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St Michael, Garton-on-the-Wolds, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°1′13″N, 0°30′9″W)
SE 982 593
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
  • Rita Wood
4 May 2007, 30 Mar 2016

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This imposing twelfth-century church stands at the top of a rise just south of the village, a windy spot. It consists of a massive W tower, a normal-sized nave and chancel, with a nineteenth-century vestry. It is basically of the twelfth century, but it was restored and given a new chancel in 1856 by J. L. Pearson. The top of the tower is fifteenth-century. The medieval chancel is said to have fallen down in 1714 (VCH II, 221): at the Borthwick Institute, a catalogue entry summarises years of neglect with: ‘100 years without a vicar; no cup’.

Pevsner & Neave 1995, 434, say that J. L. Pearson rebuilt the chancel on the old foundations using some original features; among these are likely to be some of the corbels on the N side and the single window in the E gable. The chancel arch appears to be entirely new. The N wall of the nave was rebuilt and most of its corbels retained; the S doorway is largely new. The W doorway, though original, is deteriorating; the sculptural panel above it is mostly erased. The tower is buttressed, in contrast to Wharram-le-Street, but like Kirkburn and Kilham. The nave has pilasters, as for Newbald, Fangfoss and Kirkburn, etc. The solidity and position of the church recall Weaverthorpe.

The church is visited for its rich Victorian interior, especially since the wall-paintings by Clayton and Bell have been restored as a memorial to Nikolaus Pevsner. However, there is much of interest for this Corpus, particularly the W façade and the corbels in the nave. There is an internal doorway to the tower stair, and the jambs of a tower arch, which was tall even before being heightened later.


In 1086, the various estates all seem to have been ‘waste’. Landholders in Garton included the count of Mortain and the Archbishops of York and Durham; in the summary, the Archbishop of York held 9 carucates and the Count of Mortain 17 or 25 carucates. By the 1130s, Mortain’s lands were probably held by Walter Espec, to be inherited in 1157-8 by Robert Ros.

There was a church here in 1086, listed in the lands of the Count of Mortain (VCH II, 226). Walter Espec gave it, together with a carucate of land called ‘St. Michael’s flat’, to Kirkham Priory which he had founded c. 1122 on the advice of his uncle, William Espec, rector of Garton then a canon of Nostell (VCH II, 220-1; Burton 1995, 2). This gift may have been made as late as 1133-39. William Espec became the first prior of Kirkham. It seems likely that the church was built following the gift to the priory (Pevsner and Neave 1995, 432). The church at Garton is described as a minster in the foundation document of Kirkham Priory: having a more than local importance may account for its monumentality and spaciousness.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

S doorway to nave

What grounds Pearson had for this design are unknown. Except for one section of the impost on the E face, and some of the label, he has not left much clue as to what was there before - but those items are the really unusual ones. At Kirkburn at about the same time Pearson was not always able to restrain the Victorian impulse to improve medieval work, but at Bishop Wilton in 1858-9 he was careful to retain validating scraps. All three works were for the same patron, Sir Tatton Sykes I.

The pattern used on the impost is not recognised from elsewhere in so developed a form. The degree of elaboration, contrasting to the W doorway, might even recall the refectory archway at Kirkham priory.

The angle columns on the pediment, in two stages, seem unlikely to be genuine reproductions though the pediment of the W doorway of the church at Kirkstall Abbey has a layer of angle columns at the same level as the shafts of its doorway. More relevant is that a small capital and its base survive, perhaps in situ, or near to being so, on the E side of the pediment of the S nave doorway at Kilham; their column is replaced by a length of iron pipe.

The pattern of eight-armed chip-carved stars on the label recalls the star roundels on the jambs of the chancel arch at Kirkburn but, of course, that motif occurs elsewhere too.

Windowheads on chancel.

The single upper window on the E wall is more weathered than the remainder and may perhaps be original. If so, it may have been a chancel window since the nave windows on the N wall are plain and a higher degree of ornamentation would be proper for the chancel. Dentation is used at Fangfoss (YE) and at Adel (YW), but with no distinction of nave and chancel so far as can be known, allowing for restorations.

W façade with St Michael sculpture

Morris 1919, 165, describes seeing ‘an ancient carving of St Michael (the patron saint) and the Dragon, with a mutilated angel on either side.’ The patron saint is the focus of attention, perhaps in the same way as the figure said to be St Nicholas on the W face of the tower at St Nicholas’, North Grimston. The local stone does not weather well even with the grain set horizontal; it is doomed as an exposed slab.

The earliest known photo is in the Conway Library, 1940s. The bottom of the robe of the angel on the left has a broad band of saltire star pattern, also a thicker, rolled, edge like the standing figures on the slab of the Crucifixion at Westow. St Michael is a larger figure, spearing the dragon in a pose very like that of St Michael at St Gilles du Gard (Gard, France). He might have had a conical or domed shield; however, this pointed shape is more likely to have been the cuff of a hanging sleeve.

