Kevin Dowling explores the fascinating story of the Ulgham window head
A visitor to the church of St. John the Baptist in the ancient Northumberland village of Ulgham (locally pronounced ‘Uffam’) will find a curious stone set into a wall inside the church. It is an old sandstone window head which is thought to have been a part of the exterior of an earlier chapel which occupied the same site in the 12th Century.
What makes it of particular interest is that it is decorated with a scene, carved in low relief. After many years of exposure to the elements, the surface of the stone is heavily weathered and much of the original detail has been lost, but it is still possible to see the major elements in the scene. On the left, as we look, there is a lady in a medieval dress with long pointed sleeves and on the right, a horse and its rider brandishing a sword. Towards the top of the scene there are two oddly shaped birds and directly below these there is a narrow upright feature which separates the lady from the horse and rider. The traces of the horse’s front legs suggest that its leading leg would have originally crossed a little way in front of the upright feature. Any other detail appears to be lost, although some might be guessed at or inferred by the more visible elements of the composition.
This scene has puzzled locals and visitors for many years and various suggestions have been made as to its meaning. In 1832 the Reverend John Hodgson included a drawing of it in his History of Northumberland and suggested that it might represent a knight protecting a lady from two birds or perhaps even the story of George and the Dragon. Another suggestion is mentioned by Mrs Janet Brown in her village history of Ulgham. She says that at the time of publication in 1986, the then Vicar of St John’s, the Rev. Irwin Morrison, speculated that the scene might describe the Old Testament bible story of Balaam and the Angel (Numbers, Ch. 22, vs 22–35). In this story Balaam, an Old Testament prophet and his donkey meet an angel brandishing a sword who blocks their way three times. At first, only the donkey can see the angel and Balaam beats the animal for its refusal to go forward. Eventually, God gives the power of speech to the donkey who then admonishes Balaam for his cruelty. The story doesn’t say whether Balaam fell off the poor beast when it started talking!
A further speculation is that the scene has an association with the De Merlay family who were the local barons during the period the stone is believed to have been carved. In 1138 Ranulph De Merlay granted land for the building of religious institutions in the area, including the great Cistercian Abbey of Newminster in Morpeth. What might make this connection more likely is that the De Merlay family incorporated blackbirds into their family crest (perhaps because the French word for blackbirds which is ‘Merles’ sounded so like their family name). So the two birds in the scene might be De Merlay blackbirds being used as a reference to the local barons who provided the land and sponsored an early chapel. Interestingly, the De Merlay blackbirds can still be seen in today’s Morpeth town crest nine hundred years later.
Whatever its meaning, it seems that the scene has not lent itself to easy interpretation!
I visited St John’s one summer’s afternoon several years ago and saw this curious stone. I took some photographs and made my way home, wondering what message the stonemason might have intended when he or she picked up a mallet and chisel almost nine centuries ago. I was so intrigued that I decided to do a little research in our local library in Morpeth to see what others might have found. The first thing that struck me was that any depictions I could find in local history books lacked some of the elements that I saw in my photographs. I wondered if there were other details that might be revealed by looking more closely at my photographs with digital software. I used gentle changes of contrast and brightness to bring out detail and also ‘inverted’ the images to create negative views of the scene (which can also sometimes reveal hidden detail). It must be said that there are pitfalls when enhancing images in this way. It is very easy to create false objects and readings of what is actually present in an image, so I proceeded cautiously. Also, because a photograph records reflected light from the surface of an object and not the actual surface shape, I had to be careful not to simply accept anything which appeared to be present in an adjusted image. If I thought I saw some new detail, I referred back to the original photograph to see if the new feature was also evident there. In some instances, once I had seen a new detail in an adjusted image I could then see it so plainly in my original photographs it was as if it had been ‘hiding in plain sight’ all the time. As you will see, with some features I remain uncertain but include them for your interest and speculation.
As I proceeded, I also began to employ some deductive thinking, asking why the creator of the scene chose to place the various elements in relationship to each other just as they did. If we could gain some new insights in this way, I thought they might provide some additional clues to its meaning. I also had to keep in mind that additional painted details might have been added at the time of its making which are now entirely lost to the modern viewer.
