In 1895 a wall painting of England’s patron saint St George was discovered in All Saints Church.In 1895 a board containing details of one of the charitable benefactions was removed from the north side of the chancel. Behind it was a wall painting.
The armour and devices painting on it suggested that it was Sir John De la Mere, who built the castle. Others suggested that there was faint outline of a dragon in the bottom righthand corner, suggesting that it was a mural of St George, patron saint of England.
We don’t know why it was covered up or when. Was it protected against attacks by Parliamentarian troops during the siege of Nunney Castle? Or was it plastered over much earlier, perhaps when images in churches were discouraged at the time of the Reformation?
Colourful wall painting were once a common feature in English churches and Nunney Church would have been no exception. They served both for decoration and education, illustrating stories at a time when most parishioners were unable to read the Bible and services were in Latin.
As in most churches, however, many were given a coat of limewash during Cromwell’s time.
In his Diary of the Marches of the Royal Army during the great Civil War Richard Symonds gives a description of the “faire neate church and pretty castle” in July 1644, but does not mention the mural.
Symonds’ diary is the only eye-witness account of the English Civil War by a royalist military who was not an officer. He described how Charles I stayed in Mells as a guest of the Horner family before joining his troops “neare Nunney”.
Rev. John Collinson’s History of Antiquities of the County of Somerset (1791) dedicates several pages to the church, its monuments and inscriptions, but with no mention of the St George mural.
The Bath Chronicle of January 1871 mentions “various important improvements” at Nunney Church.
These included a new chancel arch, a stained glass window and “a handsome stove”. Other improvements included changes to pews and pulpit, and the replacement of the organ (the old one went to Wells Cathedral School).
Moving the effigies
Again, there is no mention of the mural, but then again… the newspaper doesn’t mention moving – and controversially part butchering – the medieval and Tudor effigies either.
The effigies in Nunney Church have historically been treated badly. When Collinson described it for his 1791 book, he found the tombs difficult to interpret as they were “daubed over with whitewash”.
The table-tombs originally stood free from the wall in the body of the church. When chantries were abolished in 1547 it was reported that the De la Mere tomb was surrounded by 300lb. of iron bars – which were presumably then sold.
The effigies were moved into a corner of the St Katherine Chapel of the church in 1819 to create space for more pews. The reason why more pews were needed seems not so much an increase in the congregation as a decision to introduce seating for the poor, who previously had to stand during services.
In order to fit the tombs into the cramped space two of the tombs were mutilated, taking off the end bit. Richard Prater, who bought the manor of Nunney in 1577, and his wife lost their lower legs.
The tombs of the Praters and Paulets were placed against each other and against the wall, leaving only one side of both monuments properly visible.
The organ does not appear have been placed in their former position immediately, for in 1849 it was described by Sir Stephen Glynne as being in the west gallery – a gallery created by the tower after a petition in the 18th century.
Shockingly, it seems that most of the De la Mere tomb and other monuments were broken up and reused elsewhere inside and outside the church.
Before 1958 the nave roof of Nunney Church was lit by four windows: two dormers in the north, two similar lights formed in a low clerestory wall in the south.
Partial rebuilding and the final removal of this clerestory wall in 1954 and 1958 showed that it incorporated broken gravestones probably of 18th century date, suggesting that it may have been created around 1820 when the nave aisles were extended along the base of the tower.
Two commentators suggest that the nave roof was originally thatched, though it is unclear on what evidence this suggestion was based.
It has also been claimed that the effigy of the De la Mere knight spent considerable time outside at some point and shows signs of rain damage, although there is no record of this.
When was it painted?
When was the St George mural painted? Let’s look at the history of the church first.
Nunney Church is a Grade I listed building dating from the 12th century. It was probably built on the site of an earlier Saxon or Norman church; a fragment of a Saxon cross and a Norman font can still be seen, although there is no evidence of other Norman work in the building – re-used or otherwise.
Although the Normans were keen builders, they were not very good on foundations. Most of the Norman churches fell down within a hundred years and the stone re-used.
St Aldhelm, who founded churches in the Frome area, is thought to have travelled through Nunney at a time when Horn Street was a major thoroughfare between Frome, Shepton Mallet and Bruton. There is no evidence, however, that he founded Nunney Church – although it is possible.
The dedication to St Katherine often indicates that the church was built on a former site of pagan worship. Nunney Church predates the castle and was already built in one of the highest locations in the village.
