We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

St Mary, Birkin, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°43′55″N, 1°11′47″W)
SE 531 265
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval St Mary
now St Mary
  • Rita Wood
01 Jul 1996, 01 Aug 2000, 13 Sep 2014

Please use this link to cite this page - https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/view-item?i=4174.

Find out how to cite the CRSBI website here.


The church is adjacent to an old course of the river Aire. It is a virtually-complete apsed 12thc. church built of Magnesian limestone. The line of the former nave roof can be seen on the E wall of the tower. There are one or two significant alterations, however. The S doorway was rebuilt in the wall of the new S aisle in the 14th century; the 3-light E window now at the centre of the apse involved removing most of the original inner plainorder, as seen in the adjacent windows; a new window has been cut in the S wall of the apse; the N nave doorway now used as the entrance is not original. For 1882 restoration, see VIII Comments.

There is sculpture inside on capitals to apse,chancel and tower; apse window arches and the chancel arch; outside on doorway and windows of apse, also an extensive corbel table.


In the Domesday Survey, only an estate of one carucate is mentioned. It was held by Ilbert de Lacy and the sub-tenant was Gamel, not a Norman. There was no record of a church in 1086.

According to Hunter (1828) II, 263, the Birkin family had their main centre here, but also held lands at the important site of Stainborough (later Wentworth) from the de Lacys. Dodsworth gives the first known individual of this line as Asolf, 'in the time of the grandson of the Conqueror'. Peter de Birkin is known from several charters, and may be his son. Pontefract Priory and later Rievaulx Abbey benefitted from donations by this family.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches
Tower/Transept arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Interior Decoration

String courses

Loose Sculpture


General, dating

This church has perhaps the tallest of the decorated doorways in Yorkshire, reaching 3.6m/12ft. Some of the detail, especially in the medallions of the 4th order is extremely fine. Brayton's doorway has four comparable orders, which are (from the inmost): a plain order, chevron; medallions with varied figurative subjects; beakheads with human heads and hares. There are construction details in common, including the use of opus reticulatum, in the tower window-tops. Both churches have been connected to Selby Abbey, and Selby to Durham work of about 1130 (Zarnecki, 1953, 34-35).

Reputed connection with the Templars

G A Poole, Churches of Yorkshire, 1844, connects the building of Birkin Church to a grant of land at ‘Hirst in Birkin’ to the Templars by Ralph de Hastings in 1152, merely because "The Church seems to have been built at about the date of the grant." Temple Hirst is 5 miles/8km E of Birkin, and though within the elongated parish, should not be confused; a chapel is known to have existed there by 1185; a report has been made for the Corpus on the slight remains at Temple Hirst. Other writers have continued to make the connection, even to the present time, E A Gee, in A Glossary of Building Terms... (Frome 1984), which twice mentions 1152 as the date of Birkin church. Also Pevsner 1967, 104.

There is no need to connect Templars to Birkin Church from the document, nor is there anything in the church to suggest it. There are several similarities to the work at Brayton.

The restoration in the nineteenth century

Faculty papers kept at the Borthwick Institute, Fac. 1882/13, include the specification written by the architect John Oldrid Scott, dated August 1882. The following points, not already mentioned, are included and suggest further work will become necessary eventually:

"Mutilated and defective features... must be repaired... to match the old".

Groining to be thinned to no less than five inches if possible.

There was a fissure in the barrel vault.

Sanctuary arch (ie, apse arch): rebuild with cement "the upper part of the arch above 7' 0" in width under the portion of gable wall above it". There was a fissure between "haunch of the arch, and the North wall".

A wrought iron tie, prepared with oil, was to be used at the node of the apse vault.

E window had new sill between mullions, but the actual work looks more extensive. Cutting out above and below the window was necessary due to settlement. There were open joints in window arch and corbel course above.

NE window similar.

Chancel arch - wedge up the wide joint... and point in cement."

An old ladder in tower was to be retained, this is made of a tree trunk.

Some "ancient glazing" was noted in E and SE windows of apse.

On a visit in 2013, I heard that work on the east end of the church was in prospect.

Re South Doorway

Order 2, voussoir 18

See Wood, 1994, pp. 78-82, where several arches decorated with heads (ie, masks, beakheads and men's heads) are discussed, and where the head on v.18 is linked to Psalm 27.6, the believer singing in the presence of enemies etc.

