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St James, Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, West Riding

(54°5′34″N, 1°23′40″W)
SE 397 665
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
  • Rita Wood
06 Dec 1999

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Feature Sets

Boroughbridge is a settlement with Roman origins which lies 13 miles NW of York, and the location of a famous battle in 1322.

The modern St James's church in Church Lane dates from 1852. However, it incorporates a number of richly-sculptured Romanesque stones brought here from the demolished medieval church of St James, which was located in what is now St James's Square in the centre of the town. The pieces have been reset in the N wall of the vestry.


There is no entry for Boroughbridge in the Domesday Survey. A "Pons Burgi" is first mentioned in a charter of Newburgh Priory in 1145.


Interior Features

Interior Decoration


There is an illustration in Turner (1853), and Lunn says of it that 'the priest's door was Norman, and is that now preserved in the present sacristy'. Lawson-Tancred (1948, 23), says 'The building that existed up to 1851 was found to contain carvings of the Norman period, which were built into the doorway of the south aisle of the chancel. Fortunately, most of them were facing inwards and have thus been well preserved. They are now to be found in the vestry wall of the modern church, which was completed in 1852... The old church was dedicated to St. James and stood in what is now St. James's square. It was a chapel of ease to Aldborough... not of Norman workmanship... the old church was... pulled down by persons who had not yet learned to appreciate its true value.'

Some of the carved stones have details of foliage and motifs which place them in the Romanesque period, but one or two, if on their own, would give no such clear answer. The couple in Stone 3 of the left jamb (5.c.i) for example might be of any date, and some of the work appears to be late 12thc. and not characteristically Romanesque - see the nailhead on the L impost, for instance. Being a random collection, the whole series cannot be assumed to be all of the same date.

The fact that the pieces were found re-used randomly in the walls of a church could suggest that a previous 12thc. church had been destroyed, not just enlarged over time. This is not uncommon in this area: Marton-cum-Grafton and Tadcaster have traditions of destruction by Scots in the 13thc. or 14thc. and very little remains of their earlier fabric and sculpture: Boroughbridge must have been visited often by the Scots. However, it is hard to put these fragments together into one scheme or even one church, as is suggested by the many narrative scenes at different scales and styles. If the central church of St James was rebuilt after an episode of destruction, it may have incorporated cartloads of stone from other ruined churches locally as well as from its own predecessor, or the material could have come from a local workshop producing sculpture to order. Good limestone would have been in short supply in this area.

The subject of the Deposition, (IV.5.c.(v)5.), is also found at Adel on a capital of the chancel arch. There is a further similarity with Adel in the ribbed clothing seen in stones (ii).8. and (V).3. The Deposition also occurs at Wighill, on a capital of the doorway, but is probably later than at Adel. The scene at the other sites includes Mary holding Christ's R hand, and a man holding the other arm. Surprisingly, the details of dress are not so different, though these worn carvings looks very heavy, and Wighill generally is more proficient and better preserved. Close inspection was not possible, but the stone used did not appear to be so fine as that at Wighill.

Other comparison might be made with work at Conisborough. Not only is there a sculpture in a slab there, but a capital in the N arcade has figure sculpture. Work on flat slabs, rather than on structural components, is interesting, especially considering the quality of the gable at Adel. This is made of 17 pieces, though the style - at least, what can be seen of it now - is not reminiscent of the Boroughbridge carvings. There is an early piece of slab-carving in a fragment reset at Campsall, which might also be compared. Garton-on-the-Wolds (East Riding) has a large slab carving on the W wall of the tower (St Michael, dragon, two angels), and Shiptonthorpe has a small one, reset (bishop giving a blessing). With thin-bedded local stone more often available than freestone, sculptural carving applied to the walls might have been a necessity, or, following Lincoln's frieze, a fashionable alternative to block carving on architectural components.

Stone IV.5.c.(ii) 6)): The series of naked figures at first sight recalls the tomb of Bishop Agilbert, where a crowd stand as orants, but at Boroughbridge only one hand is raised by each figure. This is more like a plea from sinners for mercy, and so the better parallel might be with the (restored) row of the doomed on the frieze at Lincoln. A strange feature, and one not only found on this carving, is that on the central figure, the hand held across the body. This seems from the folded fingers and the thumb at the top to be the inside of a R hand, but iis actually the back of a L hand.

Note on the beakheads: there may be eyes like this at Osmotherley, Kirkby Wiske or somewhere in that area. At Wales, near Sheffield, beakheads and masks have round eyes but are likely to be much earlier than the examples at Boroughbridge. The 'feathers' are rather like those at Adel.

The presence of so much richly-carved stone at St James suggests that the building(s) that they came from were the product of substantial patronage.


Photo of an engraving of 'The Old Church, Boroughbridge' (anon., undated) in Galbraith material, Soc. Ant. MS.903.

M. E. Lawson-Tancred, A Guide Book to the Antiquities of Aldborough and Boroughbridge and a Short Account of their History (Leeds, 1927).

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

T. S. Turner, History of Aldborough and Boroughbridge, London, 1853.