A clear indication of paganism is the burial of grave goods, since pagan Saxons believed that body and soul were not separated at death. No such burials are known to have been found in Nunney, although the amateur archaeologist and vicar of Claverton John Skinner (1772–1839) included a sketch of “Interments found in Ridge Field above Nunney” in his diaries.
A number of undated burials were discovered during the construction of the Fromefield and Glebelands housing estates during the 1950s and 1960s. The skeletons are recorded as being ‘immediately replaced’ and no report was made. We don’t know if any other items were found.
The first known rector was Thomas of Tournai, appointed in 1188. The original church was much smaller than what we know today, probably not much more than the chancel and a much smaller nave.
The church is said to have been rebuilt in the 13th century by one of the De Montforts, the same family who obtained Nunney’s royal market charter in 1260. Traces of this period remain in the lancet windows in the chancel.
The arcades and transepts were probably added a century later. The art and architecture historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) dated them to around 1375-80.
That is important, because it would suggest that the St George mural may already have been there before the arcades and aisles were added – and cut through it.
On the other hand, the composition – with St George holding with both hands a long sword to the dragon he’s standing on, and the dragon’s wing extending to the point where the two arches meet – seems to fit its location quite neatly.
It seems unlikely that the builders would have planned the arches around the painting and we also find a similar composition of St George and his dragon between two arches in other English churches, such as at Nether Wallop in Hampshire and Pickering in North Yorkshire.
It is more likely that the St George mural in Nunney Church was therefore painted after the arcade was completed.
The original wagon or barrel vaulted ceiling was 15th century. The tower was added in the late 15th – early 16th century. The north and south aisles were extended alongside the tower in the 19th century and are now in use as a kitchen and meeting room.
The vestry to the north side of the chancel was built in 1853. The chancel was largely rebuilt in 1874, although it still contains some early 13th century work. The east end of the chancel and the east window are both from this period.
George was made patron saint of England in 1222 and of the Order of the Garter about a century later. As such he stood for the ideal qualities of the knightly and noble ‘estate’ and a reminder of those at war or on crusades.
St George became hugely popular as patron saint of England after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, where he was said to have appeared above battlefield to rally the English troops.
In fact, the victory had more to do with the French aristocracy being wiped out by English longbowmen because in their heavy armour they and their horses got hopelessly stuck in the sodden ground.
Depictions of St George were already popular in English churches before Agincourt, however. St George is shown in the Nunney wall painting standing on a poison-breathing dragon that had been terrorising the neighbourhood, holding a long sword to the beast’s neck.
It is not uncommon to find St George without his white horse and sometimes even without the dragon. Here the dragon lies on its back with four legs in the air.
If there were other figures around St George when it was first painted, they usually included a lamb to the left and a virgin princess dressed as a bride to the right. A king and queen are sometimes included too, as seen in St Cadoc’s church in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The story of Saint George and the Dragon was included in Jacobus de Voragine’s collection of Saints’ lives written about 1275, to become part of the Golden Legends, translated into English and published by Caxton in 1483.
The dragon was regularly offered a sheep to appease him, but was eventually given a human sacrifice randomly selected – the king’s daughter Cleodolinda. At this point the legend has it that St George stepped in and promised to destroy the dragon if the king and his subjects converted to Christianity, which they did.
A modern version says:
“At the town of Silene, in Libya, there was a dragon, who was appeased by being fed two sheep a day; when these failed, the townsfolk offered by lot one of their young people. One day the lot fell on the King’s daughter, who was led out to the sacrifice, dressed in her wedding gown. George appeared and transfixed the dragon with his spear and then using the Princess’s girdle led the bemused dragon into the town, where it was beheaded.” – Catholic Encyclopaedia
The lamb was, of course, also a symbolic representation of Christ and the princess became associated with the Virgin Mary. St George, therefore, stood for the medieval knight defending the faith and the people against evil.
St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, was also often painted on church walls alongside St George; seeing the image of St Christopher was said to be enough to protect you from sudden death for the rest of the day. Therefore he was often painted on a wall opposite the main entrance to the church for the congregation to see as they walked in.
In Nunney, the main entrance to the church prior to the tower being added was the south porch. The current south porch was added in the 15th century, but replaced a previous one. It follows that there may well have been a wall painting of St Christopher immediately opposite the south porch entrance, on the north side of the nave towards the transept.
There are no signs of such other figures here though. The St George in Nunney bears resemblance that in other churches, such as in Hornton in Oxfordshire (early 15th century).
It also resembles the Dallynggrygges brass in Fletching Church in East Sussex, which shows Sir Edward Dallynggrygges – the man who built Bodiam Castle in 1385.