Fourth order. Identification is often impossible of subjects in medallions in this order, and no overall iconographic coherence has been recognised. Numerous fabulous creatures are also found in medallions of the doorway at St Margaret's Walmgate, York, but not in any number at other sites. On voussoirs 4, 5, 8 and 13 the use of a hole-boring tool is evident. The holes are deep and straight, not shallow and conical. It was used, eg, in v. 13 in the domes; to make the sockets of the teeth on v. 10, and occasionally for the eyes in order 2 and on corbels; also in the 'golf-ball' domes on the labels of apse windows.

Without implying a close connection, it can be said that the use of such a tool was characteristic of Gislebertus' work at Autun. There too are found similar compositions of fabulous creatures like those on vv. 4 and 5 (and 8?). The circular motif on v. 13 is seen at Autun, on the capital of the Flight into Egypt, where I identify it as a ‘Wheel’ following the description in Isaiah. At Birkin it is a variety of star, and with the more usual sort of star (as v.2), it flanks the Agnus Dei on v.14. Is it is going too far to note the likeness of the 'fruit' on v. 20 to the "arum spadix" of Autun? Autun's set of Zodiac motifs includes a Scorpio like the 'crab' on medallion 12. The giant bird and the archer, voussoir 5, has a parallel at Autun too. See Grivot and Zarnecki 1961. The architecture would not be out of place in south-west France.

Order 4, voussoir 2 etc.

If this is to be presented as a flower-derived decoration or is labelled with a term such as rosette or daisy, please explain why the petals lie the wrong way round! It is reasonable to call this pattern a star. The sculptors at this church could have carved a flower if they had wanted to, or if they had been asked to, but they merely play with as many variations of conventional ‘star’ as they can (Wood, 2001, 5-8).

Order 4, voussoir 10

A similar mask is on the tomb-cover at Conisbrough, with symmetrical foliage issuing from it. The mask here at Birkin is shown as 'dead' or at least on its way out – with its dazed eyes and drawn teeth. The voussoir symbolises the death of Death, perhaps I Cor. 15.55? See Wood, 2000; 2001.

Re III 2 (i) Reconstruction of the E window in the Apse; the sophisticated architecture. Externally, the top of the E window is at the same height as the tops of the SE and NE windows, that is, 2½ courses clear between corbels and label; the upper string course is continuous from the imposts of the SE and NE windows, through at the E window the imposts have been reduced and the capital and all lower work cut away, and lastly the second course above the sill-mouldings of the E window is narrow and is continuous from the string course at the base of the SE and NE windows, indicating the former depth of the window.

Internally, a cut plinth, L, and a base and plinth, R, remain to show that the second order was shafted. Residual imposts are continuous with the string course to the NE and SE windows. The architect agreed his (trainee) plans are in error in the longitudinal section, where the glazing of the (new) E window should rise higher than that of the (old) NE window. It seems most likely that the E window had a plain all-round splay in the first order, as in all the other windows in the church. Originally, looking east, from chancel or nave, the only direct light came from the E window; by day the whole chancel would have been well-lit, but indirectly.

What a pity the window was altered in the fourteenth century. The result has been structural weakness, and an unsatisfying climax to the whole work. There are, however, perceptible hints of the effect aimed at: "our eye is immediately attracted eastwards - all the arts of the builders intended that it should be so, for the nave windows, whilst admitting sufficient light, are so cut that direct light from them does not distract the eye: such light is only seen streaming in from the east, and that through a window whose zig-zag mouldings is best adapted to receive the light with full effect, giving a character of irradiation to all around it" (Greenhough 1966, 5). Additional features of the architecture which might have added to the effect required are, the gradual lowering of the string course on the internal walls, and the gradual increase in width of opening and height of the arches (chancel and apse) eastwards. These might have given a false sense of scale and distance to those standing in the nave.

Corbel on S wall of chancel, no. 14. This is likely to be the Agnus Dei, from the pose, and the remnant of a possible cross staff. The 1996 photos suggest a man's head, with his hair to the left, is under the body of the animal. Perhaps the Lamb is sheltering the man, or the man is with him in heaven?


N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: West Riding, Harmondsworth, 1967. 2nd. ed. Revised E. Radcliffe. 1967.

Borthwick Institute, York. Fac.1882/13.

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

A. G. Greenhough, The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Birkin,


D. Grivot and G. Zarnecki, Gislebertus Sculptor of Autun, London 1961.

J. Hunter, South Yorkshire: the history and topography of the Deanery of Doncaster, in the diocese and county of York. vol. 2. London 1828-31.

G. A. Poole, The Churches of Yorkshire. Leeds, 1845.

G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210. London 1953.