St. Michael and All Angels church in Sutton-upon-Derwent typifies architectural development in the early English church building.
One of the most exciting things to do on a visit to an old church is to trace the development of architectural styles through the ages by attempting to read and make sense of the building’s stone fabric . At St. Michael and All Angels this can be done by studying both the internal and external stonework. Many parish church interiors since the medieval period, particularly the walls of some naves and aisles, have been whitewashed making a study of their interior stonework a tricky task. A great number of historic churches have undergone considerable alteration through more recent centuries, forcing us to really concentrate our efforts in understanding the architectural development of these buildings as well. At Sutton-upon-Derwent this is thankfully not the case and our task is a little easier, and certainly more fun! Nearly an hour flew by as I circumnavigated the church at a snails pace (I also wondered through the large church-yard as well as many graves were hidden amongst the many trees and bushes to the West) without a care for much else in the world.
The present fabric is centered around a small c.11th century nave; the best surviving evidence of St. Michael and All Angels’ earliest structure as a simple cruciform building. The roof of the nave was raised in the 16th century and pitches showing the height of the earlier nave roof can be seen in the east wall of the tower.
Observing the layers of early stonework present in the once aisleless nave interior, there can be seen a clear distinction between its original Norman fabric and additions made in periods of later development to the central plan. Transitional-Norman rounded arches with finely carved capital decoration divide the nave from the north and south aisles, which were added in the late 12th century.
Striking differences in the type of decoration during the transitional period are contrasted here with the gruesome head of a beast adjacent to arcade capital decorations of delicate foliation. Underneath the seats of some westerly pews and along the wall of the south aisle are fragments of stonework from the early medieval church. One particularly good quality fragment features the head of a knight and the head of his horse.
In c.1240 the nave and the aisles were lengthened towards the west and some early English windows were added during this time. At some point within the next one hundred years the walls of the north and south aisles were heightened and decorated windows inserted.
St. Michael and All Angels is a church that truly feels old. Yet natural light illuminates the interior space. Light floods in and dominates over the evil of old; the ever-present darkness wrongly associated with the medieval world banished from this holy place. Daylight bounces from the roughly dressed surface of one medieval stone to another. It’s exciting to imagine how this church must have looked nearly 1000 years ago.
In more recent times the chancel underwent major redevelopment during the 17th century under Rector Peter Cook. The east window was substantially reduced in width. The jambs of its original embedding can be seen surrounding the present, narrower window. If you approach the church from the east through the small iron gate, somewhat obscured, perhaps deliberately by large, recently bedded bushes, one of the immediate identifiable changes to the chancel’s fabric is its raised walls and altered windows. These too date from the 17th century alterations.
Of particular appeal to me is the Anglo-Scandinavian cross fragment behind the font in the western end of the nave. Its decorated with astonishing detail in the same style on all four sides with a cable pattern running down each of its vertical corners. As it currently stands, its northern, eastern and southern faces display exquisite design and decoration. What is most interesting visually to all (the casual observer and scholars such as James Lang who has written some brilliant essays on Pre-Conquest sculpture in Yorkshire) of all is the western face – also of Scandinavian design with an intricately carved figure(s). Significant because it’s clearly a fragment from a larger figural scene, in which the complete figure has been identified by some as a young Christ cradled in Mary’s arms (her upper body no longer visible). This figure’s clothing is unique. The dress appears to be carved in a pattern identical as that of the head of the beast who haunts the north face of the cross. This intricate decoration on the beast resembling the scales of a serpent. The figure of the western face is almost certainly Christian. Perhaps reproduced or copied from stonework elsewhere by a sculptor well rehearsed in Scandinavian sculptural decoration. The Sutton-upon-Derwent Virgin and Child has been said to be a copy of the same scene from the earlier Nunburnholme Cross. The figure may also be Norse, presently isolated in fragmented obscurity – the upper half of the scene lost. This interpretation is less likely, although not to be ruled out entirely.
The other three faces of the shaft display common decorated features seen on Scandinavian sculpture found at sites in nearby North Yorkshire, with fewer appearing in the East Riding. Some similar examples of largely the same date can be seen in images I took and shared in a previous article from when I visited churches at Sinnington and Ellerburn.
The other faces are immaculately detailed, this much is certainly true, but seem later in date despite their iconography. Perhaps they identify the presence of a more skilled craftsman. No apparent signs of a three dimensional program appear to be present on the Sutton-upon-Derwent cross either, as recognized across the similarly dated, original late-Saxon four faces of the Nunburnholme cross (of an earlier date in it’s conception).
A good research and study of the Nunburnholme and Sutton-Upon-Derwent crosses is something I’m looking to do quite soon.
As far as I can tell, the Sutton-upon-Derwent cross has drawn little academic attention and thoroughly deserves further study within the context of Viking age sculpture in East Yorkshire.