This brass probably gives us the most accurate impression yet of what Sir John De la Mere and his wife Margaret will have looked like.
Sir Edward was a favourite of Richard II and – like Sir John De la Mere – became rich through ransom money gained in the fighting at Crecy and Poitiers in France. The lion at his feet is a testament to his bravery.
Lady Dalyngrigge is depicted wearing the typical costume and headdress of the late 14thC and is shown with a pet dog at her feet. The dog symbolised faithfulness.
Nunney’s St George wears a waisted breast-plate (known as a cuirass) which were worn from around 1350 AD.
He is wearing full plate armour usually associated with the wars between England and France, including a camail or chain-mail hood around his neck, rather than the later broad solid plate gorget . This is consistent with the type of armour worn at the time of Edward III, who died in 1377.
He wears a surcoat with the cross of St George and still has the acutely pointed older-style helmet or bascinet; later knights wore a lower and more rounded helmet.
The leg harness (or jamb) consisted of closed greaves, poleyns and cuishes and after about 1380 a second narrower plate was fastened to the main plate to extend it farther around the back of the thigh. This is clearly visible in the Nunney painting.
St. George’s feet and arms are also armour plated and he wears armoured gauntlets on his hands. Until about 1420 the body was still covered by a form of surcoat (jupon) which was decorated with the arms of the wearer.
Interestingly, here St. George has his ‘arms’ decorated directly onto his breast plate.
Originally the patron saint of England stood against a painted background patterned with various symbols in the Nunney version.
The fleur de lys, a stylised lily, was used widely in English heraldry throughout the Middle Ages. It had many different interpretations, including faith, wisdom and chivalry, and was often associated with royalty.
The Black Prince
Interestingly, the fleur de lys is also associated with Edward of Woodstock, better known by his much later nickname the Black Prince (1330-1376). Sir John De la Mere was said to have fought with the Black Prince in France or Spain, although there is no record of him among the lists of knights who went across.
If he did, he almost certainly went with the Hungerfords of Farleigh Castle. His uncle was chief administrator for the estate of Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III and one of the wealthiest men in England.
Perhaps John De la Mere gained royal favour because he skillfully negotiated and administered ransom money for captured French aristocrats from the Black Prince’s principality of Aquitaine under his uncle’s guidance.
At the time there were several manors in Nunney, one owned by the De Montfort family and another by the De Bohuns. The De Bohun family’s association with Nunney ended with the death of Humphrey De Bohun on 16 January 1373.
Because he had no son, his estates as Earl of Hereford should have passed to his cousin Gilbert De Bohun. Due to the power of the Crown, his great estates were divided between his two surviving daughters, Eleanor and Mary. Mary married Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV of England.
It would seem that it was at this stage that the De la Mere family, who were so far sub-tenants of the De Bohuns, successfully obtained full ownership of the manor of Nunney. Some sources suggest that Mary gave Nunney to John De la Mere as tenant-in-chief of the Crown.
Sir John De la Mere was granted permission by King Edward III later in the same year, on 28 November 1373, to fortify his manor house in Nunney – which would become Nunney Castle. Importantly, it seems that the fact that he had gained royal favour played a part in obtaining planning permission.
It looks likely that Sir John De la Mere embarked on a considerable building spree when he became lord of the manor in 1373, obtaining a licence for his castle and enlarging the manorial church a year or so later.
One intriguing possibility is that the Nunney mural may depict the Black Prince as St George, as is thought to be the case in Hornton. The Black Prince died at Westminster on 8 June 1376; the arcades are thought to date from around 1375. Did Sir John honour his royal patron by showing him as the victorious saint?
The knotted key was also part of the De la Mere coat of arms, but used by later lords of manor too.
A stone panel on the front of the church tower shows a shield with a knotted key. Like the white hart, the key symbols painted on the background in Nunney Church have changed colour over the centuries through pigment alteration.
It may have come from the De la Mere tomb removed in 1819, although it is more likely there because the Paulet family continued using the old De la Mere elements in its coat of arms and paid for the new tower.
The key displayed on the church tower led to the church wrongly being named ‘St Peter’s’ for some years, although St Peter is always symbolised by two crossed keys, not one.
The White Hart (“hart” is an archaic word for a mature stag) was the personal emblem and livery of Richard II (1367-1400), who derived it from the arms of his mother, Joan ‘The Fair Maid of Kent’, heiress of Edmund of Woodstock.
The white deer became a symbol of purity, redemption and good fortune in English heraldry alongside the mythic unicorn.
