Where to find the mysterious ‘Green Men’ in Norfolk

Here’s a word of caution. Whoever goes in search of the ‘Green Man’ in Norfolk churches may find themselves drawn into a never-ending quest.

The who, when and why of this leafy character, often disgorging leaves and stems from his mouth, nose or even his eyes, has always been elusive.

It was well into the 20th century before the name Green Man was used for these curious carvings on bench ends, corbels, choir stalls, screens and roof bosses. Before that, they were simply ‘foliate heads’ with origins going back as far as 8th century BC classical Rome and perhaps beyond.

It was only when Julia Hamilton, Lady Raglan of Monmouthshire coined the name ‘Green Man’ in her 1939 Folklore article on pagan church symbolism that people began to take notice and to speculate about the origins of the foliate head. Then when Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, known for his 46-volume The Buildings of England,  adopted the name Green Man it stuck.

But Lady Raglan’s claim that foliate heads had been passed down from an ancient pagan tradition together with the May Day figure Jack-in-the-Green was soon dismissed by researchers. After all, where was the evidence for Jack-in-the-Green before the 18th century?

Confusion also arose with pubs called the Green Man, but they only became popular from the 17th century and depicted a forester, a wild man or Robin Hood, rather than the green men found in churches.

And if the Green Man was purely pagan, why was he seen everywhere in European churches from 11th to the 16th century? Did pagans sneak him into monastic Christian churches? Hardly likely say researchers, since he is thought to have crossed the channel with the Normans when paganism had been all but wiped out. Magnificent examples from this period can be seen in Norwich Cathedral with green men in all their gilded splendour among more than 1,000 roof bosses.

In Norfolk churches, the Green Man is not always recognisable. You may think you’ve spotted him when what you’ve discovered is a woodwose, a mythical wild man wielding a large club, often seen flanked by lions round the base of a font which he has cowed into submission. It was widely believed he could therefore scare away evil spirits. He’s not the Green Man though.

There are many other wonderful inventions of the medieval mind in churches. Demons and monsters represent the forces of evil or the folly of man, while creatures such as griffins or unicorns were used in churches to tell people how to (or how not to) behave. Green men may have been recruited in a similar way or they may have been purely decorative and therefore neutral. For example, a wealthy church patron might well have sat down with an architect or stone mason to choose from a stack of random images to adorn their church. Foliate heads would no doubt have been among them.

It is unclear what Green Men symbolise but scholars have suggested the entanglement of sin, the Garden of Eden, lost souls, or the decaying corpse. The Gothic revival of the Victorian era saw foliate heads decorating everything from church furnishings to garden ornaments and domestic door knockers.

The Green Man’s most recent revival is focused on ecology and our relationship with nature. He has been co-opted for films and festivals, bicycles, and breweries, all chiming with Lady Raglan’s ideas on his pagan origins. It seems this character can be made to suit our particular needs at any one time.

It’s easy to package up the Green Man as a Celtic fertility symbol or a version of a Hindu statue, as some have suggested, but no-one really knows who he is and his appearance varies so much that it’s impossible to slot him into a single notion.

The Green Man remains an enigma and a source of fun and fascination. Seek him out in our wonderful Norfolk churches. Make a day of it and prepare to be amazed and amused. Many churches have examples of the Green Man and below there are six for you to discover.

Six Norfolk Churches to find the mysterious green man

King’s Lynn Minster (St Margaret), King’s Lynn

View Church

St Margaret of Antioch’s, Cley-next-the-Sea

View Church

St Nicholas, St Mary and St Thomas’s, Blakeney

View Church

All Saints, Sharrington

View Church

St Peter and St Paul’s, Salle

View Church

All Saints, Weston Longville

View Church