As I begin to further explore the surviving early art and architecture of the North, I’m starting to feel like I am beginning to properly experience the area’s Scandinavian heritage. Particularly in parts of North Yorkshire; especially in its churches and church-yards. Driving, cycling and walking on different trips across areas where I’ve been to visit multiple sites has helped considerably in achieving and reaching this state of mind. In this way I’ve come to make certain journeys myself between various sites in which you notice along the way, for example, the deep valleys and dense woodland around which these places are situated, in a landscape which is still as untamed as the earliest of writers originally described them.
Living in and exploring the North, it’s been tougher at times to experience some truly Saxon history. The North played a huge part in the making of England, but much of what remains to this day in terms of early stone is small, fragmented and is later in date. It’s ‘Viking’. Embracing this then, today I’d like to share some photographs I took at two ancient, North Yorkshire churches: Sinnington, All Saints and Ellerburn, St. Hilda’s, where I was intrigued by the extraordinary placement of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish sculpture in the fabric of their walls. The pieces are an exhibition of the art and creativity in Northumbria and the two churches are incredible, open air museums of early stonework. The point of their relocation into the church wall also calls into question attitudes towards their preservation and function throughout history.
A good number of small village churches in the Vale of Pickering between the North York Moors (to the north) and the Yorkshire Wolds (to the south) contain traces of early sculpture and architecture, suggestive to the amount of it at once present in the Yorkshire landscape during the time of the Scandinavian settlement of Northumbria. St. Andrew’s church at Middleton near Pickering, for example, is a well known site of archaeological interest because of its Viking age sculpture – particularly its Viking standing stone crosses. The church continues to protect 5 remarkable crosses. One of which not long ago returned from a loan spell in the display of a major Viking exhibition. Middleton and its spectacular sculpture has been the subject of much art historical study and writing, so therefore I won’t share many of my photographs from St. Andrew’s for the time being. Although, because of its significance I will have to mention St. Andrew’s church at Middleton from time to time. Instead then, as I’ve said, I’ll share my images from Sinnington and Ellerburn – exceptional sites in their own right for the sheer volume of individual pieces present in the fabric of their walls.
Much of the 10th and 11th century sculpture at both sites is of good quality – apart from the innumerable, weathered cross-shaft fragments in Sinnington’s blocked west door. Indeed, the majority of the sculpture at both sties come from standing stone crosses.
The decoration of much of the present sculpture comes from a period of early Christian art where the teachings of Christ were expressed through Scandinavian design. The changing iconography and visual programs of the Insular world led into a period of spectacular Viking age art. At Sinnington and Ellerburn interlace, knot-work and ring-work patterns, typical of late-Saxon, Anglo-Danish and Scandinavian design, are common across most of the pieces. The busier and perhaps more intriguing fragments are decorated with contorted beasts. In one case a figure of Christ.
When were they put there? What were they before they were lumped into the wall? There are few ancient churches that haven’t been restored, altered or extended at some point during their time, and these pieces of decorated sculpture won’t necessarily have always existed in the fabric of the church wall. In periods of excavation and church rebuilding, sculptural fragments have been unearthed in churchyards and discovered within older church walls to then have been inserted into their present position more recently. However, their history isn’t always as clear as this. In the 20th century for example, the discovery of Viking stone cross fragments in the 10th/11th century tower of St. Andrew’s, Middleton have since led some to believe that they were possibly inserted during the tower’s construction.
Some fragments originally may have been funerary monuments. Perhaps they marked the site of religious activity prior to the building of a stone church. Perhaps they noted the land of a local Northumbrian Lord. They may even have been brought in from somewhere else in the region entirely.
I’ve tried to include below the more interesting images from my collection. First of all I’ll share some from All Saints, Sinnington. I began my visit by walking around the building to see the exposed sculpture embedded in the exterior walls. Luckily a couple from the parish arrived during our visit to change the flowers and were able to open up the church for access to the sculpture kept inside.
