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St Martin, Fangfoss, Yorkshire, East Riding

(53°58′12″N, 0°49′56″W)
SE 767 533
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval unknown
now St Martin
  • Rita Wood
10 Jun, 17 and 24 Oct 2003, 13 Oct 2015, 12 Nov 2015

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Simple church in Norman style with nave and chancel, N vestry: bell turret too elaborate to be a copy. Morris 1919 says the church ‘was gutted by fire some years ago, but has since been extensively restored'; other sources do not mention a fire. R. D. Chantrell rebuilt the church 1849-50 reusing Norman sculpture and masonry but was apparently restricted in what he could do.

The stone of the original building was a local Jurassic limestone and it is weathering fast where exposed. Almost all the original work is outside: Chantrell made a pleasing interior, but a plain one: his chancel arch, with blocky capitals, and plain and square orders, is as plain as the replacement corbels on the N wall. A restoration in 2015 included preservation work on the old corbels, mainly treating with lime plaster; photographs of corbel CS4 taken by Matthias Garn (by permission of Ferrey and Mennim, architects).

When Fangfoss church was rebuilt in 1849-50 many old stones were left lying in the churchyard. The late Kit Galbraith visited Fangfoss church and found, among the jumble of discarded broken or worn stones at the E end of the church, five which she obtained permission to remove for study. These ended up in Birkbeck College, where they were seen by the fieldworker in June 1999. At that time they included two voussoirs with beakhead, two with a radial fluted motif and one fragment of integral base, ring and column. The two pieces with radial fluted decoration were jambs stones, not voussoirs, but that was only possible to assess by eye. Eventually the stones were allowed on loan from the church to the Hull and East Riding Museum, where two were (2004) on display as “Romanesque Stonework”. The other three stones were not displayed.

In 2003, there was a loose chevron voussoir by the chancel arch; this was outside in 2015. It is shown outside in the later photographs, but has since been taken inside again. A permanent display at the church of old carved stonework is being discussed (2016).

There is a remade doorway and two patterned string courses; original corbels, all except one, are on the S side of the church. Inside, there is one reset stone over the S doorway.


All 8 carucates at Fangfoss in 1086 belonged to the king. Later the overlordship was divided, in the 1120s Henry I confirmed land at Fangfoss to William son of Ulf of Grimthorpe; in 1189 William’s descendant Ralph son of Ralph held 4 carucates 5 bovates. The family continued, becoming Lords Greystoke in the 14thc.

Ecclesiastically, Fangfoss was a chapel of Pocklington, given like Barmby Moor to the Archbishop of York and York Minster between 1100 and 1108. It was confirmed to the Dean between 1119 and 1129. Fangfoss became a curacy of Barmby Moor in the 13thc.

Of the building, the Borthwick Institute card index gives this summary:

1591 ‘chancel in decay’

1596 ‘chancel in very great decay’

1600 ‘chancel altogether ruinous’.

Allen 1831, which is used by Wood-Rees, describes a Norman tower with brickwork at the top, and does not mention an apse; he describes a ‘neat’ church. Allen says the south doorway was ‘formerly very rich in sculptured ornaments, but now only retaining a solitary bird’s head, which serves as a keystone’.

The apse was found by excavation, and described by Taylor as a ‘semicircular recess at the end of the chancel, containing three windows. The recess was entered by an open arch, the full width of the apse, and had pilasters and vaulting ribs, which met in a boss’.

Chantrell and the vicar of the day, the Rev. Robert Taylor, are quoted by Wood-Rees on the state of this ‘gem’ of a church as they found it. It seems that Chantrell wanted to restore the church and keep ‘so much beautifully carved material’ while the vicar was a digger after remains and a rebuilder. The contrast between the outside and the inside is telling.

Sir Stephen Glynne visited in 1865, after the rebuilding. 'A small church, with nave and chancel only. It has been lately reconstructed, and it is doubtful whether any part of the original walls are retained...The south doorway seems to be substantially original, and is a remarkably fine Norman specimen.' He lists motifs on the doorway - 'all difficult to describe' - but does not mention any decay. Butler illustrates a NE view of the church in 1848 by the restoring architect, Chantrell, and another view by him from the SE in 1850. The earlier drawing shows a Gothic window in the rectangular E wall of chancel; there is no visible brickwork on the top of the tower. The corbel table is not continuous, but corbels can be seen on N and E walls, those on the E wall, eight or more of them, were probably reused from the lost apse. The division of all walls in the new building by pilasters seems to be original.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features

Interior Decoration


Loose Sculpture



Corbel tables at Kirkburn and Adel

Double arches between corbels are also seen at Kirkburn (YE) and Adel (YW). Dentation, as on doorway label and the windowheads, and the nave string course pattern, occurs at Adel. Very small arches are used at Millington; the short length of corbel-table seen in Loose Sculpture at our first visit in 2003 seems to be smaller in scale and may have had some other use.

