They come in many different shapes, forms and sizes and are believed to have originated in France during the 12th century; however, a lion mask on the Acropolis in Athens dating from the 4th century indicates a much earlier history. In any event, strange and mysterious gargoyles can still be seen perched strategically on the corners of buildings as rainwater gushes from their mouths. Some sculptures resemble half man, half beast creatures with grotesque features that must have scared the ancients into believing these very beasts warded off evil spirits.
As I researched my book Extraordinary Places…Close to London I came across many strange sculptures in various churches and important buildings. For instance, in the village of Thaxted in the county of Essex there is a variety of sculptured faces in the church of St. John the Baptist, St. Mary and St. Lawrence.
Following is an excerpt from Extraordinary Places…Close to London (Thaxted, Essex.)
The church is quite exquisite and still dominates the town. It has been described as one of the most beautiful and architecturally pleasing in the country. The foundations were laid and work began on the church in 1340 but it was completed until 1510. No one knows for sure who the original benefactors of the church were but the Cutlers, townspeople and the House of Clare who owned the Manor are all thought to be instrumental in its construction. The influential family of the House of Clare had connections to the Crown, so it is assumed that royalty also contributed to the initial funds.
The walls of St. John the Baptist Church are made of flint with decorations in limestone. The roofs are constructed of lead with the exception of the tiled north and south porch chambers. During construction of the church the artisans were asked to carve their own likeness in the rafters. Some have portrayed themselves with smiling faces, others are quite grim but yet some have shown a sense of humor by poking their tongues out. There are various ancient chests around the church holding age-old linens that are still used during services. The splendid organ used by Holst as he composed The Planets Suite and some of his other works sits quietly against a wall in the church.
It is believed the famous St. Thomas of Beckett, who was killed at Canterbury Cathedral on orders of King Henry II, was interred under the floor of the church.