St Peter, Langtoft, Yorkshire, East Riding

Feature Sets (4)


Langtoft has a medieval Gothic church restored and enlarged between 1900 and 1903, the last of the ‘Sykes’ churches (Pevsner & Neave 1995, 94-5, 592). It houses two pieces of twelfth-century date from Cottam (or Cotham), a depopulated village about 5 kilometers or 2 miles to the south west (see separate site report). These pieces are a celebrated font with numerous figures and a less-known fragmentary lintel with the Agnus Dei. Langtoft church also contains a plain font and a small corbel or label stop of uncertain provenance. 


By the time of the Domesday Book two estates, each of 9 carucates in Langtoft and Cottam, had been assigned to the Chapter of York Minster (VCHER ii, 265); that at Cottam was waste (VCH ii, 211). It is said that ‘a church may have existed at Langtoft and a chapel at Cottam’ but their manors were the same size, and there seems to be no certain evidence as to which was the senior or more wealthy site (VCHER, ii, 270).


Interior Features

Interior Decoration


Stone with cross pattern

In the south wall of the nave, a possible consecration cross.  

height of stone 0.31m
width of stone 0.28m



Font from Cottam

The font is in the south west corner of the nave; its figurative sculpture is illustrated in line in Cole 1902, 115-6; pl. viii, but the carving is more accomplished than the drawing leads one to expect. There are six subjects arranged in five bays of a rudimentary arcade. At the foot of the cylinder is a plain band, and around the top is a single cable pattern. This pattern is damaged, but seems to have turned onto the horizontal rim, with its units slightly shaped in a ropelike manner. There are comparisons of subjects with the font at Cowlam.

1. The first scene is the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. Eve receives the fruit, here like a cherry, from the serpent, and Adam picks one for himself from the bottom of the tree. Both Adam and Eve clasp palmate leaves. Contrary to the illustration in Allen 1887, 193, both faces are shown in profile: the left side of Adam’s head has a broken ear, not a second eye; his profile is similar to Eve’s. Their bodies are much the same, breasts are shown on both by small incised circles, it is the larger hips of Eve and particularly her elbow-length hair that show she is a woman. The serpent is pecked. The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has leaves of hollow diamond shape; its root and trunk are a mixture of observation and convention.

2.  The next subject to the right is a large tree, presumably the Tree of Life. This Tree is really three trees, for the stems may be traced back to two sources in the upper cable pattern as well as the obvious one at the foot, where there is a triangular clump of roots. The two trees from above interweave with the one standing below. The Tree has a later, flexible, form of foliage, a fluted half leaf having graded leaflets and a lush, floppy habit; this form is not so much used in the scene of the Fall. The stems and trunks are shown by a double band, with the usual cross-binding at intervals which is also of two strands. The tree/trees seem to have been intended as symmetrical, but in the actual making the left side proved too narrow: the inequality is made up by extending a shoot from the lower tree to fill a vertical space on the right. One or two leaves have an incised outline but have not been finally carved with their leaflets, lower right. The column of the arcade to the right has a developed capital; this is of upright leaves.

Scenes 1 and 2 have biblical subjects (from Genesis and Revelation): the remainder of the carvings show three martyrs and an undefined subject.

3. The first martyr is St Margaret being swallowed by, and coming out of the side of, the Dragon. The legs and feet of the saint stick out of its mouth, while her head and upper body emerges out of its stomach. This is a conflation of her story; this was one of several deaths the mythical saint had to face before finally being beheaded. St Margaret has long hair like Eve and wears a dress with a finely-pleated skirt. It is sometimes thought that the face has been damaged, and that her mouth was never intended to be open in this manner. It would be reasonable to have the saint shown with her mouth open, however, either to breathe or to cry out praise and triumph. The dragon is magnificent: it has a spotty tail like the serpent in the Fall scene, but it has a much larger head, a wing and one foreleg. The head is hairy or scaly, and there is a fringe of eyelashes as well as a sort of moustache. The teeth are numerous but not very pointed.

4.  In the same bay of the arcade is the martyrdom of St Lawrence on a grid iron, his hands are tied in front of him, and he is prodded by an executioner with a hooked pole reminiscent of the rakes held by demons in Hell. Lawrence was a real martyr in third-century Rome, but how he died is not recorded. The face of the executioner is barely recognisable, while the saint, in some lights, seems to smile. There is cable pattern surviving above this scene.

5.  The next subject to the right is undefined. There are two wings, and should therefore be two legs, compare the one leg and wing of the dragon that swallows St Margaret. There is one leg spread forwards, and the claws of the second foot are at the bottom limit of the carving: traces of the whole lost leg itself can be seen in some lights, and a short length remains of the top of the thigh although the actual surface pattern has flaked off. The creature has a serpentine tail the tip of which is lost in the degraded lower right corner; there is other damage on the left side near the lost leg. The body is spotty in the upper part and scaley under the wing, and spotty again in the tail, and by this simple means is varied from the snake in Eden (all spotty) and the dragon with St Margaret (furry or scaley above and spotty below).

