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St James, Nunburnholme, Yorkshire, East Riding

(53°55′9″N, 0°42′37″W)
SE 848 478
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval All Hallows and St James
now St James
  • Rita Wood
14 Aug 2006

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The building comprises chancel, nave with porch and west tower; it is built chiefly in roughly-coursed small oolitic stone. The nave is thought to be Norman, at least in plan, as are the N and S walls of the chancel (Leadman 1902, 274).

The site of a Benedictine nunnery lies to the NE of the village; no remains visible.

Documents of 1864 say the church is old and bad but decent; in 1868 it is said ‘we want a new church’; the restoration under G. G. Scott junior followed in 1872-3. These documents and faculty papers for the tower, built anew on the twelfth-century plan in 1902 by Temple Moore, are at the Borthwick Institute. The previous tower, a late medieval one, had stood within the present plan.

The tower arch has survived as a spectacular display, but its sculpture has been crudely recut; there is a reset window and a blocked doorway also of our period in the N wall of the nave. The church is more famous for the cross-shaft of late 9th to early 10thc date now erected in the tower space; one carving on this may be a post-Conquest addition.


In Doomsday Book, the king has 11 carucates (VCH II, 321), and the manor was held by Forne. The value reduced from £40 to 30s. Before this, Morcar and Turuet and Turchil had held the manor.

Warter with the berewicks of Harswell, Thorpe le Street and Nunburnholme (then 'Brunham') together had a priest and a church.

The village would have acquired the prefix ‘Nun’ only after c.1150 (Pevsner and Neave 1995, 637).


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Interior Decoration


Comparisons for sculpture on label of tower arch

The motifs on the label, apart from stones 2 and 8, would not be out of place on a corbel table, a position where the author has suggested the Second Coming was anticipated, and where human and bestial faces express individual reactions to that event. If this was also the intention in the tower arch carvings, it would be expected that a few of the faces would express awe or even delight (as a fair number of corbels do), but the Victorian recutting has made that difficult to find. Not only were the first carvings in a delicate state, but the Victorians never needed much encouragement to see the fantastic, morbid and Gothick.

The standing figure and the symmetrical apical motif (stones 2 and 8) are not known to the fieldworker as corbel subjects but, like them, would suit the theme of the Second Coming. The naked figure would be a body rising or a freed soul, while the symmetrical carving at the apex could be the angel sounding the last trump – the duplication of horns could be due to the desire for symmetry at the apex.

Quite similar horns, or oliphants as Colin Drake describes them, are held by angels on two fonts of the ‘Tournai School’ (Drake 2002, 46-59, pls. 95, 115). On those fonts, at Neerhespen (Belgium) and Châlons-sur-Marne (France), the angels who sound the last trump are accompanied by the dead rising out of coffins or lining up for the Last Judgment (here, the equivalent would be the heads and body in the rest of the label). The subject of the general resurrection is rare in sculpture; its presence on the fonts shows that it was considered relevant to baptism. This would suggest that baptism was being promoted as the essential first step towards surviving the End and entering heaven, which is a correct position but not usually made to the exclusion of all other doctrines. For Belgian and French fonts, see Ghislain (2005).

Round eyes

Much exaggerated in recarving, but round eyes rather than lenticular ones do occur in Yorkshire at a few places. The tympanum at Wales has an arch of bug-eyed monsters round it; also occasionally in the East Riding. The decaying sculpture on the doorway at Kilnwick Percy has capitals similar to those on the N side of the arch, but there they have not been recarved.

The tower arch and the space under the tower

The tower arch together with the Decorated window which had been on the W wall, would have given this square space a status equivalent to that of many a chancel, and suggests the idea that it was intended to house the first of the two main sacraments, baptism. The present font is massive and although it resembles a large block capital it is not a Romanesque one, having chamfered corners and rim; nor can it be a cut down 12thc font as its rim width at the angles is too great; it appears to be medieval because of the residual ironwork.