The position of the panels between doorway and window parallels the disposition of the frieze at Lincoln cathedral. In Yorkshire, apart from North Grimston, sculptured slabs are used to great effect at Adel, probably in the late 1140s.

St Michael is shown in the act of expelling the devil from heaven (Rev. 12:7-11) and forcing him down to earth. The string course immediately above the angels is decorated with saltire stars and perhaps, together with the star-patterned impost/string course below, defines the lowest heaven and the firmament. With the devil driven down but allowed to range freely over the earth for a time (Rev. 12:12), the church doorway offers itself as a refuge. It might be that the triumph of St Michael and the angels was made relevant to mourners and those buried in the churchyard (Stocker and Everson 2006).

The capitals of W window

These recall a capital on the S doorway at Kirkburn, third order, L side.

The corbels on N and S walls.

Many of the corbels are bold rounded masks or human heads with big eyes.

CN11 recalls bears on corbels CN7 and CN14 at Kirkburn. There are two corbels, NS11 and CS12, where human heads seem to be changing into masks or animals, a feature seen at North Grimston and elsewhere.

Corbel NS8, containing a man’s head with the tongue hanging out, recalls a corbel in the N aisle at Edlington (YW); also see corbel NS14. The man in the ‘box’ on corbel NS8 is a motif which occurs at Kirkburn and at Adel (YW).

A few of the corbels are differently cut, and of individual content. The carving in these is shallow and extends over all four faces of the corbel; the detail is complex and no doubt spells out some message, if only each of the motifs could be correctly identified. However, only a few credible solutions can be offered here:

1. Corbel NN9 is easily understood as St Michael defeating the dragon, the same event as on the W wall of the tower.

2. Corbel NN12 could be admonitory and illustrate the call to repentance of John the Baptist: ‘the axe is laid to the root of the tree…’ Matt. 3:10; Luke 3:9. At Kirkburn, corbel NN6 illustrates a couple copulating, in a general context of the coming Judgment (Wood 2003a, 20-21); corbel NS19 at Kirburn represents Matt.3:12 (Wood 2003a, 22).

3. Corbel NS8 has two men on the angles who are watching, and another man watching from the downward face: these are both standard ways to depict believers who are expecting the second coming of Christ (Wood 2003a, 14-19). In this context, the animal on the W face of the same corbel is probably a benevolent lion.

4. Corbel NN10 has apparently the same animal as carved on corbel NS8, but it turns its back on the man on the main face. Unfortunately the main figure on NN10 is worn.

5. Corbel NS10 contains two confrontations. The first is on the W face between two animals or perhaps a man and an animal, the animal on the R perhaps being the lion as before. The second conflict extends over the main S face and the E face of the corbel, and here an armed man confronts the lion-like animal. Both corbels NN10 and NS10 have a man on the main face and he appears to be doing wrong: in one case he has dealings with a nasty-looking animal and in the other he fights the lion. Such imagery could have been used in moral teaching. Elsewhere, armed men are carved singly on corbels at Kilham, and the use of the armed figures there is not allegorical or symbolic, but seems to have been intended to show contemporary armed men that they should be behaving with restraint: not waving their weapons, but sheathing their swords.

Internal doorway to tower stairs.

The scale pattern is irregular, but not as irregular as at Goodmanham. That doorway probably also served a tower stair.

The tower space.

Although the Gothic alterations draw attention to the great height of the opening, the Romanesque width (3.1m) is already remarkable, and puts this arch in a select group with those at Etton, Hotham and Nunburholme (width respectively 3.465m, 3.16m and 2.915m). The twelfth-century round-headed arches survive at those other churches.

It is recorded in the gift to Kirkham Priory that Garton was a minster church, implying that it would have had pastoral functions, and there is no reason to think that these functions would have been reduced under the Augustinians - rather the opposite. As with the three churches mentioned above, it is suggested that baptisms took place in this important western chamber. No twelfth-century font survives at any of these churches, leading to the possibility that baptism was by immersion in a basin in the floor (Wood 2011, 146-7).


J. Burton, Kirkham Priory from Foundation to Dissolution. York 1995.

G. Lawton, Collectio rerum ecclesiasticarum de diocesi Eboracensi; or, collections relative to churches and chapels within the Diocese of York. To which are added collections relative to churches and chapels within the diocese of Ripon, New edition, London 1842.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire. 2nd ed. London 1919.

N. Pevsner & D. Neave, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd ed. London 1995.

D. Stocker and P. Everson, Summoning St Michael: early Romanesque towers in Lincolnshire. Oxford 2006.

Thelwell Collection: ‘Photographs of East Riding churches’, 4 vols (2, 5, 6, 7). Bridlington Public Library. [Archive of original prints of photographs]

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

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

R. Wood, 'The Augustinians and the Romanesque Sculpture at Kirkburn Church', East Yorkshire Historian 4 (2003a), 3-59.