The Parish of Holy Trinity and St Peter’s, Ilfracombe

 The mediaeval corbels of Holy Trinity 

The early Fourteenth Century corbels are one of the unique features of Holy Trinity

Twenty-eight mythical beasts lean in from the height of the nave and one might imagine their impact in 1321, when the Bishop commanded that the church be extended to give space for the whole community of Ilfracombe. This was the time before the large perpendicular windows and the wagon roofs were added. To look upward in the dim, rush-lit interior might well have brought a moment of terror to see these strange creatures peering down and straining under the weight of the roof. The flicker of naked flames might add a deception of animation to the monsters; are they about to leap down from the walls?

They are not mere decoration. The beasts form corbels (a projection designed to bear the weight of a vault or beam) and their size suggests that they originally supported the larger trusses of an earlier roof. Allen Hussell, one of our local architects writing circa 1909, suggests that the corbels may date to the time of Bishop Stapledon’s enlargement of the church in 1321. The wingless angels are later in date, probably part of the design for the fifteenth-century wagon roof.

The corbels deserve close attention. All but one are in good condition.  They show a great vividness in the carving and are designed to be appreciated from the sides as well as the front. They are in matched or, sometimes, contrasting pairs, facing each other across the nave. Some represent real creatures, the bird (N1 – see below for descriptions and suggestions about the representations) or the finely carved lions (N8 and S8).

Others are mythological, for instance, the dragon (S2), the griffins (N & S5), the basilisk (S13) or the demons (N2, S4, N & S13). There are grotesques (figures with recognisable human or animal characteristics but which are deformed by the addition of tails or wings) at N & S6, and S7. There are a large number of dog-like creatures in various attitudes and moods. When humans appear (S10, N & S12) they have obvious sexual significance.


Of great interest is that some corbels have sockets in their heads, suggesting that horns were once added. Thus, the horse-like creature (N4) becomes a unicorn and its opposite number becomes an even more fearsome, cloven-hoofed demon. The grotesque at S7 (and, presumably its missing counterpart at N7) had two horns whilst the dog-like N & S14 each had one horn.

It would be a wonderful project to restore the horns and appreciate their full impact!

It is interesting to ponder the meaning and iconography of the creatures. Sometimes in mediæval churches representations of good and evil are contrasted, usually the good being on the left-hand and the bad on the right (this echoing a Doom, or painting of the Last Judgement, placed on the chancel arch, and showing Christ separating the good from the bad to His right and left).

Some of Holy Trinity’s corbels might fit with this idea, the bird (representing faith, wisdom or the Holy Spirit) at N1, the passive lion (N8) perhaps showing patience in contrast to the anger of his opposite, the roaring lion (S8), the unicorn (an emblem of chastity) at N4.

However, there is no consistency is this North-South divide. Griffins (emblematic of power, wisdom and bravery) appear on both sides (N & S5) as do the phallic man and monkey, who perhaps represent pride (N & S10), and the male and female (possibly a siren) representing lust or temptation (N & S12).

Two other interesting pairs are at N & S6 and N & S9. The first pair shows humanoid grotesques with silly grins, large ears and prominent bellies; they might represent foolishness or gluttony.

The second pair is dog-like and differs from all the others in that they have their heads turned towards the altar (all the others look down into the nave). Since they are positioned in line with the North and South porches, one might speculate that they are intended to remind the viewer to look back at the altar before leaving, they certainly have that effect today.

So, why are such figures used in mediaeval churches?  It is sometimes thought that they were the whimsical response of masons to the rather boring tasks of providing a necessary structural support (as with these corbels) or of taking rainwater away from the walls of the church (as is the case with gargoyles) but this is unlikely. Such objects are skilfully made and would be costly in terms of both time and money.  Some of Somerset’s mediaeval churches feature similar creatures, referred to as hunky punks, and we might assume that our corbels are their distant cousins.

It is likely that they are intended to show the subjugation of evil and vice (many carvings show obscene as well as grotesque depictions) to the will and service of God’s Church. In the case of our corbels, the creatures are put into service to carry the heavy roof and they strain their forelimbs in response to the weight. The message is that evil exists, reminding the viewer, “like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), but that God and the Church can overcome that evil.


  Suggested symbolism Description Description Suggested symbolism  
N1 Faith, wisdom, the Holy Spirit Bird with scroll
The most passive and realistic
Dog   S1
N2   Demon
One long barbed horn (other missing?)
Dragon evil S2
N3   Horse-like creature with phallus Dog? With cloven hooves   S3
N4 chastity Horse-like
Single hole in middle of head suggesting a unicorn
Demon with cloven hooves
Single hole in middle of head
N5   Griffin Griffin power, bravery, wisdom S5
N6   Grotesque
Prominent belly, tail, large ears, most cartoon-like – Idiot?
Prominent belly, tail, large ears, most cartoon-like – Idiot?
N7   Missing except for feet and tail which match the opposite Grotesque with two holes in forehead
Hairy feet and tail
N8 patience Passive lion Roaring lion wrath S8
N9 faith Dog? Head turned towards the altar Dog? Head turned towards the altar faith S9
N10 pride ? Monkey – phallic ? Man – phallic pride S10
N11   Dog Demon   S11
N12 lust Male – phallic Female – prominent breasts and tail.  A siren?



N13   Horned demon Horned demon with prominent teeth Basilisk S13
N14   Dog with big teeth and single hole in middle of forehead Dog with single hole in middle of forehead   S14