off?) and has a stone in its mouth.
This beast is poised to pounce and drop a stone. It does not have wings making it some sort of hybrid of dragon and dog. The mane on this hunky punk is heavy scales, suggesting a dragon.
(h) South Centre: A creature with a furry chest, sharp teeth and its tongue sticking out.
The tongue sticking out is unusual in hunky punks. It does have the function of warding off other evil spirits. Tongue stickers can be found in ancient Rome and Greece. In ancient Greece the face of Medusa was an apotropaic symbol, used to ward off evil. The idea is that a dangerous threat repels other dangerous threats. Medusa’s head and face was often used as a decorative motif and known as gorgoneion. At one of the temples at Selinunte on Sicily there were 2 monumental gorgoneia that dominated the pediments of the temple (c. 540 BC). The gorgoneion was also used to decorate smaller architectural elements. In the Archaic period Medusa is depicted as a monster with a round race, wide eyes, a beard, gaping mouth and an extended tongue along with gnashing, sharp teeth. In the Classical and Hellenistic period, she has wild hair and a confrontational gaze.[ix]
Archaic Greek silver plaque embossed with an image of a gorgon. Date: 600–480 BC. Found in a grave in Tharros, Sardinia. In the collection of the British Museum. Catalogue Number 1856,1223.824. Catalogue entry online. Image from Wikimedia Commons: Gorgoneion,_British_Museum_No._1582.JPG (576 × 592 pixels, file size: 81 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) [accessed 22 Oct 21].
English: Gorgoneion. Attic black-figure cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri.
Français : Gorgonéion. Coupe attique à figures noires, v. 520 av. J.-C. Provenance : Cerveteri. Argile fine recouverte d’un vernis rouge orangé, figures peintes au vernis noir, avec rehauts rouges et blancs. Image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gorgoneion_Cdm_Paris_322.jpg [accessed 22 Oct 21].
Lion ‘tongue sticker’ on a helm – Winchester Cathedral.
Stair Turret Top at Isle Abbot Church
Further hunky punks are on the stair turret top.
Statue Niche Bases at Isle Abbots: They are also in miniature hunky punks. This is under the statue of the Resurrection from the tomb.
If the hunky punks were painted, or at least partly painted, then would have stood out more.
I wonder with all the carving at Isle Abbots if it had been a particularly long winter with time to create the hunk punks.
There is also this rather curious face carved in the battlement parapet ornamentation on the north aisle (external). It has almost an oriental look with a ring, beard or thin tongue emerging from its mouth. I couldn’t find any other such faces on the outside.
St Andrews Parish Church, Curry Rivel, Somerset
Another church not far from Isle Abbots with curious hunky punks is at Curry Rivel.
On lower ledge of a buttress on the front of the south porch. The crouching beast watches those who enter the doorway of the porch and into the church.
BAGPIPE PLAYER – South Porch facing SOUTH
A man playing the bagpipes sits on the drip moulding that runs above the window on the south porch (facing south). The musician carvings at St Andrew’s (all on the porch drip mould) are seated up right. At Isle Abbots the bagpipe player is seated but has been set to at an angle to the tower. The dress is perhaps more medieval with St Andrew’s musicians. The bagpipe player at Isle Abbots wears a jerkin and breeches and has a short curly hairstyle. The musicians at Curry Rivel wear medieval gowns and have longer, straight hair. However, both the porch at St Andrew’s and the tower at Isle Abbots are probably early 16th C. It is curious that the cap worn by the bagpipe player looks crown-like? Maybe just a cap or represents something else.
FIDDLER – South Porch facing WEST
A fiddler sits on the moulding of the south port on the west side. The feet of the musicians rests on the moulding below the one they are sitting on.
SHAWM PLAYER – South Porch facing EAST
A man playing what looks like a shawm, seated on the moulding on the west side of the south porch. The man’s cheeks are puffed out to play the double reed wind instrument. The shawm probably originates from the Near East as the name derives from Arabic. Crusaders are likely to have introduced it to Western Europe in the 12th C. It is loud and has a wide mouth piece. It is conical in shape with a bell-shaped end and 6 keys. It is the forerunner of the oboe.[x] It looks like there is some graffiti behind this musician carved in the wall. His eyes are large, his nose rounded and prominent, his cheeks blown out and his knees clearly defined beneath his robe, and he wears boots. This musician has more of a comedic feel.
On the north side of the church various hunky punks squat along the drip mould. Unfortunately, the Ham Hill stone carvings do get weathered.
On the eastern part of Curry Rivel church.
On the eastern part of Curry Rivel church.
A dragon-like creature perched on a moulding.
Yale. The yale has the tusks of a boar and horns that can swivel. The yale was used as a heraldic beast by Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s mother) – d. 1509. Her other heraldic symbol was of the portcullis which appears on the south porch at St Andrew’s. This yale appears to have a chain.
On the coping of the stair turret on the north side of the church – a human-like figure, an owl with bat wings and possibly a dragon?
A human-type figure with large facial features, hunched shoulders and long arms creeping over the coping. He is maybe a gargoyle. The pig-like creature below has a gaping mouth and therefore a gargoyle.
Hunky Punks are a curious collection of carvings in Somerset, and it is likely certain carvers specialised in themes. There are many more churches to visit to see them – Kingston St Mary, Curry Mallet and Langport, to name but a few. The key is that they are not gargoyles, and they are mostly on their haunches, squatting and ready to spring. The musicians at Curry Rivel seem to be outside of this category as they are sitting rather than springing, and not particularly threatening.
When looking at the Hunky Punks at Isle Abbots I cannot help being reminded of the 1984 film Ghostbusters when the stone terror dogs come to life. Perhaps it is the approach of Halloween. What would it be like if the 8 Hunky Punks on the tower came to life at once!
Don’t have nightmares!
[i] Peter Poyntz Wright, Hunky Punks: A study in Somerset stone carving, 2nd edn (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 1982, rev. 2004), p. 1.
[ii] Poyntz Wright, p. 1.
[iii] Poyntz Wright, p. 2.
[iv] Poyntz Wright, p. 2.
[v] Poyntz Wright, p. 2.
[vi] Poyntz Wright, p. 2.
[vii] Poyntz Wright, p. 3.
[viii] Poyntz Wright, p. 99.
[ix] Madeleine Glennon, “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm(March 2017) [accessed 22 Oct 2021].
[x] Richard, K. Morris, Tewkesbury Abbey: The Nave Roof Bosses (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2008), p. 33.
‘Church of Saint Mary the Virgin’, Historic England List Entry 1249594, (1959),
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1249594 [accessed 22 Oct 2021]
Glennon, Madeleine. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm
(March 2017) [accessed 22 Oct 2021]
Morris, Richard K., Tewkesbury Abbey: The Nave Roof Bosses (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2008)
Wright, Peter Poyntz, Hunky Punks: A study in Somerset stone carving, 2nd edn (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 1982, rev. 2004)