Whilst I’ve included images of the sculpture present in the exterior surfaces of the south and west walls only – it should be noted that there are at least two or three examples of lesser quality sculpture embedded in the north wall. The north wall is harder to inspect up close because of a steep downward slope and narrow ditch running along the its edge. The pieces in the north wall are also higher up the wall, inserted near the roof line. Visibility is poor on the north side of the site due to the obvious fact this is the north face and natural lighting is therefore limited even during peek daylight hours. There are also some trees close to the church on the north side obscuring the light further. Regrettably I didn’t try to take any pictures of the north facing pieces. I believe there is a fragment of cross-shaft somewhere towards the north-east and what I thought looked like the fragmented end of a hogback grave cover somewhere in the fabric where the nave meets the chancel (although it most likely isn’t a hogback grave cover – this was just my stubborn observation at the time).
Sinnington’s fabric and architecture appears as though it could be an example of the ‘Saxo-Norman overlap’ church type, as Baldwin Brown would have it understood. As well as the deeply splayed windows; the tall, narrow south doorway and the sculpted architecture of the exterior west door – the nave also has the height typical for such a building. This is also true of St. Hilda’s, Ellerburn.
This style of Scandinavian decoration is particularly pleasing. The carvings described often as ‘Jellinge’ for their close similarity to the decoration of silverware discovered from the relatively same period in Denmark. Typically, some kind of animal, often a serpent or similar beast, is depicted contorted and often bending it’s neck over it’s back to bite it’s own tail or the tail of another similar beast, and are usually restrained in places along their body by strands of knot-work connecting the animal with the rest of the decoration (as can be seen on a piece of similar aged stonework discovered in York, now kept in the Yorkshire Museum).
There is a similar example, in a more fragmented state at Ellerburn as can be seen below. Stonework decorated in this Scandinavian style, whether Jellinge or not, have been noted across North Yorkshire and in some parts of the East Riding. Because of it’s similarities to knot-work, and the surviving state of much remaining stonework a distinct style can be hard to pin down.
Ellerburn, St Hilda’s next. Unfortunately the church was locked when I visited but the exterior fabric contains plenty of sculpture. The church drew some attention in the media a few years ago for a problem with bats and their protection. This is well documented online and is probably the reason for being closed to visitors outside of service hours. If you are able to plan ahead and gain access to the church, then there is a good amount of similarly aged and high quality sculpture inside – including a chancel arch with fascinating capital decoration.
This type of cross (above), including its decoration is quite a common survival in the corpus of cross-head fragments found in North Yorkshire. What might be interesting for examples of this type is their small size. Does this suggest that they had similarly stumpy shafts? It is likely some could have stood quite tall. Certainly taller than any man or woman of Viking age Yorkshire. This is not strictly the same for funerary crosses, like those discovered at St. Andrew’s church, Middleton. Funerary crosses may have been smaller. Possibly slightly taller than the average person. Although, perhaps cross-head fragments like this at Ellerburn were once the heads of funerary crosses for the less important individual. One whose legacy was not projected in the decoration of a cross-head?
In considering the former size of the standard crosses, however, it is also important to consider their function. Perhaps they acted as signal posts. Boundary markers – as the three, weathered crosses outside Beverly do. They may have marked the way for travelers between settlements or kept the religious traveler on his path toward some holy place. Standing stone crosses served many functions in the landscape of early medieval Britain. Were examples of this type less significant than those with cross-heads adorned with figural representations? Again, not necessarily. Some of the most well known examples of standing stone crosses in the North of England have significant decoration on the faces of their shafts. If erected high, it’s certainly a possibility that the more important scenes may have been carved for easy viewing at eye level upon the shaft and as well as on the cross-head.
Interesting, this cross head- although simple in comparison to those at Middleton and further afield within the county, is very similar in decoration, shape and size to a fragmented cross-head in the south-east corner of St. Martin’s church, Lowthorpe in the East Riding, not far from the more renown village of Burton Agnes (click the embedded URL link).
Points, Guy. Yorkshire: A Gazatteer of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sites. Rihtspell Publishings, 2007.
Townsend, Matthew. Viking Age Yorkshire. Blackthorn Press, 2014.