Some time ago a John Piper image had led me to visit the Church of St. Michael at Barton-le-street. The village is located on the B1257, the ‘le-street’ element of the village name indicates that it is on the course of a Roman road, in this case the Roman road from Malton to Hovingham.
I had previously visited the church during the winter, the weather was terrible and the church was locked. I was completely overwhelmed by the carvings in the porch and knew that I would have to return in the summer when the church was open.
The church was rebuilt in 1871 by Perkins & Sons of Leeds. Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as a sumptuous small Norman church rebuilt without and restraint. Rita Wood remarks that many small Romanesque churches draw gasps of amazement for the amount of carving encrusting them, but there seems to be even more carving than usual here, of high quality and great interest.
The arcaded corbel tables and string course from the original church have been moved into the porch and body of the church. Everywhere you look there are beautiful carvings including Victorian carvings in the Romanesque style.
But a Norman pulpit takes some stomaching – Nikolaus Pevsner
The Victorian corbel table on the exterior of the church contains some beautiful carvings. It makes you wonder whether the carved faces are of some of the people involved in the restoration.
I don’t really have the expertise to accurately describe what is going on in this incredible church. If you are in the area I’d definitely recommend a visit. If you want to know more about the church it’s worth taking a look at Dav Smith’s paper, St Michael and All Angels, Barton-le-Street: an Important Scheme of Romanesque Sculpture which can be found here
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Romanesque stone carvings recently so decided to take a trip into East Yorkshire to seek out a couple of sites. My previous brief explorations of Romanesque East Yorkshire were inspired by a series of images taken by John Piper so once again I allowed Piper to be my guide. Scrolling through the Tate’s collection of his photographs I found an image of a font in the church at Langtoft. A combination of the image, and the Scandinavian sounding name of the village, gave me a destination.
A diversion into Prehistory
Driving into the Wolds I passed through the village of Duggleby. I stopped briefly to say hello to the Great Barrow of Duggleby Howe, formerly known as Odin’s Howe. Dating from the Neolithic, the Great Barrow sits at the centre of a concentric ditched enclosure with an external diameter of 370m making it one of the largest Neolithic monuments in Britain. The enclosure, discovered in 1979, is only visible as a cropmark.
Back to the Romanesque
Moving on to Langtoft I arrived at the lovely church located on the outskirts of the village and was greeted by one of my favourite signs ‘Church Open’.
The church is very nice, Nikolaus Pevsner tells us that the tower is early C13 and that the church was thoroughly restored in 1900-3
To be honest I wasn’t here to admire the church, I was here to see this gem, a drum shaped baptismal font.
The font came from the nearby deserted Medieval village of Cottam. All that remains of Cottam are a series of cropmarks and a ruined brick-built church.
Pevsner describes the carvings on the font as primeval, I like that. Rita Wood describes this panel as a complex threefold tree (probably a Tree of Life, the heavenly reward)…In this tree, two parts rooted in heaven, entwined with one standing on earth. The tree of life or world tree is an archetype which occurs in almost all major belief systems. It generally represents a link between different realms, a cosmic axis.
This scene depicts the fall of man, Eve is tempting Adam with forbidden fruit while the serpent looks on.
This carving represents the crucifixion of Saint Andrew on his X-shaped cross.
Rita Wood tells us that this is a carving of a combination of a bird and a snake. I think it could just as easily be a Wyvern. The combination of a rooster and a snake is known as a Cockatrice. The Cockatrice is mentioned in the bible, it is said to have the ability to kill with just one look, the only animal immune to its glare is a weasel.
This carving depicts the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Lawrence was martyred by placing him upon a large iron grid set over hot coals. Whilst undergoing this horrible procedure Lawrence is reputed to have said to his torturer, “you can turn me over now, this side is done”. For this the catholic church made him the patron saint of cooks and comedians.
The final carving depicts St. Margaret of Antioch bursting out of the gut of a dragon. Margaret survived being swallowed by the beast because she was wearing a crucifix. The cross irritated the beast’s gut causing it to split and expel the saint. Margaret was finally killed by beheading.
I took a walk around the outside of the church. During the restoration of the church, most of the original stonework was redressed I was however able to find a few bits of graffiti including one possible Marian mark. The overlapping Vs of the mark are thought to represent the Virgin Mary.
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.
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.
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.
Shamans 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Buildings of England Yorkshire: York and the East Riding – Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave. 1997
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.
The Buildings of England Yorkshire: York and the East Riding – Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave. 1997