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St Magnus, Bessingby, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°4′36″N, 0°13′48″W)
TA 159 660
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
  • Rita Wood
28 June 2002, 17 October 2005

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Feature Sets

The medieval church, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, fell into disrepair, and the parishoners used the church of Carnaby until a new church was built in the 18th century. In 1893-4, the present church of St Magnus replaced it, being built slightly to the N of the previous one. The modern centre of the settlement, the West Hill estate, has the daughter church of St Mark on Bessingby Gate (VCHER II, 19-21). The 19th-century church of St Magnus contains ‘a rather good old Norm. font’ (Morris 1919, 64).


At the time of Domesday survey one estate of 8 carucates which was soke of Bridlington manor was held by the king. It was subsequently granted to either Gilbert de Gant or Gilbert’s son Walter de Gant, and Walter was the overlord in the early 12th century. The estate in Bessingby was held by William Fitzneil, the constable of Walter de Gant. By 1124, 1 carucate and 2 bovates had been granted to Bridlington Priory. The remainder was granted to the priory by Walter’s son Gilbert by 1153 (VCHER II, 18).

The church was granted to the priory in the first quarter of the 12th century.





Relationship to the priory:

A date for the font, and the nature of its relationship to the priory two miles away are uncertain: there are no firm dates for the granting of the church to the priory. However, Bessingby belonged to the founder of the priory and it may be assumed that the font was designed by a local Augustinian.

Lions, tree and patterns:

It is suggested that the ‘skating lion’ is a unique form of a double-bodied lion carved by a workman who did not know the standard motif and was not given a model for it (Wood 2011, 123-125). The double-bodied lion is a fairly common Romanesque motif and can represent Christ as one who has two natures, God and Man, united in one Person. This topic is discussed, with references, in the report for Fishlake (YW). There is another example of a mistaken double-bodied lion (in yet another form) together with similarly-drawn single lions, on the reset chancel arch columns at Stoke Dry, Rutland. The double-bodied lion on the font is seen flanked by spiral patterned columns, the only bay so framed (23). Spirals are an honorific form used on pillars around holy spaces since classical times, and their use here probably was intentional. The other geometric patterns used on the font are zigzag, perhaps denoting spiritual light, and grid patterns which may be associated with heaven. The chevron pattern is not often found on fonts (Wood 2001). The foliate border just below the rim is a reference to Paradise. On the font, Christ, the God-Man, and the Tree of Life are shown in the glory of heaven.

Adult baptism?

Baptism opened the way to heaven for the believer: St Augustine urged the candidates for baptism to express their aspiration for heaven before he would proceed to instruct them. A conscious declaration prefixes adult baptism, and this had been the practice of the early church, whose ceremonies revoked rebirth and heavenly life. The Easter Vigil, as illustrated in Norman manuscripts from Italy, continued the same pattern, though baptizing infants. The ceremonies are carved on the font at Kirkburn, and may also have been enacted here. The size of the font bowl at both churches is excessive for infant baptism, and, once again, the question arises whether adult baptism was practiced in the early 12th-century East Riding.


E. M. Cole, “Ancient Fonts on the Wolds of East Riding”, Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society, 10 (1902), 107-117.

E. Gethyn-Jones, The Dymock School of Sculpture, London 1979.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire. 2nd ed. (1906) 1919.

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

Victoria County History: East Riding of Yorkshire, II, Dickering Wapentake, 1974.

R. Wood, “Geometric Patterns in English Romanesque Sculpture”, J. B. A. A, 154 (2001), 1-39.

R. Wood, "The Augustinians and the Romanesque font from Everingham, East Riding", Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 83, 2011, 112-47.