The creature seems to be the combination of a bird and a snake. It is the region of the head which is the most problematic part. It has a longish beak, both mandibles are present, indicated by a shallow incised line visible intermittently along the beak. The creature might be a standard Romanesque bird-and-serpent combination, except for the odd form below the beak which very much resembles a single wattle.

6. The last motif, to the left of Adam, is the martyrdom of St Andrew. Like his brother, St Peter, St Andrew is said to have been crucified; the executioners tie him to his saltire cross. The saint has a halo; he wears breeches, an undergarment not often depicted. There is a part of the rim with cable pattern surviving above this scene.

Depth of interior of bowl 0.42m
External diameter of bowl 0.85m
Height of carved panels approx. 0.50-0.54m
Height of cylinder 0.68m
Internal diameter of bowl 0.54m

Font perhaps from Langtoft

There is in use in the church an ornate font of 1903. A disused plain cylindrical font also in the church has been tooled and patched, and the rim chamfered. For some years it is said to have been leaning against a radiator opposite the door.

Depth of bowl 0.26m
Height of cylinder 0.382m
Interior diameter 0.55m
Outside diameter ignoring chamfer 0.68m

Loose Sculpture

Lintel; small corbel

Lintel with Agnus Dei: The fragment now in Langtoft church is the left side of the lintel almost certainly from a doorway to the medieval church at Cottam. In the soffit, the tooling is still clean and the stone undamaged; the rebate for the door is also present. On the vertical, carved, face, the left end is plain, though it may have had some incised pattern; to the right is a foliage design and then the formerly central Lamb and Cross. The break in the lintel runs through the shoulder of the Lamb, and the head and one front leg were on the right side of it. It seems that the lost right side also contained foliage, for there is a little piece in the top right edge to balance some to the left of the Cross. The boundary of the carved field is angled on the left margin, as if it led into a round-headed tympanum or arch above the lintel, but there seems to be a moulded boundary at the upper margin too. Measurements were not taken.

Small corbel or label stop: The form is that of a twelfth-century corbel but it is too small for the usual roof-line feature. The provenance is unknown.


Height (upright) 0.155m
Horizontal depth of block (normal to the wall) 0.19m
width of corbel 0.1m


Font. The sculpture is more than standard religious motifs, but would support much teaching. In a talk given at the International Medieval Conference at Leeds in 2004, Frances Altvater suggested that the choice of saints for the font implied a clerical interest in sacramental theology; at parish level, details of the martyrs’ histories might have been taken to refer to baptism, penance and even the Eucharist; the individual saints represent an apostle, a deacon and a laywoman. According to Allen 1887, 286, the Fall is shown on fonts in order to illustrate the ‘putting off of the old Adam’ at baptism. There is much teaching material here on the font, and much of it could probably once again have been filtered through the Augustinians. Although they had no direct responsibility for Cottam parish, the archbishop and dean and chapter favoured the regular canons: consider, for example, the similarities of Kilham and Kirkburn churches, one belonging to the archbishop and the other to Guisborough priory.

The font has one of the deepest basins of any of the Wolds fonts, suggesting that adult baptism must have been common at the time it was provided. It may be that Augustine of Hippo, for whom adult baptism was the norm, influenced practice in the Wolds. 

The scenes on the font are described moving from left to right, as for the font at Cowlam which probably had the same designer and craftsman.

Scene 1: Adam and Eve: they both have apples, as at Cowlam. Palmate leaves, as in the ninth-century Moutier-Grandval Bible from Tours. Random pecking is an unusual finish for Yorkshire; the lines of bored holes on the beaks of beakheads are rarely random like this. Hollow diamond-shaped leaves: compare figure over Fridaythorpe chancel arch; font at Goxhill.

Scene 2: The Tree of Life motif suggests two Persons of the Trinity ‘in heaven’ and the Second Person on earth. There is a three-fold Tree of Life on the east face of the Fall capital at Liverton (YN); its stem is plaited (Wood 2006, fig. 6).

Scenes 3, 4 and 6: Martyrs are an unusual subject for a font, or indeed any Romanesque sculpture in England, and are presumably a warning about the difficulties of the life of the believer, compensated by the promise of resurrection and heavenly bliss in Paradise, here shown in the form of the Tree. Compare Cowlam font, where the martyrs are the Holy Innocents. It is an interesting pastoral point that both male and female suffering is shown: as it happens, the two men were historical characters, but the woman is legendary.