So did I discover anything of significance? Well, I think so, but let me tell you about it and see what you think …
Let’s begin with the female figure in the scene. She is wearing a long-sleeved medieval garment called a bliaut, indicating a lady of high status. The garment first became fashionable in the 12th Century and was worn in different forms by both men and women. In the 1832 sketch of the scene by the Rev. J Hodgson her long sleeves are missing and her arms are positioned as if she is standing with ‘hands on hips’. However, if we look carefully at the high contrast photograph of the figure, her arms are held in a very particular fashion, forming an almost perfect circle. Significantly, there appears to be a small, upright human figure supported on her hands in the centre of her encircling arms. This infant-sized figure has a discernible head, body and right leg (the other leg seems fragmentary) and is perhaps more visible in the negative image. Interestingly, the female’s left hand, again more visible in the negative image, crosses in front of her dress and might be holding a round object. Her right wrist can be seen but the hand doesn’t appear to be present. So, we appear to have a previously unrecorded figure of an infant standing upright, encircled by the arms of a lady of high status and possibly standing on a circular object held in the lady’s one visible hand.
So, what can we say of the figure of the horse and rider? Given his physique, the rider appears to be male. There does not appear to be any detail of armour or clothing, except perhaps in the shape of his head which might suggest a helmet (or even a pointed beard?). He is seated on a horse but seems not to be facing the direction of travel. Instead, he is twisted so that his torso is facing towards us with his left hand placed behind him on the back of the horse. His right arm is extended forward and the hand grasps a raised sword which is inclined towards the rear. It seems possible, given this twisted posture that he is either looking outwards from the scene or to his rear. If we trace carefully around his head it appears that he could indeed be looking to the rear and at a slightly downward angle. But if he is … what could he be looking at?
Just above and to the right of the rider’s left shoulder there is a slightly darker chevron (or boomerang) shape which, if the rider is looking to his rear, would be directly in his gaze. I wondered if this shape could be the raised arm of a figure which had been all but obliterated. A fragmented figure seemed to emerge which did indeed appear to have its right arm raised in the posture of an attacker with a weapon (although no weapon is visible above the worn edge of the stone). The domed head, neck and shoulders of the figure suggested themselves in relation to this raised arm and it was also possible to trace the attacker’s left arm which appeared to be bent at the elbow with the hand just touching the rider’s lower left arm. No trace can be seen of this individual’s lower limbs, which is puzzling because they should be visible below the horse’s body, although the lower part of the figure might be obscured behind the horse’s back. Or perhaps they might even be kneeling on the horse’s back.
The apparently aggressive posture of this attacker, with its right arm raised as if to strike, might resolve two questions about the rider. If the rider was under attack it wouldn’t be surprising if he were twisted around facing his foe or that he has his sword drawn and inclined towards them, poised for imminent use.
Throughout my musings on the rider I had one niggling question. It was about the rider’s shield … or more precisely the lack of it! If this gentleman was indeed a Norman knight it would be very unusual for him to be shown without his shield. So I also wondered if the left arm of the attacker might alternatively be the pointed base of a shield pointing away from the rider and held by his left arm. With this alternative in mind, it is possible to trace the outline of a shield continuing into the space within the rider’s angled left arm. If this were the case the attacker would lose his or her left arm but would keep their head and right arm. The attacker would still be visible above the top of the shield and the scene would still ‘make sense’. On balance, I favour the shield being present, but as with the rest of the scene, we are trying to grasp details which are all but lost.
There is another noteworthy compositional feature of the horse and rider. The horse’s front legs are raised and it appears to be galloping or rearing up. This was a common way of depicting a horse and armed rider at this time in history and it adds dynamism to the scene. The horse’s body is also tilted upwards relative to the rest of the scene giving visual weight to the rider bearing down on an attacker from the rear. If we look closely the rider’s body is also tilted slightly backwards in relation to the horse’s body, increasing the effect. From what remains of the horse’s front legs, we can estimate where they would have reached before they were eroded away. It appears that the upper, leading leg would have crossed in front of the upright feature in front of it. Might this suggest that the upright is more likely to be a post of some sort rather than a wall?
And what of our two strange birds? The first thing of note is how unnatural they appear, even compared to the other naively drawn figures in the scene. Perhaps their peculiar ‘blocky’ appearance is because there was carved or painted detail which originally gave them a more natural appearance. They are facing left as we look and fill the roughly triangular area above and between the figures of the lady and rider. It can be seen that the upper bird is the slightly smaller of the two and that the lower bird has a longer neck. I suspect that the upper bird has been made smaller simply to fit into the available space and keep the composition harmonious. There are rudimentary legs at the front corners of both birds and the leg of the lower bird appears to touch the shoulder of the lady.
