History of St Mary’s Church, Kempley

The church of St Mary at Kempley was probably built in the early 12th century by Baron Hugh de Lacy, owner of Kempley manor. Between the 12th and 14th centuries it was adorned with wall paintings which are among the most outstandingly complete and well preserved medieval wall paintings in England.

St Marys, Kempley, in full sunshine with grave head stones in foreground

St Mary's, Kempley

Nine hundred years ago, the manor of Kempley belonged to one of the most powerful men in England – Baron Hugh de Lacy of Longtown Castle, near Hereford, the trusted counsellor of Henry I (r.1100–35).

It was probably Hugh de Lacy who built Kempley church, perhaps commissioning the remarkable paintings in the chancel as a memorial to his father, Walter de Lacy, a Norman baron and veteran of the Battle of Hastings.

The large west tower of the church was built during the 13th century, when the Welsh wars of Edward I exposed Kempley to reprisal raids, although there are no records of the church being attacked. Instead it became steadily more isolated as the villagers of Kempley moved to higher ground two miles away.

In the 16th century, when images in churches had to be removed following the Reformation, the paintings were covered over with whitewash. They were rediscovered in the 20th century, and have now been cleaned and conserved.

Medieval wall paintings under the chancel arch

Medieval wall paintings under the chancel arch

The Wall Paintings

The church consists of a stone-built chancel and nave with a timber-framed south porch and a squat west tower. Much of the fabric dates from the 12th century, with the tower added in the 13th century.

The survival of a set of early 12th century wall paintings within a church of about the same date is unusual. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the roof timbers also date from this period.

The subject of the paintings in the chancel seems to be the Last Judgement. In the centre of the barrel-vaulted ceiling Christ sits upon a rainbow, adored by winged angels (seraphim); on either side of him stand the 12 apostles, with the Virgin Mary and St Peter closest to the chancel arch.

Above the simple round-headed windows there are representations of the heavenly Jerusalem, and between the windows and the east wall there are two figures with the hats and staffs of lay pilgrims. These are almost certainly Hugh and Walter de Lacy. The identity of the bishops painted on either side of the east window is not known, but they may be early popes.

Wall paintings of this kind are very rare in England and their muted colours and treatment of drapery are typical of the Romanesque style of painting in France. The artist may well have been a French monk from Hugh de Lacy’s own foundation at Llanthony Priory.

In the nave of the church there are more paintings of a slightly later, probably 14th century, date. These are worked in tempera painted on dry lime mortar unlike those in the chancel which are frescoes (painted directly onto wet plaster). Their subjects – appropriate for the nave of a church, which was used by the laity – warn of the dangers of temptation. They include the Wheel of Life and St Anthony and the Devil.

      

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Painting of the Wheel of Life in the nave of the church

Painting of the Wheel of Life in the nave of the church. The window recess to the right is decorated with figures of St Anthony on one side and St Michael and the Virgin Mary

Further Reading

Gethyn-Jones, JE, St Mary’s Church, Kempley, and its Paintings, vol 1 (Gloucester, 1961)

Morley, BM, ‘The nave roof of the church of St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire’, Antiquaries Journal, 65 (1985), 101–11

Note

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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