The Newport Statuette

Saturday January 12th 1907

The Newport Statuette by T. P. Marshall

The other day, our friend, Mr. T. W. Picken, showed us a photograph, taken by the late Mr. Edward Jones, of the statuette in a niche near the south west angle of the tower of Newport Parish Church.  The figure is so weather-worn that it is impossible to comprehend its details and their bearing one upon the other, as seen from the graveyard or from the street. Fortunately, Mr. Picken’s photograph supplies that evidence which is not apparent to the naked eye; and it is evidence which should give the key to the identity of the person whom the statuette was originally intended to represent. We have heard two theories advanced as to that identity; and, as we do not accept either. We are sensible of the obligation to dispose of them, before we venture to set up another in their place. The most popular theory is that the statuette is that of King Henry II. Its popularity is based upon an actual fact, and is supported by the evidence of the armour in which the figure is depicted as being clad.

What is that fact? That Henry II confirmed the charter granted to Bois Marais by his ancestor, the first Henry of that ilk. Now, we could have had a clearer understanding of the theory if the claim had been that the statuette was meant to be that of the original grantor of the Charter by which Newborough was called into existence, for, though the fish merchants of the Norman colony in the wood by the marsh had to pay a price for their enfranchisement, their newborn freedom from feudal bonds would naturally evoke a certain sense of gratitude towards the monarch who had been their instrument of  liberty. As it is, however, the claim is for Henry II, to whom the municipal fathers of Newborough were in no sense indebted. The confirmation of their charter was not a spontaneous act of royal favour: on the contrary, it was a repetition of history: it had to be said for, and was thus on the same lines as the original grant itself. It was a custom of the kings of that age to make the granting of a charter, or other favour, contingent upon a return either in service or in gold. In the case of the charter as conferred by Henry I, the service was money and supplies for the army with which the Crown sought to crush Robert Belesme, the rebel Earl of Shrewsbury. Human nature in the l2th and l3th centuries was very much as it is today. We do not erect monuments to men who do not give us anything we do not pay for. Our posthumous honours are for the men who have been, in some way or other, our benefactors, not for fee or reward, but either out of love for or in the interests of their fellow men. Neither Henry had any claim upon Newborough,-save the annual tribute of fish; and, therefore, we may take it that the statuette in the niche of Newport Church tower is not likely to represent either of them.

 But there is the second theory: it is that the figure was sculptured and erected in memory of William Pantulf.  Pantulf was one of the men who came over with the Conqueror, by whom he was rewarded with the gift of several manors in Shropshire. As there was no manor of what is now Newport, he could not have been lord of that which did not exist. The site of our modern Newport was a wooded marsh, and, as such, was dubbed Bois Marais by those Norman settlers, who recognised the value of its vivary and turned it to account. Even when it became Bois Marais, it was not vested with separate manorial dignity, but continued to be an integral portion of the great manor Edgmond, of which Roger, Earl Montgomery, was the first Norman lord. There is no evidence of even the shadow of a lordship exercised by Pantulf, and there is nothing to warrant the assumption that he was the founder of Newport Church.  There is however, a sentimental connection between Pantulf and St. Nicholas, the saint to whom the church is dedicated. He was a very superstitious man, and it is said of him that it was his habit to sit for hours gazing at a tooth asserted to have been extracted from the jaw of St. Nicholas. It was not because of Pantulf’s devotion to the saint that Nicholas was chosen as the patron of the Church at Newborough, but because Nicholas was credited with being the guardian of fishermen. The new municipality had grown out of its staple, that of fishing; and that circumstance of itself would have induced us to discard the Pantulf claim, even if there had not been other factors to our decision on that point.

So far as we can discern the details of the armour, as shown on Mr. Picken’s photograph, the statuette may be ascribed to a comparatively early date of the era of our Norman kings; and we must, therefore, look for its original among the more notable men of those times who had a direct connection with this part of Shropshire. We shall have to be careful and discriminating; for we know there are critics who have never studied the subject, and who have no aptitude for its assimilation, who will be only too anxious to assail us if they can find the tiniest flaw in the joints of our harness. It will not suffice to pitch upon some particular individual because he was associated, in some way or other, either with Edgmond, Bois Marais, or Newborough, in the period between the reign of the first William and that of the second Henry. We must have the very soundest ground for any claim we may be bold enough to make, by which we mean that we shall have to indicate that which would  make one man’s memory a thing to be revered and perpetuated, not only by the men of his own generation, but also increasingly by the generations who follow them. We shall thus find that the limit of our investigation is narrowed down to a very small area.

The statuette is that of an armed man, clad in mail of the type worn at the time of the Norman invasion, and for many years after it. The warrior is depicted in a standing attitude, with his shield in an upright position before him. That shield is quartered, and each quarter is charged with a cognizance, the only one of which had not been obliterated when the photograph was taken being a crown in the sinister base. Now, in those days, a cognizance had some special and particular meaning: it was not chosen haphazard; it was not adopted without a definite purpose. It represented some quality in the man by whom it was first worn, or, if not exactly that, either something he had achieved, or some office or dignity which had been conferred upon him. A crown occupying the whole field would have stood for reigning royalty; in the dexter chief it might have signified royal blood and a close proximity to the steps of the throne. ln the sinister base, it implied deputed regal power, without any personal right to royalty. The charging of the shield of the Newport statuette, and the attendant evidence of the armour, circumscribes any theory as to the identity of the original of the figure to three individuals, viz., Earl Roger de Montgomery, Earl Hugh de Montgomery, and Robert Belesme, each of whom, successively, held the vice-royalty of Shropshire, and the lordship of Edgmond manor. Robert Belesme is out of the question: he was an enemy to the church; he never performed anything likely to prompt the people to perpetuate his memory. Earl Hugh’s career was too short to have enabled him to do aught that was remarkable. Thus the point is tapered down to the great Earl Roger.

