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I once visited a temple in India where all the statues were, well, rude. They were so rude, in fact, that they even offended my rather broad upbringing. Perhaps one even expects to find such statues in foreign places, but one would never think that Shropshire contained them. The truth of the matter is that three churches in Shropshire contain sheela-na-gigs. One of these three churches contains two, and the total of four in the county make up almost twenty-five percent of the total number in the country!
A sheela-na-gig is a rather crude sculpture, a sort of three-dimensional pin-up, and normally comprises a grinning, squatting woman with legs wide apart, and, usually, because of their age, the details are fortunately worn to an extent that they can no longer be discerned easily. The carvings are always primitive which implies either work by early, unskilled masons, or perhaps work by masons recreating something from an earlier age.
The original purpose of these statues is unknown, some believe they may have been some sort of fertility symbol, others that they are of Norman origin and are no more or less than early Christian art. But what is strange is that they have survived through the centuries which brought puritanism, morality and the Reformation. Not only have they survived but they have, on occasion, even been replaced because of popular opinion, after having been first removed by pious Christians. Generally, those that have survived are to be found in rural churches, which is not strange when one considers that country folk have always had a different approach to sex than have townsfolk. Perhaps that is because, being country folk, we are daily surrounded by, and reminded of, the reproductive cycle, be it animal or plant. The examples in Shropshire can be found at Church Stretton, Holdgate and Tugford.
The church at Church Stretton is a large and dignified structure with Norman origins. The statue can be found outside over the north doorway. It is probably not in its original position, which implies that it was removed from an earlier structure, or at least moved to its present position when the church was altered.
Holdgate and Tugford churches are both to be found in the parish of Tugford in Corve Dale. Holdgate has a deserted feel to it as it was once a much larger settlement. It was once called Castle Holdgate, as a motte and bailey castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest. In 1280, Robert Burnell built a fortified manor house here, before he built at Acton Burnell, and the church was built at the same time. It is worth remembering that the king wanted Burnell to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus it is unlikely that such a man would have allowed his church to be built with a pagan image on the wall if it had offended the Christian morals of that time. The statue can be found on an outside wall of the chancel. Again, it seems that this is not its original position.
Tugford church stands only a mile or so from Holdgate and was an established village at the time of the Domesday Survey. A reference to a chapel here dates from as early as 1138, and here can be found two sheela-na-gigs flanking the doorway. Yet again, they seem to have been moved from their original position. I suppose we will never know the true origin of these unusual statues. Each theory as to their origin can be made convincing, if stated with sufficient conviction, and each theory can be disputed by yet another theory.
Personally, I am rather pleased we will never know their true meaning or origin. Because of this lack of knowledge, they will most likely survive, if only as a curiosity, but something ought to be done to preserve them as their detail is slowly diminishing.