It was used by various owners of Nunney Castle for centuries; the memorial stone of Mary Sambourne – now placed upright against a wall in the south transept – has a delicate white alabaster plaque in it showing a white hart resting.
The pub in Trudoxhill – part of Nunney until half a century ago – is, of course, also called the White Hart.
There is no sign of the lions, two lions passant guardant (argent), that featured in the De la Mere coat of arms. The lions can still be seen on the nearby effigy of Sir John Paulet, blazoned across the breast and both sleeves of his surcoat.
Sir John was a nephew and heir of Sir Ellis De la Mere through his mother Eleanor’s family. He appears to have continued using the De la Mere coat of arms when he came into possession of the De la Mere estates.
The absence of lions supports the theory that the St George mural pre-dates the De la Mere family’s move from being local tenants to full ownership of the manor of Nunney in 1373.
In July 1929 between 50 and 60 members of the Bristol Society of Antiquarians made a tour of Frome and surrounding villages on a Saturday afternoon.
After visiting Mells and Frome the group made its way to Nunney Castle.
“This fortress was found to be in process of careful repair by the Office of Works for the sake of preservation. Meanwhile visitors are warned that they approach the 8-feet walls at their own risk, for their is still much loose stonework to be secured.”
“The Rector (the Rev. J.W. Clough) kindly responded to an unexpected call, unlocked the church, and told the visitors many interesting and some amusing things about its history and its charities. A curious piece of mural painting has been preserved.”
St George behind glass
In 1957 the timber of the 15th-century wagon or barrel vault that used to cover the nave was found to have rotted and was demolished. A temporary roof was installed and hidden by a suspended village hall-style ceiling. Four dormer windows that previously lit the church were boarded up.
The late 14th century arcades and chancel arches remain sturdy, however, although replacing the roof tiles with concrete imitation tiles put a lot of extra weight on the structure.
Unfortunately, a rather disastrous decision was made to place the St George mural behind glass to protect it during work to the aisles in the 1940s.
Instead of protecting the medieval wall painting, the glass caused condensation and peeling that led to rapid deterioration before it was removed.
Journalist and author Bel Mooney wrote in her 1989 guide Bel Mooney’s Somerset:
“A week later I visited Nunney in pouring rain. [ ] It is easy to miss one of the most unusual things in the church of All Saints. In the nave, above one of the pillars is a fragment of a wall painting, now protected by glass. I presume that there must have been more; or was this just a jeu d’esprit? It shows St George against a a patterned background, and is like a baby brother to the giant painting of the same saint in the church at Farleigh Castle.”
The painting of St George on the east wall of the chapel of St Leonard at Farleigh Castle, on the other side of Frome from Nunney, dates from around 1440-45. It was commissioned by Sir Walter Hungerford, closely associated with the De la Meres of Nunney Castle.
Walter was a former Speaker of the House of Commons, who enlarged Farleigh Castle considerably between 1430 and 1445.
The chapel was built in the mid 14th century as the local parish church. It originally stood outside the castle walls, but was enclosed as the new castle chapel during the extension work. The Hungerfords simply built a replacement church in the village for the local community.
A house for the chantry priest was also built, next to the chapel; Nunney’s chantry priest similarly had a chantry, founded by Sir John De la Mere’s grandson Philip on 8 February 1394.
A chantry priest was appointed to pray for the souls of the lord of the manor and his family after their death. They operated quite separately from the regular parish priest.
A chantry priest lived next to Nunney church until the last one retired on a pension of £5 in 1553. The house, garden and orchard next to Nunney Church were granted to William, Marquis of Winchester and lord of the manor of Nunney Castle, by Queen Elizabeth I in 1561.
The St George mural is one of only four known examples of its kind in England. St George was the favourite patron saint of the King of England at the time, Walter’s patron Henry V. The saint was also associated with the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, of which Walter Hungerford was a member.
The choice of St George and the Dragon as a theme for the new castle chapel was therefore an obvious one. The chapel also has a wall painting of a knight on the north wall, now almost disappeared.
There are various boards of benefactors – local dignitaries who left money to the church and the poor – dotted around the church.
One example in the meeting room is suggested as the one that was over the St George mural until 1897; it lists the charities of John Fussell, however, who died in 1819 – which, if true, would mean that someone at the time would already have seen the wall painting even if it replaced a much earlier one.
There are no reports of it at the time, however, but we have seen from the relocation of the effigies how little heritage was valued in the early 19th century.
