Locked Churches

..no security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the meeting house of a sect.

Simon Jenkins. England’s thousand best churches. 2002

Howe Hill, Felixkirk

Howe Hill is a prominent mound in the centre of the village. It was previously thought to be a Norman earthwork or Motte but is actually a prehistoric burial mound dating from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age. The site is still marked on the modern maps as a Motte.

The barrow has a beautiful tree growing on it and sits upon a natural knoll that has been bisected by the main road into the village. The primary views from the barrow are to the west across the Vale of Mowbray to the distant Pennines.

There is a Norman connection with the village, the local church was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century contains a number of Romanesque carved stones including this lovely capital depicting foliate heads.

St. Martin’s Church Kirklevington

The church at Kirklevington has been in existence since the early medieval period. The chancel is Medieval, the rest of the church was rebuilt during the nineteenth century. Many ancients stones were found during the rebuilding of the church and have been incorporated into the fabric of the church.

Inside the porch is the entrance arch to the church. The two orders are a bit of a hodge-podge of weathered stones. There are spirals carved onto the capitals and one has a carving of intertwined serpents which is quite hard to make out.

The Chancel Arch is much more satisfying. The left hand capital is beautifully carved with a man’s head, stars and spirals. Beside the capital is the carving of a lion. The capital on the right side is carved with a headless bird, beside it is a rather damaged carving that has been interpreted as an ox. There is a lovely booklet available at the church which informs us that these carving represent the four evangelists, Mark (lion), Mathew (the head), John (the bird), Luke (the ox).

There are quite a few Cross Slabs within the church. Cross slabs are difficult to date as they were used from the eleventh to the seventeenth century.

There are a number of stones embedded in the external walls including six chevroned stones which may have once formed part of an arch. I’m guessing these were left over from the rebuilding of the doorway arch.

This beautiful door handle is a nod to the ancient origins of the church.

A number of ancient carved stones were discovered during the rebuilding of the church. Many of the ancient cross fragments have been removed from the church and are currently being stored at the Preston Hall Museum, a few are on display. The stone below is part of a cross shaft and is probably my favourite local medieval stone. It is thought to depict the Norse god Odin and his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and mind). Odin’s ravens would fly out into the world and report what they saw to Odin.

Why is Odin depicted on a christian cross?

The early medieval period was a time of transition from the Pagan religions of northern Europe to Christianity. Nothing was straightforward, Pagan kings would succeed Christian Kings and the Christian church itself was split between two traditions, the celtic church and the church of Rome.

It may seem odd to us to see pagan imagery on a Christian cross shaft but the people of the early medieval period would have recognised and understood this imagery. Odin would have been a familiar figure to not only the people of Scandinavian descent but also to people who’s ancestors had travelled to our area from northern Europe.

Odin was known in the Anglo Saxon world as Woden, perhaps Woden was also worshipped in our islands prior to the arrival of the Anglo Saxons. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the majority of the Roman army was comprised of Auxiliaries. These units were manned by soldiers from territories that had fallen to Roman conquest. The majority of the Auxiliaries in our islands were composed of men from northern Europe, lands where Woden was a primary deity.

The Roman tradition was not to suppress the local belief in the gods of the lands they were conquering, they would associate local gods with Roman gods who possessed similar attributes, Woden/Odin was associated with the god Mercury because of his role on guiding the dead to the afterlife. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Northern European tribes worshipped Mercury. Wednesday (Wodin’s Day) is known in Latin as Mercurii dies (‘Day of Mercury’).

This carving has been interpreted as portraying the god Mercury, is in the church at Aldborough, the church is said to have been built on the site of a Roman shrine.

It’s an interesting aside to look at Odin and Jesus. Given the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that Odin may have originated in an older, shamanic-based belief system, if we detach ourselves from our christian assumptions we may also see similar shamanic elements in the life of Jesus.

