St Helen, Sandal Magna, Yorkshire, West Riding

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Feature Sets (3)


Sandal Magna and its church is about two miles south of the centre of Wakefield. The basically-cruciform church has a 6-bay nave with aisles, a crossing tower; transepts and a choir with S aisle; attached rooms to N of chancel; and a S porch. Externally, the church appears late Gothic, in a churchyard having many grave monuments from the 17thc onward. The internal layout has been reordered so that spaces east of the crossing and transepts are function rooms, offices, etc. Sculpture is found in the bases of the piers of the crossing tower; on two fragmentary grave slabs and in reused stones in the 14thc N arcade


In the Domesday Book a composite entry of Wakefield and 9 berewicks refers to 3 priests and 2 churches (Williams et al., 1987-92, f299v), presumed by Walker (1917, 1) to be at Wakefield and Sandal. The manor came to the Warennes c.1107 (Butler 1991) and the church was given to Lewes Priory (Walker 1917), and confirmed to Lewes Priory in 1147 (Clay 1949). Lewes was presenting the parson in the early 13thc (Raine 1872,101); the patronage was associated with the manor of Wakefield. Sandal Castle was demolished by order of Parliament in 1646, and only a small portion of the ruins remains above ground. It was excavated 1964-1973 (Butler 1991; Wakefield Council website, Sandal Castle).


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Piers at the Crossing

The lower parts of the four piers of the crossing retain their original bases and half-round columns, this stage of the church is dated to c.1150 by Walker 1917; see VIII below, Comments. The bases are massive and of a profile not known to the fieldworkers. At the foot of all four arches of the crossing, a plain square plinth supports the three orders of the crossing arches. The monolithic base is scooped out to leave squarish plain blocks, crude lugs, upstanding on the angles. The first or central order is slightly larger in diameter than the others; its deeper ring rises from the scooped hollow of the plinth whereas the flanking orders stand on the upper level of the plinth. All orders have a smaller ring above a larger one, but all is bold and heavy. Half-round columns. There has been a tower here ever since.



Nave N arcade

See VIII below, Comments and Walker 1917, for the history of the N arcade: it is supposed that the arcade was rebuilt as now c.1330.

Width of square plinth, pier 1, at the lugs (average) 0.73 m
Pier 1

Pier 1 includes a reused base. Chamfered plinth, plain square plinth with corner ornament on horizontal surface, seemingly the same on all corners, but that on the SW angle is almost worn away. The motif resembles a three-fold ivy leaf; the outline is raised and the centre hollow. Above this, the basal rings are more delicate than at the crossing, the profile of the lower ring flatter.

Pier 2

Pier 2 has a reused octagonal capital. Ring narrow with a central hollow. Capital with crocketed foliage designs, the crockets developing out of a ribbed leaf on every angle. The terminations are each slightly different. Impost integral, narrow, with a hollow between two fillets, topped by a quirk and a narrow roll. 

Pier 3

Pier 3 has a base which may have been reused.



Graveslab fragment (i)

One of two fragments of graveslabs reset in the inside walls of the S porch. It is set in the E wall of the porch, and is the top half of a cross-head in sandstone; two quadrants remain (Ryder 1991,41, no.2, ‘probably 12th century’). The piece was round-headed, and so perhaps stood upright as a head-stone. The cross itself has plain flared arms meeting at a small central disc in which is an irregular compass point. The arms are joined by a plain outer ring continuous with them; within that is a straight cable band and at the ‘armpit’ a straight-edged plain sector, sunken.

Max. height 0.255 m
Max. width 0.4 m

Graveslab fragment (ii)

In the W wall of the porch is the cross-head and part of the staff of a grave-slab in a very fine white limestone (Ryder 1991, 41, no.3 ‘later 12th century’). The slab has been recut for other uses, at the top two faint straight, very straight, lines have been ruled, for example. The design is brought out in relief by cutting away at the ground. The circular geometrical form of the head is very precise though, strangely, the shaft is not quite truly aligned with it. A fourfold sling or knot which makes a saltire is interlaced with the circle. At the centre, the eight flat strands interweave; at the outer corners, the strands form a point.

Max. height 0.58 m
Max. width 0.31 m


Glynne records a cruciform church with central tower, two aisles, the nave and a south aisle to the chancel. Early English and Perpendicular. Early English arcades and a capital with ‘some early foliage’. Responds ‘have toothed ornament on the capitals’ (Butler 2007, 354). Walker postulates a cruciform church with a 4-bay nave; his Fig. 2 shows a N aisle added c.1180; this church has been much extended since. Remains of the north arcade of c.1180 can be found reused: ‘the base of the most easterly pier of the [present] north arcade, with its foliated spur ornament; the capital of the second pier in the same arcade, which has conventional foliage carved at each corner of the octagon; and probably the base of the third pier, which has, however, been chopped about since; all of these were preserved and re-used when the present arcades were built.’ Walker continues ‘About the year 1330… nothing of the old church was left, save the lower halves of the tower piers and the transitional bases and capital already mentioned, which were used up again as the work progressed’. (Walker 1917, 10, 12, figs 1, 2) Ryder believes ‘most of the building is 14th century and later, but parts of the crossing and transepts may be as early as the 11th century’and that ‘the lowest parts of the crossing and some masonry in at least the S transept may be late Anglo-Saxon; a relatively large and elaborate building by c.1100.’ (Ryder 1991, 41 and Ryder 1993, 171)

Fieldworker’s comment: Walker dates the original N arcade to c. 1180, presumably because of the reeded waterleaf on each angle of the capital of pier 2; the lugs on base 1 are a bit clumsy for Gothic. The only comparisons for the capital so far met with in West Yorkshire are on the W doorway at Nun Monkton (Benedictine nunnery), where the capitals on the L side are basically plain waterleaf but the angle and side volutes have been developed into spiralling budded crockets that are so fruitful they fuse together; the bases are water-holding; the arch is round-headed with chevron orders that have trefoil foliage designs in the spandels.


  • The Yorkshire Church Notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874)., L. A. S. Butler, ed. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 159. Woodbridge 2007.

  • L. A. S. Butler, Sandal Castle, Wakefield, Wakefield 1991.

  • C. T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters 8: the Honour of Warenne , Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series Extra Series 6. Wakefield 1949.

  • J Raine, The register, or rolls, of Walter Gray, Lord Archbishop of York., Surtees Society 56 (1872).

  • J Raine, The Dedications of the Yorkshire Churches, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 2 (1873).

  • P. F. Ryder, Medieval Churches of West Yorkshire, West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, Wakefield 1993.

  • P. F. Ryder, Ryder, Medieval Cross Slab Grave Covers in West Yorkshire, Wakefield 1991.

Church from the SE.
General view from the SW.
Church tower from the bailey of the castle.
Site notice with plan and aerial view.
Post-Romanesque works between bailey and motte.
Opening to building in bailey.
Well. Sandal Magna church tower in distance.
Motte from the bailey.
Moat of the bailey.
View to Wakefield.
Access to the bailey and to the keep.


Site Location
Sandal Magna
National Grid Reference
SE 343 182 
now: West Yorkshire
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Yorkshire, West Riding
now: Wakefield
medieval: York
medieval: St Helen
now: St Helen
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Barbara English, Rita Wood 
Visit Date
1 March 2011