The only older boards in the church today are the Decalogues, wooden boards containing the Ten Commandments that are traditionally placed on either side of the altar and are therefore unlikely to have been moved from the nave.
Photos from 1957 show that the board that covered the wall painting was mounted on two long pieces of wood, one on either side of St George.
The mural itself, however, also seems to have a wooden frame around it. Was the wall painting previously exposed and the board mounted over it shortly after 1818? That still doesn’t explain why the benefactions boards now in the meeting room are both narrower than the wall painting.
Clearly, at some point someone took a conscious decision to place the frame around the still visible St George painting, stick a board over it and lime-wash carefully around the board. Why was St George saved and when?
The romantic theory is that the board was used to hide the much-loved saintly knight from Parliamentarian troops, but it is more likely that the board was put over it because the painting was considered old-fashioned and ugly. It wasn’t lime-washed because it was covered anyway – except that the photo showing that the painting itself was framed at some point suggests that it was on display as a feature before the board was mounted, and we simply have no record of it having been seen by visitors before 1895.
Was there a much older – now lost – board that covered St George until 1895 or was it replaced in 1818 without being reported? We will probably never know.
Writing about heritage is often a work in progress. There are more questions than answers, new information is discovered and much of the evidence lost forever.
Are there really no other wall paintings in the church? If there are any other wall paintings hiding under the plaster at All Saints Nunney it would greatly increase English Heritage’s interest in the church. That would help the Raise the Roof Appeal in funding funds to replace the temporary ceiling tiles and restore four dormer windows.
The Raise the Roof committee recently decided to commission an expert, however, to examine the St George painting, to check if there are any others and to advise on how to protect and preserve any wall paintings during the roof restoration project.
In the preliminary phase of this work, the architect Marcus Chantrey requested Ruth McNeilage of McNeilage Conservation, a specialist in cleaning and restoring medieval wall paintings, to undertake a survey of the wall painting on the north wall of the nave.
Unfortunately, no signs of hidden other paintings were found. That doesn’t mean that there were no others, but they may since have been lime-washed over and over to such an extend that they must now be considered lost.
Yet in other churches ancient wall paintings are rediscovered under layers and layers of plaster. In 2007 conservators were brought in to examine a thin red line of paint on the wall in the small Wells village church of St Cadoc’s in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan.
They uncovered stunning 15th century wall paintings, including the seven deadly sins, a royal family and one of the largest and most spectacular depictions of St George and the Dragon ever seen in a British church.
There are many other churches with wall paintings, such as the churches in Trotton near Chichester and Sutton Bingham near Yeovil. For more information about wall paintings in English churches, go to paintedchurch.org.
The recent restoration of the St George mural in All Saints Church Nunney has not been without controversy.
What most people fondly thought of as ‘their’ mural was actually mainly the result of some rather clumsy restoration work done shortly after 1897 and in the 1950s.
In order to “improve” the wall painting, the Victorians painted over the background patterns and around the knight, changing the shape of the helmet in the process.
Recent examination showed that although the specialist brought in to examine the wall painting in the 1950s, Mr Keevil, recommended that no colour was to be added and that superfine plaster should be used to fill in gaps, there was in fact quite a bit of recolouring done – particularly around the helmet – and a relatively course lime and sand mix was used for the fillings.
Sadly, it would appear that a stabiliser used by Keevil to stop the wall painting flaking may have contracted and actually made the flaking worse.
The walls of the nave were in later years also repainted using a modern vinyl-based paint that was applied right up to the figure of the knight, covering the patterned background that was previously visible in a paint that doesn’t allow the walls to ‘breathe’.
When this over-painting was removed, the picture looked rather different. Some said the result looked as if a handyman had brutally replastered the wall. In fact, the work was done by Ruth McNeilage, a specialist in art restoration who merely cleaned and restored the mural to its medieval original – or what was left of it.
The symbolic background pattern is once again visible and the eye of the dragon appeared only after restoration.
The installation of a new ceiling in the ancient church was important for the conservation of the St George wall painting too. Because there was no proper ceiling to form a buffer against temperature changes and very other temperature control, the internal temperature of the church was often considerably colder than the external temperature.
Whatever your make of the St George mural in Nunney Church as it is today, it could have been worse.
In 2012 the Ecce Homo painting by the 19th century artist Elías García Martínez in the northeastern Spanish city of Borja made headlines around the world after octogenarian amateur art restorer Cecilia Gimenez freshened it up.
Described as “the worst restoration in history”, the previously unremarkable painting now looked more like a hedgehog and was splashed across front pages the world over.