Comparisons: Etton, Stillingfleet, etc

The pattern on the chancel string course at Fangfoss occurs at Stillingfleet as diamonds only (without the two rows of chevron) and is similar to that copied by the Victorian restorer at Etton on the tower. The S doorway at Fangfoss has a motif (platforms) in the fourth order like those used throughout in the 3rd order at Etton on the W doorway , but there they are more uniform and less inventive. The pattern on the R capital of the 3rd order is something like the design from Reading Abbey used for the Corpus logo, but a link with Etton is, of course, more likely. If this is a new capital, Chantrell may have copied the pattern, as he worked on the chancel at Etton 1844-5.

On voussoirs of the doorway, the profile carrying geometric patterns at Fangfoss, Etton and Bishop Wilton was used as a platform for figurative motifs in the first order of the S doorway at Stillingfleet and on one voussoir at Fishlake (YW). A pattern seen on the fourth order of the doorway recurs on a (remade?) window spandrel at Etton. The complexity of such evidence has been touched on in Wood 2013, fig 1 and passim.

String courses

Reeded string-course comparable to Adel (YW), also four rows of reeding are used to pattern a ring of the S doorway at Stillingfleet. The fifth order of that doorway also has the semicircle-and-tongue pattern with foliage which is used at Etton.

The higher degree of complexity of the pattern on the chancel string course is comparable to that at Knaresborough (YW), but there is no close similarity; such special patterning emphasised the importance of the chancel over the nave.


Authenticity and comparisons

Wood-Rees said the doorway ‘is not the original one, but has been built up from twelfth-century stones discovered amongst the debris of the ruined apse.’ He may have said this because Allen, 1831, only saw a 'solitary bird's head' a 'keystone' - but Allen saw enough to know it had had elaborate sculpture. Perhaps the porch made it too dark to see the doorway well enough, as was the case for T. D. Whitaker at Adel. The doorway looks like a doorway, not a random lot of stones, nor does it have the span of a chancel or apse arch, however, the five loose stones collected here by Kit Galbraith and now in the Hull and East Riding Museum, included two beakheads of the kind that are seen in the doorway, and some place must be found for them. It is unusual, but not unknown for beakheads to be used in an order on a chancel arch, and Bishop Wilton immediately comes to mind; also in that church are found patterns (platforms) like those in the 4th order of the doorway.

The pattern in the second order, making pointed arches at the joint, resembles the label of the chancel arch at Bubwith, where round arches are made, several arches in each wide stone of the label. There are 16 voussoirs in the first order of the Fangfoss doorway, and none of this kind are at the museum in Hull. It might be possible that old voussoirs were trimmed at the sides, so that what had been little round arches became little pointed ones in the restoration; the trimming might have been made necessary by the different curvature of the arch, and not just Victorian Gothic taste creeping in. These are questions for a practical stonemason to consider.

The impost in some parts bears a ‘daisy’ or star pattern which resembles one used at Bishop Wilton (doorway imposts) and at Riccall (label).

The use of bored holes and the beading round the eyes is reminiscent of beakheads at Pocklington.

Pattern of voussoir 7 of order 4 is reminiscent of an order of the chancel arch at Bishop Wilton.

The label of the doorway, and the window heads at Fangfoss have a similar pattern to the window heads at Adel, that is dentation, a zigzag pattern on two levels. Unlike the windows at Fangfoss, the pattern on the label of the doorway touches the angle of the stone.


The fieldworker struggles with the authenticity of some of these corbels, largely from the lack of comparitive material. Except for the recently renewed one (NS4) they have all been accepted here as original. Some look suspiciously sharp, compared to the doorway, but there may have been some recutting. The stone used for corbels differs from that generally used on the walls and elsewhere, and so it may have weathered better, however about three have completely decayed in the 150 years since the Victorian restoration.

The 23 corbels now on the S wall of the church are likely to be less than half what was there before (remembering that some from the lost apse might have been reset on the E wall, as in the pre-restoration drawing by Chantrell). The ones selected in 1864 would have been the best preserved, or considered the most interesting. The rest must have contributed to the collection of Mr Thomas Eadon at Fangfoss Hall (Wood-Rees 1913, 255), who describes many stones 'with beaks and grotesque masks'.