Scene 5. Bird-serpent. It has been described as a bird and the eagle of St John, or the dragon which was about to swallow St Margaret (Cole 1902, 115-6); Pevsner & Neave choose not to mention it at all. Altvater floats the idea that it was a filler or a grotesque, or ‘coincident ornament’ signifying ‘the ever-present threat of evil that tempts and preys on the soul’. Writers are uncertain what to think partly because of the state of the carving, which has suffered general abrasion and deliberate damage at the bottom of the field and in the centre below the head of the creature. 

If the form projecting under the beak is a wattle, then perhaps the creature is the dreaded basilisk. The moral provided by the basilisk, according to White 1954, 168, is that ‘God never makes [or allows] anything without a remedy’. This moral could be applied to the saints’ torments, in the sense that God remedies their ill fortune by the ultimate gift of eternal life (represented by the Tree of Life on the far side of the font). Augustine also used this idea, that evil is converted by God for good. However, in the context of Romanesque sculpture in England, a basilisk is most unexpected.

There is no sign of a comb or crest (as in cocks, hens and basilisks) to match the wattle, so perhaps it was an error for some other form. For example, the ‘wattle’ might have been a sprig of foliage held in the beak, and the creature was intended as a being with eternal life.

Another possibility is that it is a wattle, and a benevolent creature was intended. Several examples of a beaked, winged quadruped with wattles has been noted on sculpture in North Italy. The earliest example is at Cividale del Friuli, and was part of the 8th-century fittings of the Lombard cathedral, probably of the ciborium. The creatures appear alone among symmetrical and fruiting foliage; similar panels having peacocks, lions, sea creatures and harts have been reconstructed as a font arcade; they could all be seen as inhabitants of Paradise. A second example is on a capital in the atrium of San Ambrogio, Milan, and would probably date from the 11th century. Here the creature has a smaller creature crouching below it, and it is opening its mouth with one front claw. There are in the atrium various other combinations of a large winged quadruped with a smaller animal, perhaps a hare in one case, and these pairings suggest sheltering and mothering at least as much as they suggest killing and tearing (Wood 2006, Fig. 31). A third example is in a floor mosaic of c.1141 in Murano cathedral, in which winged quadrupeds with the heads of pheasants or cocks are symmetrically placed, like nearby peacocks that feed from a chalice. If the creature on the Cottam font is a spiritual being - a combination of the wattled creature with a snake - it would seem to be a good spirit of some sort and might represent the resurrection body of a believer. Combination creatures in a scheme at Liverton (YN) are explained as representing believers in a paradisal context (Wood 2006, fig. 13).

If any one of these three interpretations is on the right lines, this wattled bird-serpent is an encouragement to the martyrs and to the baptised: they will have a marvellous new body in Heaven.   

Scene 6: St Andrew. On a voussoir of the doorway at Brayton, breeches seem to be worn by another figure with bound hands and feet, that man probably represents Adam in Hades (Sheol). 

Lintel from Cottam with Agnus Dei: Morris 1919, 130, describes visiting Cottam church: ‘the little, modern, red-brick church, and a solitary farm, now stand desolate on the windswept plateau of the Wolds; but traces exist to the north of the church of the site of a vanished village… built into the west interior wall of the church is a carved stone that is probably coeval with the font itself.’ There are photos by George Zarnecki in the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute, of this lintel on the west wall inside the church at Cottam.

The Agnus Dei is carved at Thwing in the tympanum. A fragment at Speeton with the Agnus Dei may have been a lintel which imitated the shape of a tympanum. None of the other East Riding examples include foliage, but a tympanum at St Nicholas’ church, Gloucester shows the Lamb between two trees (Keyser 1927, pl. 103). The form of the foliage can be matched closely with that on the font from Cottam.

The iconography of the lintel is complete in itself; a tympanum – if any – would have had patterns such as foliage or stars; nothing is 'higher' than the Lamb.  

Reset cross in south wall of nave: The supposed consecration cross is very like one on the south west angle of the tower at Hunmanby.


  • J. R. Allen, Early Christian Symbolism, London, 1887

  • F. Altvater, ‘“Bless this Body”: Baptismal Iconography on the 12th-century Cottam Font’, Unpublished paper, Leeds IMC 2004, session 702b

  • E. M. Cole, ‘Ancient Fonts on the Wolds of East Riding’, Trans. East Riding Antiquarian Society 10 (1902), 107-117

  • N. Pevsner & D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd edition, London, 1995

  • Victoria County History: East Riding of Yorkshire, II (Dickering Wapentake), 1974

  • T. H. White, The Book of Beasts, London, 1954

  • R. Wood, “The Romanesque Chancel arch at Liverton, North Riding”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 78, 111-143


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TA 008 670 
now: East Riding of Yorkshire
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Yorkshire, East Riding
now: York
medieval: York
now: St Peter
medieval: St Peter (Lawton 1842, 305 )
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Rita Wood 
Visit Date
25 June 2004