Red Man or Green Man?

I enjoyed visiting the current exhibition at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a few days ago. It’s called ‘West Country to World’s End - The South West in the Tudor Age’ and I’ll write more about it in due course.

A well produced book of the same title accompanies the exhibition, which I enjoyed so much that I bought a copy.

Budleigh people will admire the impressively life-size portrait by an unknown artist of the area’s great Elizabethan hero Sir Walter Raleigh and his eight-year-old son Walter. On loan from the National Portrait Gallery the work was painted in 1602 when he was enjoying Queen Elizabeth’s favour, and shows in great detail, as the printed commentary explains, the expensive clothes worn by father and son: Sir Walter is wearing a jacket embroidered with seed pearls while the boy’s blue suit is silver-braided.  This link on the excellent and useful Wikipedia will take you to see it at

But why is there no mention of Sir Walter’s birthplace in East Budleigh, only a 30 minute drive from Exeter?  


The 2010 guide to All Saints, one of Devon's most celebrated churches

And while much of the exhibition gives rightful prominence to the magnificence and sophistication of arts and crafts enjoyed by rich and powerful patrons in 16th century South West England there is surprisingly not one image or mention of one of the glories of East Budleigh in All Saints Church where Sir Walter Raleigh and his family worshipped.

“It is not Raleigh that makes this church a ‘must-visit’, nor even the very beautiful gilded bosses, but the wonderful 16th-century carved bench ends,” writes Hilary Bradt in her 2010 book Slow Devon and Exmoor. “These are quite extraordinary, and deserve as much time as you can give them.”

This bench end depicting a ship is said by some to have inspired the young Sir Walter Raleigh in his overseas explorations. For a detailed study of this bench end see 

Nearer home, another admirer of the bench ends is Fairlynch Museum volunteer steward Hanneke Coates whose illustrations in the 2010 booklet All Saints Church and the Village of East Budleigh show some of the carvings in good detail. 


Opinions vary as to the interpretation of this particular bench end.  It’s described by the photographer Rex Harris at
as a ‘wodewose’ or ‘wildman of the woods’, a figure often known as a Green Man with ancient links to natural vegetative deities in cultures from earliest times in places around the world. That view seems to be shared by David Jenkinson, writing about the East Budleigh bench ends for the Otter Valley Association’s Ovapedia in 2010 where he describes the carvers as influenced by the threatening mythical creatures of the Dark Ages, including such examples as the wodewose and boggarts or malevolent spirits of the fields.  Click on to read more.

New Age thinkers like the Dutchman Han Marie Stiekema have embraced the concept of the Green Man, listing the East Budleigh bench end as one of its many examples at 

However Rex Harris or Sheepdog Rex as he calls himself, also acknowledges that the bench end is “often referred to as a Red Indian because of (the) Raleigh connection.”  That was the view taken by Budleigh Salterton’s Dr Brushfield in his 1892 study of the Church of All Saints. “A large bearded head in profile, facing left, situated in the concavity of an arabesque ornament, and terminating in a scroll-like decoration,” he wrote. “It bears some resemblance to, and has been called, the decorated head of an Indian.”

“It’s hard not to think ‘Red Indian!” writes in a similar vein the Devon-based founder of the Bradt Travel Guides, having described the figure on the bench end wearing what seems to be a feathered headdress. A sailor returning from the New World would have remembered the more flamboyant aspects and perhaps described them to local craftsmen,” suggests Hilary Bradt. “But the ‘feathers’ could also be foliage,” she admits in deference to the Green Man’s followers. 

It’s a view shared by Hanneke in her 2010 church guide. In fact she is passionate in what she describes as the belief held by locals - and she counts herself as such - that the bench end depicts a North American Indian.  “That of course is completely different from what the historians write,” she says. “But I’ve spent a long time studying and drawing the bench ends and I know them intimately.”

The difference in interpretation of the carvings by locals as opposed to historians is for Hanneke a fascinating aspect of the East Budleigh bench ends. “I’d love to write a booklet on that subject,” she told me.

It’s easy to embrace the notion that the whole of Tudor Devon was abuzz with stories told in towns and villages by sailors returning from voyages to the ‘World’s End’ led by Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh. Dr Michael Tisdall has devoted many years to studying the significance of the carvings of plants and leaves in medieval churches. His book God’s Flowers: an iconography for foliage decoration was published last year.


Many visitors to East Budleigh will have learnt that this bench end depicts a tongue-sticker. It may have been a carver’s depiction of a tale-bearer punished for his sin by being given an enormous deformed tongue. Or simply a fairground-type freakshow. 

Dr Tisdall, quoted by Hilary Bradt, has a rather different view. “It is my idea that it is a banana. Bananas would have been known to Raleigh’s crew. They sailed via the Azores where bananas were in production and some were taken across to these new West Indies and planted there. So either a banana or a drawing or other memory of a banana would be very likely in East Budleigh.”

Well, I don’t know. But it’s fun to let the imagination range across the seas and the centuries.

And the RAMM exhibition can only help.  Do go, and don’t miss the exhibit described as a 17th century tile depicting a Native American, found in the little North Devon village of Monkleigh.

I mean of course, the tile. Now that would be a story wouldn’t it, to discover that the All Saints bench end craftman’s work had been carved from life?

To read more about RAMM click on


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