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St Nicholas, North Grimston, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°5′57″N, 0°42′55″W)
North Grimston
SE 841 678
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
  • Rita Wood
26 September 2007, 16 Jun 2016, 21 Jun 2016

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The village is about four miles SE of Malton, at the foot of a steep hill. The church has a low aisleless nave and chancel, with a small 13thc W tower marked with a former nave roofline (Pevsner and Neave, 1995, 633). The roofline of an earlier chancel is marked on the W wall internally by a plain and chamfered moulding. The church was restored in 1886 (Borthwick Institute, Fac. 1886/16; Pevsner and Neave, 1995, 633-4).

The only surviving Romanesque corbels are on the N side of the church; their placement has been altered so they are more widely spaced than normal, and they project just below the modern guttering without a course of stone above. An undated photograph of the church by Henry Thelwell, a school-master at Sledmere from 1865 until about 1910, was probably taken before the restoration; it suggests that corbels once existed aso on the S side of nave and chancel.

Other external sculpture includes two round-headed doorways. A small stone with two beasts is reset above the blocked N doorway. On the W face of the tower a slab carved in relief with the figure of a bishop may be 12thc; a chevron voussoir is reset on the E face of the tower. Inside the church the Romanesque chancel arch has one order of chevrons, but the most exceptional and impressive sculpture is found on a cylindrical font.


In The Domesday Survey Walchelin held North Grimston, as well as several manors in Lincolnshire. He is possibly the same Walchelin who held, among other places, Hawksworth (VCH, II, 152). Lawton (1842, 276) says Walchelin, a knight, held Grimston under the archbishop of York.

Shortly after the time of the Survey, 4 carucates passed from the king to Robert de Brus. The archbishop had 3½ carucates, Hugh, son of Baldric had 2 carucates and 2 bovates, which had belonged to Game (VCH, II, 324). Some land was soc of Weaverthorpe (VCH, II, 212).

Lawton mentions various donations to St Mary’s Abbey, York, or to the Dean and Chapter of York, including the undated gift of North Grimston church by Robert de Monasteris to St Mary’s Abbey. At some point later the church became part of the possessions of the prebendary of Langtoft (Lawton, 1842, 276). It is not known when this prebend was founded.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches




Corbels: the various admonitory subjects, for example two exhibitionists and a man restraining himself by pulling his ankles; NN5, CN2; NN4, would be consistent with Augustinian influence, being similar to corbel subjects at Kirkburn, a church belonging to the Augustinians of Guisborough. The successors of the major landholders at North Grimston named in Domesday Book, the archbishop and the Brus family, were advocates of the Augustinians in the early 12thc.

NN8; CN4; NN4: a bird resembling NN8 at Rock (Worcs), chancel N side corbels. The Rock corbels also include an animal which might be a pig, with forelegs posed just as at North Grimston CN4. On the chancel arch at Rock are carvings of men gripping their legs much as on corbel NN4 at North Grimston. I have suggested links between the sculpture on the chancel arch at Rock with the activity of the Augustinians (Wood, 2007, 69-72).

NN5: a similar corbel is reset inside the chancel at Hayton.

NN5 and NN4: compare Bridlington Priory, reset arcade B: a naked squatting man holding his penis on one side of a capital was presumably intended as a contrast to a clothed man on the other side who is pulling his forked beard, that is, he is restraining himself.

NN10: very fragmentary, but the hair resembles the corbel at Fangfoss CN1, which shows two men watching.

CN6: the ram on the chancel would probably represent a priest, as leader of the flock, following a passage in the Moralia in Job of Gregory the Great. However, a horned sheep occurs occasionally on a nave, in which case it would represent a member of the Church’s flock. Some flocks had adult sheep which were all horned. The corbel may not be in its original position.

NN2 the round face looking out is seen also at Kirkburn and Winestead, but was probably widely used.

Stone used: an argillaceous limestone called ‘cementstone’ has been worked in the area (VCH, II, p. 378). This outcrop is shown in section by Rayner and Hemingway (1974, Fig. 53) and on the One-inch geological maps. It is part of the Corallian beds of the Jurassic. A quarry flourished while the railway was open, and the area may have been important in the 12thc as the outcrop is relatively extensive.

Reset fragment: the animals’ tails are flourished, perhaps foliate, so they may be symbolic of something ‘good’; at least, they need not be seen as fighting, though ‘opposed’. The carving, simple and sunk in the stone, should be compared to a dragon and lion at Newton-under-Roseberry (YN), or to the paired animals on the doorway at Kirkburn. The stone itself is slightly curved, like a length of label from a doorway, again as at Kirkburn.

