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St Mary the Virgin, Elland, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°41′13″N, 1°50′16″W)
SE 108 212
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now West Yorkshire
  • Rita Wood
01 Feb 2011

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Feature Sets

This is a low, sturdy Perpendicular style church in gritstone, sited on the edge of a level step in the S side of the Calder valley where the Huddersfield to Halifax road drops down to a bridge; the surviving streets of the old town plan (Southgate, Church Street) lie to the S. The church has an aisled nave of four bays, a tower enclosed by the aisles; a chancel with N chapel and S organ. The nave roof is thought to be 13thc, the oldest in Yorkshire; the nave walls inside are plastered. There are illustrations of the church c. 1830 or 1840 (Butler (2007), 172; Crossley (1920); Ryder (1993), 85) but none show Romanesque features.

Romanesque remains are the voussoirs in the three orders of the pointed chancel arch; the builders in the 14thc made use of 12thc stone, presumably from the previous narrower chancel arch (Bilson 1922).


Elland was a chapel of ease to Halifax. Henry de Lacy, who was the founder of Kirkstall Abbey, held Elland (Bilson (1922), 307).


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Sir Stephen Glynne visited in 1854 (Butler (2007), 172-3), but does not remark on the chancel arch other than to say: ‘the arcades of the nave have pointed arches with large octagonal piers, of which the capitals are very plain. The chancel arch is similar.’ The ceilings may have been lower when Glynne visited; plaster was cleaned away later and then the arch was noticed, though lighting was still bad. On a visit by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in 1919, Sydney D. Kitson described the outer order as an old string-course clumsily fitted, and said 'it may be hazarded that, in building the chancel arch in the fourteenth century the Norman material was re-used and that these earlier stones came from a former building existing on the site’ (Crossley 1920, 440).

John Bilson (1922), 305-7 dates the voussoirs to c.1175, linking the mouldings to Kirkstall Abbey church. Not only this outer order but ‘nearly the whole arch is of reused twelfth-century stones… there can be no doubt that all these orders were worked for one arch – the original chancel arch.’ Bilson suggests that ‘the present nave within the arcades represents the plan of the original nave. The chancel arch would thus be narrower than it is at present. In later mediaeval times the chancel was rebuilt of the same width as the nave… in the course of these alterations the chancel arch was taken down, and its stones were reused in rebuilding the present arch of greater span than the original arch.’ Regarding the date of the original work, Bilson reasons that ‘the ornament of the outer order towards the nave indicates an advanced twelfth-century date. The profile of the inner order, a roll flanked by chamfers, is not a common one, though it is only a variant of the much more usual section… there can be little doubt that the Elland profile came from Kirkstall abbey church… [being] found in the diagonal ribs of the nave aisle vaults (Hope and Bilson (1907), fig. 72). It is also found there, together with the simple quirked roll [as in second order], in the north and south arches of the crossing, in the arches opening from the transepts to the eastern chapels, and in the eastern arches of the chapterhouse’ (Hope and Bilson 1907, figs. 25, 26; 84). Bilson reasons that the date for the work at Elland was ‘somewhere about the middle of the second half of the twelfth century’. He notes that Elland was held in chief by Henry de Lacy, the founder of Kirkstall abbey, who is said to have died in 1187.

Morris (1923), 84, says this is chiefly a Perpendicular building of no interest, though the chancel arch ‘is perhaps E.E’. This entry repeats the first edition (1911), presumably, and does not take account of Bilson's article. Pevsner, similarly, did not notice the reused stones of the chancel arch.

Ryder (1993), 35-36, 150 says ‘the chancel arch is of steeply-pointed form, but its three orders of voussoirs are all twelfth-century work re-set, the inner two with various roll-mouldings and the outer with a stylised form of beakheads far from the fierce bird and animal masks(for example) at Thorp Arch.'

The pattern of double-cone ornament seen on the inner edge of the third order occurs in a similar position on the chancel arch at Hickleton (West Riding) where it is combined with an outer row of chevron moulding; the cones are plain with their widest part on the joint and there is no feature crossing them at the narrowest point. Double-cone ornament occurs on the chancel arch at two churches in the North Riding, Helmsley and Easington; also on the N doorway at Hales, and in an even more elaborate development on the S doorway at Heckingham (both Norfolk). All five examples would all be earlier than the c.1175 suggested for the sculpture at Elland. From the use of the pattern on chancel arches, and because it echoes the chevron moulding at Hickleton, it may be deduced that it was seen as a form of zigzag pattern, and so denoted God's active spiritual Light (Wood (2001), 23-5).

The form of the ornament in the outer part of the third order was loosely described by Crossley in 1920 as ‘beakhead’, understanding that term to mean a bird-like head with characteristic beak and eyes. The beak could well be represented by the tapering keeled tie, but after careful search, nowhere, so far as can be ascertained from the ground, are there eyes carved on the scallops. Yet, because in Yorkshire one is so used to seeing beakheads, and because of the various minor deviations from pure pattern noted in the description in Section IV, it is very hard not to see beakheads when looking at the arch at Elland. Bilson says, guardedly, that the ornament in the third order, 'is not what is generally called a ‘beakhead’, though it may have been suggested by it', and this is exactly right. The solution to this quandary may be to continue with the comparisons at Kirkstall Abbey, first noted by Bilson regarding the mouldings of orders one and two. The Cistercian sculpture at Kirkstall is notable for its use of highly simplified masks as label stops – in the transepts and west façade of the church, and the chapterhouse facade – and these masks are muzzled, signifying evil spirits controlled. It is suggested that the forms in the chancel arch at Elland are simplified beakheads. It is safe to have them in such a place because they are gagged, controlled, by the double-cone moulding jammed in their gape. The tip of the lower mandible of their beaks is carved to make clear that control.


The Yorkshire Church Notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874)., L. A. S. Butler, ed. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 159. Woodbridge, 2007.

J. Bilson, 'Elland church, chancel arch', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal , 26 (1922), 305-307.

W. H. St. John Hope and J. Bilson, Architectural Description of Kirkstall Abbey, Thoresby Society Publications 16 (1907).

E. W. Crossley, 'A Note on Elland Church', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal , 25 (1920), 442-4.

J. E. Morris, The West Riding of Yorkshire, London, 2nd ed. (1911) 1923.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire, The West Riding, Harmondsworth 1979, 192.

P. F. Ryder, Medieval Churches of West Yorkshire, West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, Wakefield 1993.

R. Wood, 'Geometric Patterns in English Romanesque Sculpture'. Journal of the British archaeological Association 154 (2001), 1-39.