In becoming a shaman there is generally a requirement for a ritual death and rebirth. Odin achieved this by hanging himself on a tree, Jesus was hung on a cross and then descended into the underworld before being reborn. Whilst on the tree, Odin pierced himself with his spear, whilst Jesus was on the cross he too was pierced with a spear.

Shaman are generally wanderers who undertake spirit journeys, Odin famously wandered in search of enlightenment, Jesus wandered with his small group of followers throughout his later life, the bible records his forty day solo journey into the Sinai desert without food or water. Both Jesus and Odin possessed the ability to speak to and raise the dead, Odin using his magic, Jesus by miraculous means, magic by a different name?

Perhaps the people of the past saw these similarities too. The early Christian church was very different to the church of today, the early Christian world was a place of mystics, demons, miracles, monks and local saints, many of who may have previously followed a pagan tradition.

Odin is thought to have hung himself on Yggdrasil, the world tree. The Pagans of northern Europe also had a world tree, Irminsul. These trees may have had their origins in the shamanic tradition where they symbolised the shaman’s journey between realms. Perhaps the cross represented the same idea to the early christians, an axis between the realms of heaven, earth and the underworld.

Resources

Anglian & Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the North Riding of Yorkshire. W.G. Collingwood. YAJ Vol.19. 1907

Yorkshire A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. G Points. 2007

Romanesque Yorkshire. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.9 Rita Wood. 2012

Archaeological Trail. St Martin’s Church. Kirklevington. A pamphlet available from the church.

Yggdrasil Image – Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Gary & Kate for arranging access to their lovely church.

Osmotherley – St. Peter’s Church

The Romanesque arch, weather-beaten but recognisable.

The ghost of a Beakhead

The Norman font, uncomplicated with a cable pattern below the rim.

A protection mark? A saltire scratched into the underside of the arch resembles similar motifs carved into the witch posts of the moorland villages.

An Anglo-Saxon crosshead.

Regarding the grooves on the porch wall behind the cross head. These grooves are found on many of the walls of old churches throughout Europe. Tradition has it that they were caused by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads prior to Sunday archery practice. In some parts of the country these stones are referred to as ‘Arrow Stones’. This seems like a highly unlikely explanation, the nature of the grooves would probably only serve to blunt a blade rather than sharpen it

Another possible, and more likely explanation for the grooves, is that they were caused by people collecting grit and dust from the church for use in folk medicines and ritual preparations. Any part of the fabric of a consecrated building, including water from the roof, was thought to have curative powers for both people and their livestock. The practice of collecting materials from a church, to use as a cure for all manner of ills, has been documented across Europe.

There is an old house on Marske High Street that has similar grooves on its external walls. I was told that it was once a schoolhouse and the grooves were caused by pupils sharpening their slate pencils on the building walls. An alternative explanation is that perhaps these stones were recycled from a previous building such as St. Germain’s Church or the medieval manor house that once existed on the outskirts of the town.

This cross shaft is thought to be Anglo-Danish. There is also the remains of an Anglo-Danish Hogback grave cover in the porch but it is is very eroded and barely recognisable.

Osmotherley

Asmundrelac 1086 Domesday Book

‘Asmund’s clearing’…A hybrid formation with a Norse inflexion of the of the first element suggests very intimate association of the Norse and Anglian speech.

The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire by A.H. Smith 1928

Wandering around Hexham Abbey

We took a trip up to Hexham, I spent half an hour wandering around the Abbey. As you walk into the Abbey you are faced with a Roman Tombstone, discovered in 1881, it is a memorial to Flavinus, a standard bearer. The carving depicts Flavinus riding over, what I presume is, a native Briton, the victors boot planted on his victims backside. The triumphs of past conquests are often displayed our churches, it is rare to see a memorial depicting our own islands conquest and defeat.

The original Saxon church was built using stone from nearby Roman sites. The church has been attacked many times during raids by the Vikings and later the Scots.

To the left of the High Altar is the Leschman Chantry Chapel, containing the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey from 1480 to 1491. The carvings on the tomb are an absolute joy.

