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Goddess or Queen?
The enigmatic carving at Braunston in Rutland

Bob Trubshaw

Although church carvings are a generally neglected aspect of our heritage, one of Rutland's grotesques is comparatively well known. This is the enigmatic, although most certainly female, figure which for many years was used face-down as a doorstep to All Saints' church, Braunston in Rutland (near Oakham - 141:833066), before being rediscovered about 1920. Since then she has stood in various places outside the church, and is currently at the west end by the base of the tower.

Recent published illustrations of the sculpture commonly caption her as a 'Goddess' - undoubtedly in her 'hag' form. But this is pure speculation as there are no remotely similar figures known. The Saxon and Norman iconographers say 'She's not one of ours', and the medieval specialists shrug and mutter without shedding any light on her date or counterparts.

However, a recent conversation with Jill Bourne of Leicestershire Museums reveals that she has thought deeply about this mysterious example of some mason's imagination. The way the figure is carved on three sides only, with the back quite blank, is unlike functional gargoyles, but does have some semblance to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century 'Hunky Punk' grotesque carvings which jut out from the towers of some of Somerset's churches [1]. However, the iconography of Braunston is quite unlike the Somerset examples, which mostly feature dragonesque beasties, carved in full 3-D.

Somerset Hunky Punk (4k)

'Hunky Punk' carving on tower of Isle Abbotts church, Somerset (after Poyntz Wright).

To support the idea that the Braunston carving once jutted out horizontally, Jill suggests that the figure can be read 'both ways up', still representing a face, but the other one male. This imagery would only work if the stone was originally intended to be facing downwards from a parapet.

Braunston carving upright (22k)

Braunston carving

Braunston carving upside-down (7k)

Braunston carving upside down

Equally perceptively, Jill has noted that in the village is an old house which is known as Quaintree Hall House. Parts of the house incorporate timbers dated by dendrochronology to the thirteenth century [2]. Although earliest documented references to a plot of land with this name date back only to the eighteenth century, there is no reason to suppose that the name originated then. It has been suggested that the 'quaintree' refers to the prominent and venerable cedars in the front garden, but place-name specialists agree that 'quaintree' could derive from the Old English for 'queen tree' [3]. Was the carving known as a 'Queen' and the name become attached to the house? Traditionally, the word 'queen' has connotations of 'whore' and would seem in keeping with the less-than-flattering facial characteristics. Indeed, 'queen' still has a scurrilous secondary meaning, roughly similar to the meaning of 'punk' in eighteenth century England. Is it just coincidence that both the Rutland and Somerset carvings can be linked to gender-bending - especially considering the 'two-in-one' sexual ambiguity of the Braunston carving itself?

Taking quite a different approach, was the Quain Tree a simulacra such that the trunk had the appearance of a head and prominent breasts - perhaps with a little man-enhancement? It would be logical for a local mason to capture the character of this local landmark in stone, thereby giving us the unique appearance which would more to nature than to previous styles of sculpture.

Liminal Queens

While the link between Quaintree House and the carving are speculative, Braunston church is situated significantly in a raised circular churchyard (although with later, easily recognised additions). This often indicates a previous pagan site. The church overlooks the narrow River Gwash and was at one time within the Forest of Leighfield, effectively on a tribal boundary which became the Rutland-Leicestershire county boundary. Unlike many county boundaries, which have moved over the centuries, Rutland took shape no later than the Norman period, and was the dowry of the West Saxon queens in the tenth and eleventh centuries - such as Edith who is still perpetrated in the village-name Edith Weston. Although exact details of the boundaries may have changed slightly, it is this anomalous geographical area which was 'fossilised' as England's smallest county (at least, until the 1974 county boundary changes - although Rutland is still an administrative district of Leicestershire and its independence is unquestioned in the minds of the inhabitants) [4].

The Leicestershire-Rutland county boundary may be particularly ancient, according to the researches of C. Phythian-Adams. Although impossible to prove, perhaps this boundary has its origins in the pre-Roman iron age. The siting of temples - and apotrophaic images such as hill figures - are typical of iron age boundaries. I stress that there is no evidence for this, but it does leave open the notion that the present carving is a later version of an earlier, wooden figure - or series of such wooden effigies which were originally intended as boundary landmarks.

Jill Bourne has noted that there is a tantalising suggestion of other 'Queens' at prominent boundaries. On the Sewstern Lane (the prehistoric trackway north-south which forms the boundary between Leicestershire and Lincolnshire) is the site of a now-demolished coaching inn called the 'Three Queens'. This is at the intersection with an north-east to south-west lane near Croxton Kerrial (130:860297). The inn stood in the north quadrant of the crossroads but is now just a depressed area of the field. The crop marks of an iron age barrow cemetery have been discovered within a few hundred yards to the south of the crossroads. This too suggests that the area was a 'boundary' area between tribes in the pre-Roman period.

The name 'Three Queens' is an unusual one for inns and suggests that some earlier landmark was being perpetrated - perhaps one dating back to the iron age? As with Braunston, one can speculate that there were one or more prominent wooden carvings or trees with anthropomorphic 'simulacra'.

So, should we see the Braunston figure as a strange tree, a goddess, a queen, or a whore? Food for speculation, undoubtedly, although solid answers seem forever unlikely.

Notes

1: Hunky punks, Peter Poyntz Wright, Avebury Publishing Co., 1982.
2: Details can be found in 'The Quaintree Hall House, Braunston, Rutland' by Prince Yuri Galitzine, Rutland Record, No.1, 1980 p25-31
3: The Old English word treow has a broader meaning than the modern English 'tree', as it also denotes a post or beam. For instance Trowbridge takes its name from a 'beam bridge'. Treow names may also be connected with boundaries. A good example is Elstree in Hertfordshire where there is a crossroads at which four parishes meet. The parish of Elstree itself is only very small, so it must be much later as a settlement than the four surrounding parishes.
4: A useful account of the origin of Rutland can be found in the same issue of Rutland Record as the Quaintree Hall House article: 'The emergence of Rutland and the making of the realm', Charles Phythian-Adams, Rutland Record No.1, 1980 p5-12

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.21 November 1994.


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