The degree of sculpture on the tower arch invites comparison with that at Etton, and perhaps with that at Hotham. There are other similarities in this area of the buildings.

Wall decoration

The stones to the N of the tower arch may have been reset here as they do not form a coherent band and there are none on the other side of the arch. The S doorway at Kilham had extensive patterning not only in the gable but in the spandrels beside the arch. At North Dalton many square panels survive whose purpose is not known. The chancel arch at Kirkburn has a line of geometric stars on the nave wall parallel to the jambs.

Centaur carved on cross-shaft

Of the Nunburnholme cross, Lang 1991, 192, says 'A Third Sculptor [after the two original sculptors of the rest] cut the centaur of face A, which intrudes on the scene above and the edge moulding. It closely resembles 12thc carvings on the present tower arch. Its drilled eyes also distinguish it from the incised features of the other figures'. Apart from a description of the carving (p. 190) there is no other mention of it.

While accepting that the centaur must be later than the unified treatment of the cross-shaft in its first state, it does not resemble the carving on the tower arch, at least as far as the small amount of original work left there allows us to judge. They may both have bored eyes, but the handling is broader and far more confident on the centaur than on capitals or label.

None of the English examples of centaurs known to me chime with this one, not even Iffley, where the legs of the animals are as lively, and there is little more than Collingwood’s word for it that there is a whole human baby at Nunburnholme. The two bored ‘eyes’, for example, might be the remains of four bored holes in a disc which represented the sacramental bread, or were in some other way basic to a four-fold Christ-pattern.

It is possible that the centaur was added to the free-standing cross-shaft before the church was built, at some time in the 11thc, perhaps. One centaur that is comparable is in the crypt of Dijon cathedral, and dates from around 1010. It has been suggested that the centaur there represents Christ the God-Man ascending to take up his kingship in heaven, and that he holds an orb in his left hand (to our R), and would have held a sceptre in his right but it is broken off (Wood 2009, 219, 226, fig. 4). There seems to be no correct hand for orb or sceptre in that period. The centaur at Dijon has a circular star pattern on its chest; perhaps the spiral and other ornament on the lower part of the chest of the centaur at Nunburnholme was a three-fold pattern like a triskele, and denoted the Trinity. The hair in regular little balls or pellets is possibly a Roman fashion; it is seen fairly often in manuscripts and ivories of the 11 and early 12thc. If the inserted carving of the centaur does represent the triumphant Christ, it would signify the completion of the purpose of the Incarnation, as begun by the Virgin and Child on the opposite face of the shaft (as reconstructed Lang 1991, figs. 713-20). The period of the carving is uncertain.


C. S. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, Woodbridge 2002.

J.-C. Gislain, 'Les fonts baptismaux romans en pierres bleues de Belgique et leur diffusion en France aux XIIème et XIIIème siècles', PhD thesis, Université de Liège 2005.

J. T. Lang, et al., York and Eastern Yorkshire, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture Vol. 3, Oxford 1991.

G. Lawton, Collectio rerum ecclesiasticarum de diocesi Eboracensi; or, collections relative to churches and chapels within the Diocese of York, To which are added collections relative to churches and chapels within the diocese of Ripon, London 1842.

A. D. H Leadman, 'Five East Riding Churches'. Yorkshire Archaeology Journal 16 (1902), 289-297.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire, 2nd ed., London 1906.

M. C. F. Morris, Nunburnholme, its History and Antiquities, London 1907.

I. R. Pattison, ‘The Nunburnholme Cross and Anglo-Danish Sculpture in York’, Archaeologia 104 (1973), 209-34.

N. Pevsner and D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd. ed. London 1995, 637-38.

J. Raine, ‘The Dedications of the Yorkshire churches’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 2 (1873), 184-192.

Victoria County History: Yorkshire. Volume 2, London 1912.

R. Wood, ‘The two major capitals in the crypt of Saint-Bénigne at Dijon’, Antiquaries’ Journal 89 (2009), 215-239.