The Abbey at Whitby was one of the earliest Romanesque buildings to be erected in the North of England but my focus today was on the neighbouring church of St Mary. A while ago my friend Chris Corner posted a picture of a head carved on a capital within the church, so on a whim, I headed over the storm-battered moor road to see what I could find.
I’ve visited this church many times in the past but this was prior to my explorations of Early Medieval stonework, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The south door with its arch and carved spiral capitals lifted my spirits.
Inside the church I made my way between the beautiful box pews to the chancel arch. The arch is mostly hidden behind the upper level, the lord of the manor’s pew. There is a second arch over the entrance to the tower but this has been completely hidden behind the organ.
On the capital of the left hand arch is a carving of a head emitting unfurling foliage. This bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Green Man’ carving in Marske Church.
There are other foliate heads to be found locally at Easington, Liverton and Lythe .
One of the capitals on the right hand side of the arch has a carved head with a star on either side. The star is not an uncommon motif on Northern English Early Medieval stonework.
There are other elements of early stone work to be found in and around this lovely church, coupled with the Abbey next door, it is a wonderful place to visit. For me, with the failing light and the howling gale of Storm Barra blowing across the clifftop, it was time to head for home.
..that of all the unfortunately plain – not to say ugly – structures which do duty for churches in Cleveland this is about the plainest and the most tasteless. One ancient buttress, of Early English character, remains on the north side of the chancel, and that is all which is left to testify to the former existence on this site of a really ecclesiastical building.
History of Cleveland Ancient & Modern Vol.1 Rev J. C. Atkinson. 1874
The lovely Norman font was brought from the ruined church of St Andrew at Upleatham. Rita Wood describes it as square with corner columns and central panels that have bold, well-carved geometric patterns. She tells us that there are similar fonts at Marske and Sneaton that are likely to have been carved by the same person.
There are a number of stone fragments inside the church including Upleatham’s Big Stone.
One of the stone fragments is the remains of a Hogback Grave that has probably been re-used as a building block. it is described as a child’s gable-end grave slab. It is classified as a Type E (dragonesque) Hogback, a type confined to the east coast of Yorkshire. It closely resembles two examples found at Lythe.
The Hogback stone has had a bit of a journey. It was found during an excavation at Upleatham old church, it was then moved into the new church in the village. When the new church was converted into a private home the stone was moved to Kirkleatham museum, where it is currently listed as being located.
History of Cleveland Ancient & Modern Vol.1 Rev. J.C. Atkinson. 1874
Romanesque Yorkshire. Rita Wood. 2012
Yorkshire – A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. Guy Points. 2007
I called in to St Oswald’s Church at Lythe today. I’ve been here many times and never tire of visiting this lovely church. The church is a welcoming space, left open for visitors and has built a lovely display of it’s Anglo-Scandinavian collection of carved stones.
This is a marked difference to a number of our local churches which would prefer to keep their doors locked apart from an hour or two on occasional Sundays.
Church attendance across the mainstream christian denominations in the UK is generally in decline and in our area we see many churches locked for the majority of the time. Faith Survey 2020
Not being a christian myself I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to explore the reasons why church attendances are falling, but as someone who takes an interest in local history and the cultural life of the area I feel that local communities are being denied access to these spaces for little or no reason.
Our local churches are not only places of worship, they are also the custodians of local history, their architecture and memorials are physical records of the history and culture of our towns and villages. In my opinion, the exclusion of the greater community from accessing local churches will only accelerate a sense of detachment and lack of ownership of these beautiful spaces.
I’d also like to mention parochial houses being left empty. At a time when access to affordable housing is an issue in so many of our communities, the various church authorities seem to have no issues with allowing good quality houses to lie empty.
The church at Lythe is dedicated to Saint Oswald. Oswald was born on in the kingdom of Dal Riata, an Irish-speaking region covering the west coast of Scotland and part of Ulster. He converted to Christianity and had strong links with the monastery of Iona. When his uncle King Edwin was killed by a Welsh king in 633, Oswald claimed the kingdom and successfully fought off his rivals to become king. Oswald then invited Irish monks from Iona to found a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne.
Oswald’s ambition led him to successfully expand his kingdom throughout many parts of Britain and through both conquest and alliance he became the overlord of many British kingdoms. He was also instrumental in the conversion many Anglo-Saxon kings to Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to him as, Bretwalda, a king of kings.
Oswald was killed by the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield, at a place generally identified with Oswestry (Oswald’s Tree) and soon became regarded as a saint, the first Northumbrian saint and martyr. his head was interred in Durham Cathedral with the remains of Saint Cuthbert.
It is not known when the original church was founded, the first written reference to the church is in the Domesday book. A large number of funeral remains and Viking gravestones known as Hogbacks have been found indicating that the site of the church was once an important Viking burial ground. A number of these stones, which date from the Viking and Medieval periods, are on permanent display within the church.
Sound Artist and all-round great bloke, Chris Whithead has produced a short film showing the interior of the church accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack of Chris’s field recording. Lythe Church by Chris Whitehead