Slab on tower: the slab is dated to the 13thc (Pevsner and Neave 1995, 633), but it should perhaps be compared to the figure on the tower on St Leonard’s church, Malton (YN), and to the reset slab of a bishop at Norwich. From a distance it is hard to judge to what extent the face has been reworked. Beside the neck of the figure, on either side, curving lines suggest the lappets of a mitre; the top of the head is missing. A bishop, probably St Augustine, is carved on a capital of a window at Kirkburn, he wears a mitre with long, flying lappets. Early 12thc mitres are not high, but broad, and may be double-peaked; compare the archbishop at the top of the doorway at Bishop Wilton. The figure of a bishop also appears on the font.

Font: Drake describes the North Grimston font as of ‘extremely maladroit’ craftsmanship throughout, which is a bit sad (Drake 2002, 20). Lucien Musset says 'les fonts sont extraordinairement rustiques et cependant fort attachants' (1988, 349, pls. 153-55); the area of breakage to the R side of the Deposition is already evident in his plates (pl. 154 and 155). The sculptor had but one chance to get the faces right, and should have credit for his skill. It would probably be advisable to have the font looked at by expert conservators.

Drake notes other examples of the Last Supper, at Brighton (Sussex), also at Dendermonde, Belgium (Tournai group) and in Sweden at Simris, Stenkyrka and Skegstibble. At North Grimston, Christ has his R hand raised in blessing, as the bishop does; it is not a gesture particular to the Mass. Drake says the Descent from the Cross, or Deposition, is not found elsewhere in England on a font, and gives examples on the continent: a font formerly at Eschau, now in the cathedral museum of Strasbourg on which there are 12 scenes of the life of Christ in an arcaded framework in two registers. Eschau was a small abbey in the 12thc (Drake, 2002, 62); a font at Saint-Venant (Pas-de-Calais) has a Passion cycle with a Deposition or burial (erroneously noted by Drake as a Belgian site, see Drake, 2002, 54, 57). We are grateful to Pol Herman for the information that the Saint-Venant font was unfortunately destroyed during the First World War, and only a few photographs and drawings remain to testify to its appearance.

Veronica Fiorato (1997) gives a thoughtful summary of previous comments and makes her own observations. She suggests the patterned panel could be drapery, as in the lower register of wallpaintings (1997, 4).

There are innumerable illustrations of the Last Supper in manuscripts. Christ is often distinguished from the disciples by size. An arch does not appear so often, but is seen in a wall-painting at San Isidoro (León) in the Panteón de los Reyes (Demus, 1968, pl. 222); in this painting St John moves inside the arch towards Christ, suggesting their private conversation about the betrayer (John 13:25-26). An example illustrated by Jonathan Alexander (1970, pl. 35) has a similar arch, and two disciples enter it. At North Grimston the arch suggests a ciborium; the throne and the scale of the lone figure of Christ carry the imagery fully into the spiritual sense and suggest the universality of the moment, as does the fact that most of the disciples already hold the ‘gospels’ that indicate their preaching.

All the men have haloes; they all smile, in contrast to the face of St Mary (L figure in the Deposition), where the lines at the ends of her mouth turn down. It is not immediately obvious which figure might be Judas; Cole says: ‘Each alternate apostle holds a knife in his right hand, and the right hands of all are resting on the table, with the exception of one who places his left hand on the table. Can this figure be meant for Judas?’ (1902, 116). This disciple (no. 2) does not have a book, and he is near the end of the table as is usual for Judas, who is to leave the supper before the end. He half smiles; his right hand is on his stomach or his purse (Matt. 26.14-16; John 13.26-30).

A carving of the Last Supper, with six disciples only, is at the apex of the doorway at Foston (YN). where it is a reference to both the heavenly feast of the Messiah at the end of time, and to the Mass within the church (Wood, 1997, 72, 74). (Fieldworker)

The Deposition: Cole (1902, 117) says the figures either side of Christ are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but this is not entirely so. The figure on the L side of Christ is Mary, whose head is touched by the hand of the dead Christ, whilst that on the R is perhaps Joseph of Arimathea. The subject is on a capital of the doorway at Wighill (YW). The 'unusual hairstyle or headdress' remarked on by Fiorato (1997, 4) is the result of her assuming the figure is a man, following Cole (1902).

The Last Supper is shown in its spiritual aspect, as a prototype for the Mass. The symbolism derives from the actuality of the death on the Cross, of which the Deposition is the clearest demonstration. The Supper and the Deposition are linked but, one might ask, why is either on a font? Baptism was anciently a sacrament for adults, and would have been immediately followed by first communion, though we do not know from documents exactly what would have happened in the 12thc. In the half dozen or so fonts in the East Riding with figurative schemes, teaching is aimed at adults; even on the Cowlam font, with its reference to the Massacre of the Innocents (and hence to the death of infants), there is also the ‘wrestling match’ and the ‘wise virgin’, which are role-models for adult men and women.