This silver seal belonged to Alice De Merlay, wife of Ranulf De Merlay’s son, Roger. So it was made around the time the carving is thought to have been created and shows the family blackbirds with their wings raised. Might the birds in the stone carving be intended to depict two De Merlay blackbirds also with raised wings? Perhaps the positioning of one bird sitting above the other in a roughly triangular ‘shield like’ space hint at the De Merlay’s heraldic devices?
The suggestion of a ‘V’ shape into which the two birds fit is created by the elongated head of the horse, the rider’s sword and the lady’s left upper arm. Could it be that these elements, together with the upright post feature, were intended to suggest a tree shape in which the birds are perched? This might seem odd to suggest but if we view the upright feature as representing the trunk of a tree it seems possible. There are two barely discernible curved shapes on the post feature, one is a crescent shape at the top of the post and the other a curling ‘s’ shape at its base. You have to look very hard to see them but if they are intentionally carved elements they might hint at the biblical scene of the serpent climbing the tree in the Garden of Eden (the fall of man) and this might explain both the presence of the upright post feature and the position of the horse’s hooves crossing it, trampling the serpent and symbolically crushing evil.
Of course the upright feature could simply be meant to indicate a protective barrier to the right of the Lady and Child whilst the two birds hover protectively above. But, for me, this seems to be contradicted by the horse’s leg crossing in front of it (and I am sure I can see that serpent!).
So could these new features add to the interpretation of the scene? If the scene was intended as a depiction of George and the Dragon, we are sadly missing a dragon! Equally, if it were a depiction of the story of Balaam and the Angel, I think it is fairly safe to say that there is no Angel present and that it was the Angel and not Balaam who held the sword in the story. So these two explanations seem less likely and the remaining possibility which links the scene to Ranulf de Merlay seems to have greater weight. The high status lady and infant appear to be a depiction of the Virgin and Child which, given the carving’s ecclesiastical context might not be surprising. Another strong clue is that the style of the Virgin and Child figure in the scene is consistent with other 12th Century representations and particularly reminiscent of a form known as ‘the wisdom throne’ in which the infant Christ figure is being presented by a seated Virgin. In similar medieval depictions the infant Christ can be seen holding or standing on an orb, symbolising his dominion over the earth.
So might our rider be a representation of the De Merlay family or even Ranulph himself, benefactor and protector, defending his lands and faith from temporal and spiritual incursion? If this is the case, then the two stylised birds may very well be the De Merlay blackbirds perched or hovering protectively over the Virgin and Child. It is also easy to see how this narrative, displayed on the outside wall of a chapel in an outlying village, would have been of propaganda value to the local Norman barons.
There is another darker and more ancient possibility which up to this point I have not mentioned. It is an interpretation which takes us further back in time and to more ancient beliefs. It is suggested by some who have seen the stone that the horseman could be the old Norse God, Odin, astride his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. The fact that the horse in the scene appears only to have the standard issue of four legs is not such a problem as Sleipnir was often drawn as an ordinary horse. But it is the presence of the two birds in the carving which is so suggestive of this Norse connection. Odin was accompanied by two ravens called Huginn (old Norse for ‘thought’) and Muninn (old Norse for ‘mind’ or ‘memory’) who flew out across the world each day to gather news for their master. So might our horseman be Odin (or ‘Wodan’ in the Anglo Saxon world) preceded by his ravens and still making his presence felt in 12th Century Northumberland? I will resist the temptation to speculate but I am sure you will agree, it is a fascinating possibility!
It might be worth reflecting that even though the figures are naively drawn and a great deal of the detail has been lost there is no doubt, given the scene’s thoughtful and nuanced composition, that the sculptor was seeking to imbue the scene a very precise meaning. Even though that meaning may now be only guessed at, it remains a fascinating piece of history which has survived the centuries because of the foresight and care of generations of church folk and the people of Ulgham, who have valued it and kept it safe on its journey ‘through lengths and breadths of time’. It is a tangible link to those generations, reaching far back to that distant Northumberland morning in the 12th Century when a stonemason contemplated a tracing on a plain stone, took a deep breath and started chipping away.
- Hodgson, J. A History of Northumberland in Three Parts. Published C.H.Cook, Newcastle upon Tyne, Part 2 Volume 2.
- Brown, Janet. Ulgham its story continued. A Study of a Northumbrian Village in its Parish Setting. Self Published, 1986.
- Northumberland Federation of Women’s Institutes. The Northumberland Village Book. Countryside Books, Newbury, NFWI Newcastle. Published 1994.
Mr C Longmore, Antique European Silver, London.
Audrey Anderson for her proofreading skills and patience.