Death & Burial – The Backside of the Church

Still-born and unbaptised children, persons executed in accordance with the law, felo-de-se,* and in fact all persons who laid violent hand on their own persons and brought themselves to an unnatural death, persons excommunicated either by ecclesiastical or civil law, and a variety of other offences deprived those so transgressing of the benefit of Christian interment – that is, there was neither service nor tolling of bell. They were also buried “within the night on the backside of the church.”

This antipathy to interment on the north also in a minor degree extended itself to the west end of the church. Witness the west end of the cemetery garth at High Coniscliffe, near Darlington, where till almost within the period of living memory no interments had taken place, the south and east portions alone being used.

*suicide

DT 1859

Seeking the Romanesque iii – North Grimston

Heading north out of Wolds I crossed into North Yorkshire and stopped to check out St Nicholas church at North Grimston. The church was built in the 12th century and has been remodelled over the years.

There are a number of corbels on the south wall, two of which are reputed to be of the exhibitionist type, one depicts a character gripping his ankles baring his backside and groin to the viewer, the other is a bloke in a similar position but with his penis in his hand. Sadly both are very worn and the detail is lost.

Rita Wood thinks that this carving of two animals may once have been from the original south doorway which was replaced in the 13th century. It reminded me of the small panel on the church at Newton under Roseberry.

I tried the church door, fully prepared to be disappointed, it opened, another jaw-dropping moment. I’d seen pictures of this stunning font but to have it there in front of me, to be able to put my hands on it, is an indescribable joy.

The font is one of the biggest in the country and depicts the the last supper and the crucifixion. There is a depiction of a bishop too, it seems to be the way of things that the bishop gets to feature on the font, I guess he commissioned this thing of beauty so pretty much deserves to be there.

The chancel arch, if I were to see this in any of our local churches I’d get quite excited but all I could think about was the magnificent font.

Back outside the church I took another wander around the walls. There are a number of small crosses scratched into the east and west walls, the crosses have been defined by four dots. I presume these are consecration crosses, places where the bishop anointed the original church with holy oil.

North Grimston..wow!

Etymology note

In old Norse Grimr is used as a byname for Óðinn. The name is identical with ON grimr ‘a person who conceals his name’, lit. ‘a masked person’, and related to OE grima ‘a mask’. It refers, like Grimnir to Óðinn‘s well known habit of appearing in disguise. No dout the Saxons used Grim in the same Way.

E. Ekwall

Sources

The Buildings of England Yorkshire: York and the East Riding – Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave. 1997

Romanesque Yorkshire. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Occasional Paper No. 9 – Rita Wood. 2012

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. Eilert Ekwall. 1974

Seeking the Romanesque ii – Kirkburn

Just a few miles away from the lovely church of Cowlem is Kirkburn. Both churches were restored by Sir Tatton Sykes in the nineteenth century and a part of a group of churches in North and East Yorkshire known as The Sykes Churches.

This church also has a connection with our area, in 1119 Robert de Brus founded Guisborough Priory and gave Kirkburn to his new foundation, the original church was probably built within the next twenty years.

Rita Wood describes the restoration as ‘not overdone’.

The corbels and capitals on the exterior north wall are all original, the corbels on the south wall of the are mostly original, they are all rather wonderful.

The church has a very beautiful Romanesque font which Pevenser describes as ‘A jumble of delightful rustic carvings’. I tried the door, sadly it was locked, I wasn’t complaining though, I had this stunningly beautiful arch to marvel at.

Pevsner tells us that ‘The Norman s doorway is spectacular if course, with three orders of big columns, volute and spiral capitals, beakhead and zigzag in the arch.’ I was overwhelmed by it.

Sources

The Buildings of England Yorkshire: York and the East Riding – Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave. 1997

Romanesque Yorkshire. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Occasional Paper No. 9 – Rita Wood. 2012

Thanks to Pat O’Halloran for keeping me right