Beakheads, muzzles and gags

The symbolism depends on seeing beakheads and the unreal beasts as representing evil spirits, dangers or temptations. The roll moulding almost always associated with beakheads (CS1), the gags in the mouths of beasts (CS2) and the muzzles on the monsters (CS 6), shows their evil controlled. The control is understood to be consequent on the death and resurrection of Christ. At the end of the world, which is expected by those watching from the corbel table (CN1), the evil things will be eliminated: they will be not just controlled, but finished; they will give up the dead (NS18). Regarding corbel NS7, it is not often that beakheads are shown with another motif: East Ardsley doorway has beakheads squeezed by chevrons, that is, defeated by God's light, but here the man seems to be hoping to escape the large beakhead - only the Second Coming will save him (Wood 2012, 11-12). The sculptor is the same man as on the beakhead order of the doorway.

Reset stones inside

The Rev. Robert Taylor is quoted in Wood-Rees, as saying ‘Chantrel discovered a ‘vesica piscis’… ’, but the vesica found in the excavations may not have been in good condition. The present vesica is a record of that find; if it is a close copy, then the object was probably later than 12thc. The straight E wall at Askham Bryan (West Yorkshire) has a vesica shaped window above three tall round-headed windows.

The carving of the three men is one of those objects which needs very close access to unravel the detail, but this was not possible as the enclosure round the door to keep out the wind also keeps steps away from the carving. Hence the numerous photographs in different lightings.

The arms of the central man (presumably Christ) are extended across the width of the block, with a man on either side supporting an arm. It could well be a Trinity. The Hortus Deliciarum has a Trinity of three seated men on a bench, and there are other more interesting examples. The Trinity is not the usual sort of subject for a corbel. Might it have been the boss in the vaulted apse, evidence for which was mentioned by the Rev. Robert Taylor (Wood-Rees 1913, 254)?

Re the word 'crude' - it would not 'work' to carve this subject in realistic, finished or sophisticated style. It is a diagram, a stimulant to meditation.

The 12thc. church.

In Chantrell's drawing of the church in 1848, there is no apse but a straight E wall. From the vicar Robert Taylor's description, it sounds as though the apse was only discovered 'on the taking down of the church' when 'a semi-circular recess was found at the end of the chancel, containing three windows'. The windows are a reasonable assumption by the vicar but cannot have been seen by him. He continues: 'The recess was entered by an open arch, the full width of the apse, and had pilasters and vaulting ribs, which met in a boss.' This evidence could have been found in the excavation. And further, 'digging for foundations towards the west, we came upon the foundations of the tower. The ashlar work of the tower, as far as the plinth, being in beautiful preservation.' The soil level of the churchyard had risen to hide even the plinth courses.

Taylor also imagines the two ornamental arches that would have been seen from the nave. This would mean there was a presbytery, as Kirkburn and Wharram Percy. The original church thus had four cells W to E – tower, nave, presbytery and apse. This might be compared to the form of the churches still existing at Birkin (West Yorkshire) or Steetley (Derbyshire), but the sculpture is not like theirs.

The doorway is said by Wood-Rees to have been built up 'from twelfth-century stones discovered amongst the debris of the ruined apse', presumably because Allen in 1831 had said there was only a solitary 'bird's head' serving as a key-stone. Perhaps the porch was too dark to see (compare Whitaker at Adel). Although the doorway is a little bigger than average, it is too small to have been a chancel arch or an apse arch. Yet there are reasons to think it a re-invention by Chantrell, as above.

The known loose stones include patterns used on the present doorway, in other words, a larger arch or arches could have been built. It is reasonable to suspect that the loose voussoirs and the present doorway represent the chancel or apse arch of the original church.


T. Allen, A New and Complete History of the County of York, Vol. 3, (1831), 412.

L. A. S. Butler, ed., The Yorkshire Church Notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874), Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Record Series vol. CLIX. (Woodbridge 2007), 174.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire. 2nd ed. (1906), 150.

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

M. J. Ramshaw, A History of Fangfoss including Bolton and Spittal 1086-1988 (n.p. 1988).

A History of the County of York: The East Riding, Vol. 3 (Oxford 1976), 164-170.

R. Wood, Romanesque Yorkshire, (Leeds 2012).

R. Wood, “The Romanesque Sculpture at Adel Church, West Riding – a suggested interpretation” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 85, 97-130

W. D. Wood-Rees ‘Fangfoss Church’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 22 (1913), 253-255.