In what way had Roger established his claim to be recognised and honoured by the fishermen and merchant-traders of Newborough?  Edgmond was one of the manors which were donated to him by the Conqueror. The character of the manor at that time may help us towards a solution of our problem. Part of the land was under plough, and part was in grass for cattle feeding; there was a mill on the Strine; and there was a fishery. The outlying part of the manor, to the North, was a wooded marsh, which drained into a chain of lakes: those lakes constituted the fishery. When Domesday book was compiled, that fishery was of very little value. It had never been exploited by its English owners to whom it was an accidental asset, of the commercial value of which they were ignorant. The new-comers, being men of the world, could see further than the home-keeping Saxon, with his rustic notions, his narrowed vision, and that adherence to custom which reduced his progress to that of the circuit of a horse harnessed to a gin. There were two “French Men” at Edgmond. We take it that they were the men who first worked the fishery, and either founded, or were the progenitors of the founders of the colony by the marsh in the wood: that Bois Marais, or Beaumaris, which became incorporated as Newborough, and is represented by our modern Newport.

It was Earl Roger who granted permission for the planting of the colony. It was he who encouraged its growth into a town, and its development into a trading centre. He was the nursing father of the community: the one who did anything to earn the lasting gratitude of the people in that early period of our local history. That being so, we suggest that the statuette is that of Earl Roger de Montgomery. In making this suggestion, we are alive to the fact that our critics, who dare not put their objections into the cold nakedness of a newspaper column, will draw their chairs together, and whisper to each other, “It’s all piffle: the fellow knows nothing about it. It cannot be the statuette of Earl Roger, for Newport Church tower, as we know it today, was only built in the Plantagenet era.” It is true that the tower goes no further back than the Plantagenets; but there was a Church and a Church tower at Newport long before that. There was a Church and a resident priest at Bois Marais, or Beaumaris before the fishermen and merchant traders of that place obtained from Henry I the charter which made the town Newborough. When that Church was restored in the Plantagenet period, its most remarkable features would be preserved; and, hence, the statuette, which occupied a prominent place in the original edifice was placed in the niche of the tower, where it has stood ever since.

January 19th 1907

Mr. T. W. Picken writes:-

Regarding this interesting feature on Newport’s old Church tower, time and weather are slowly but surely effacing the proper proportions of the image. It is sculptured on a thick slab of light-coloured sandstone up to the shoulders, the head above being full size with a hollow place behind a figure of dignity. It is Norman in appearance, and some nearly 800 years must have elapsed since its connection with the first church and the present. My old friend, the late Mr. E. Jones who was painstaking, gifted with the spirit of research, and much helped by eminent and equerrian(?) friends, left the following information, which I copy from his notes: “The tower is built in the style of Edward II, and the image in arched recess upon it is that of a Knight, arrayed in flat headed chain armour, a sword in right hand, a shield in left with a crown upon it.” Mr. Jones had a theory how St. Nicholas became the patron Saint of our Church. The borough of Newport and Church were founded by Henry I, within a few years of the rebellion and deposition of Robert de Belesme, Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1102, after which the King entirely re-organised the County and Earldom.

The local Baron who had most contributed to the King’s subjugation of the Earl was William Pantulf of Wem, who 10 years before, had brought certain wonder-working relics of Saint Nicholas back with him from Apulia, there were chapels of Norman date dedicated to St. Nicholas in the castles of Shrewsbury and Montgomery, doubtless traceable to the same man’s influence, as both these castles fell into the King’s hands at this period. William Pantulf was one of the officers to whom Roger de Montgomery entrusted the administration of affairs in his Earldom of Shropshire, and chief administrator in his absence. This same William Pantulf was in high favour with Henry I, having assisted him after the Battle of Bridgnorth. Richard I granted, in 1197, to Hugh Pantulf, 40 solidates of land in Newport, whereof he, Hugh, was possessed in 1211. It is very likely that William Pantulf erected our first Church in Newport, either on his own account or for one of his patrons, Roger de Montgomery, Norman Earl of Shrewsbury, or the King himself, Henry I is, of course a matter of conjecture as to whom the effigy really represents, so long a period has passed, and no documentary evidence to go by.

No doubt it is either the founder or patron of our first church. I have heard, in old time, that it was thought to be Roger de Montgomery; and, after Mr. Marshall’s masterly treatment of the subject, it is quite within the bounds of reason to say that it is.  A while ago, I had the late Mr. E. Jones “History of Newport Church,“ which he intended publishing in connection with his “History of Newport,” given me by his widow – a work of much labour containing much information that will not be readily obtained again – written in a copy book. I opine it has been lent during my absence. If these remarks should come under the notice of anyone in possession of the book, I should be glad if they would return it.   TWP

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