The shape of the Cross is unusual and resembles the cross in Christ’s halo. It has flared arms, head and foot; it resembles an altar cross. The form can be compared to the slab at Westow, and to corbel NN8 at Kirkburn.

Another similarity to the Westow slab is the posture of Mary: she supports one elbow with her other hand. Despite the slight damage in this area, this unusual gesture is readable, it indicates sorrow. In addition, her L hand supports Christ's R elbow so that his R hand touches her head; this is not a standard feature; more often she supports his R hand and may even seem to kiss it, or at least contemplate the wound, all in the literal sense. Here it looks as though Christ's dead hand is comforting his mother, ahead of his Resurrection; in a higher sense he has risen already, he is comforting 'the spirits in prison' (1 Peter 3.18-19); he is in paradise 'today' (Luke 23:43).

There would normally be at least one more figure on the R, taking out a nail. For example, on an ivory fragment in the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne the weight of Christ’s body is held by a man, just as here, while at the lower R another man kneels at Christ’s feet with pincers. It is interesting that in the ivory the standing man embraces the body and lays his head against it: this may be a necessity of the thinness of the ivory, but it could be read at another level, it could signify (for example) the man's sense of indebtedness for the death. It may be something, or nothing, comparable to the touch of Christ's hand to Mary's head on the font. (Fieldworker)

The patterned panel: this type of pattern occurs on a capital on the N side of the nave at Kirkburn church. On the font it might be based on a saltire cross between two semicircles, so perhaps earth, the Cross and heaven are represented? Or does the pattern represent light radiating from the Cross and hence an image of Truth, or the Resurrection? Similar parallel lines generated from a significant central motif occur on a capital of the chancel arch at Melbourne (Wood, 2006, pl. 2).

The bishop-saint: the saint said to be St Nicholas, but a similar figure appears on the font at Cowlam (a church dedicated to St Mary). Often, of course, a bishop is St Peter, but I would like to muddy the water further and suggest that this one might be St Augustine. Whoever it is, perhaps he should be read together with the pattern alongside him, the radiant glorified cross; he then becomes the interpreter of a heavenly vision. (Fieldworker)

The two little arches or hills: Christ and the bishop have semicircular forms under their feet, empty arches which have been described as hills (Fiorato, 1997). They give these important characters height, but can hardly be hills, nor, since the bishop is standing, are they meant to be footstools in the physical sense. On the font at Cowlam, the Magi and the Virgin have similar semicircles below them, and these have foliage patterns inside the arch. It is suggested that the arches indicate that the characters above them are sanctified or in heaven. The motif is similar to that seen in early 12thc glass at Augsburg, where the prophets’ feet curve round a cluster of foliage (Legner, 1999, pl. 161). Christ, of course, is often seen seated with his feet on a circle or semicircle representing something cosmic (for example Legner, 1999, pl. 386), so perhaps his saints in glory share his iconography. A series of little arches can represent the firmament. (Fieldworker)

The cable pattern; other patterns: the cable pattern is only on the side of the font, not even quite reaching the rim. It is a single row of cable; the segments are wide and slightly rounded. The pattern is found in a flat pre-Conquest form on the font from Everingham, and develops towards the standard fully-rounded cable patterns (Ruston Parva). The sculptor had probably seen ‘proper’ cable patterns somewhere. Perhaps the next stage would be taking the pattern onto the rim as well as the side, as at Sherburn in Harford Lythe (YE).

Patterns on the clothes of the disciples are often freehand, but some are drawn with a compass. A compass pattern was drawn on the font at Kirkburn. (Fieldworker)


J. J. G. Alexander, Norman Illumination at Mont St Michel, 966-1100, Oxford, 1970.

Fac. 1886/16 Faculty papers with plans ‘present’ and proposed.

O. Demus, Romanesque Mural Painting, London, 1968.

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

V. Fiorato, ‘The Font at St Nicholas’ church, North Grimston, North Yorkshire’, Medieval Yorkshire 27 (1997), 2-5.

A. Legner, Romanische Kunst in Deutschland, Munich, 1999.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire, London, 1919.

L. Musset, Angleterre Romane, 2, La Pierre-qui-vire, 1988.

N. Pevsner and D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, London, 1995.

J. Raine, ‘The Dedications of the Yorkshire churches’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 2, (1873), 180-92.

D. H. Rayner and J. E. Hemingway, The Geology and Mineral Resources of Yorkshire, Leeds, 1974.

Victoria County History: Yorkshire, II (General volume, including Domesday Book) 1912, reprinted 1974.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque doorway at Foston church’, Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Report for the year 1996, (1997) 67-75.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque church at Melbourne’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, 126 (2006), 127-168.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque tympanum at Fownhope, and the functioning of the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture’, Transactions Woolhope National Field Club, 53 (2007), 51-76.