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St Wilfrid, Burnsall, Yorkshire, West Riding

(54°2′58″N, 1°57′3″W)
SE 033 615
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now Bradford
  • Rita Wood
  • John McElheran
17 Jul 1995; 10 Feb 2005; 04 Sep 2006; 6 August 2022

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Burnsall is a small village in Wharfedale, North Yorkshire. The church of St Wilfrid is Grade I liisted and lies adjacent to the River Wharfe and its famous five-arched bridge. It is essentially Perpendicular, with W tower, aisled nave and chancel, and was restored in the 1850s. The aisles were added in the second quarter of the 13thc. The church has a good collection of pre-Conquest sculpture, which has recently been arranged in a permanent exhibition (see Coatsworth, Wood and Butler 2005). There are also several pieces remaining from the Romanesque period, including a re-set corbel, a font, a monolithic window-head, parts of four grave slabs, and a stoup.


The Domesday Survey records two estates held in Burnsall: the slightly smaller one was previously held by Dringhel, later by Osbert de Archis, described as 'all waste.' In 1086 the larger estate was held from the king by the same man as before the Conquest, Hardul or Hardulf, and the implication is that it was productive (VCH Yorkshire II, (1912) 282, 289, 306n).


Interior Features

Interior Decoration




Loose Sculpture


Corbel (IV.5.c.i): The tip of the tongue can be seen on other animal head corbels from the first part of the 12thc. (Edlington, Healaugh).

Font: The eight lower quadrupeds are probably lions; they have the conventional tail and the lion is a common motif. They are not thought to be four repeats of a double-bodied lion with one head, since there is no attempt to make the heads suggest one form. The conspicuous ring formed by the lions' tails is not a Romanesque notion, but likely to be a craft-memory of the pre-Conquest patternmaking of the district.

The next creatures, higher on the cylinder, are likely to be winged snakes. Immediately above them are small pieces of foliage, which are symmetrical on the corners but elsewhere random. The combination of lions, snakes and foliage makes a picture of heaven, common in more proficient, later Romanesque sculpture, for example on a capital of the chancel arch at Liverton (North Riding), but the same may be observed at the end of the 11thc. at Durham castle chapel where the lions and snakes are in a starry environment and foliage patterns are used elsewhere on the same capitals (Zarnecki, 1951, pls. 5 and 6). Hence it is a mistake to assume that the snakes are attacking the lions: the lions and snakes are merely the two sorts of creatures that the carver was presumably instructed to fit onto the font in a symmetrical manner (Coatsworth, Wood and Butler 2005, 19-21).

The shallow carving suggests that, again like the pre-Conquest material exhibited nearby, the font was intended to be painted in several colours: the simple surface on two levels would give a permanent guide to those who repainted it. The form of the font, a cylinder on a square base, is seen locally in the West Riding at Kettlewell and Kirkby Malham, as well as further afield at Birstall.

Early grave slabs are idiosyncratic - compare those at Birstall, at Bolam, Northumberland (see Cramp 1984, pl. 235), and at Gainford (Ryder 1985, no. 28). The author acknowledges here the kind assistance of Dr Lawrence Butler in identifying these grave slabs.


Anon., The Parish Church of Saint Wilfrid, Burnsall (Grassington, 2000).

E. Coatsworth, R. Wood and L. A. S. Butler, Early Sculptures in Burnsall Church (Grassington, 2005).

R. Cramp (ed.), County Durham and Northumberland, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, I (Oxford, 1984).

J. E. Morris, The West Riding of Yorkshire, (London, 1911), rev. 1923.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: The West Riding (Harmondsworth, 1959).

P. F. Ryder, Medieval Cross Slab Grave Covers in West Yorkshire (Wakefield, 1991).

W. J. Stavert, Notes on the Parish Church of Saint Wilfrid at Burnsall. (c. 1913).

The Victoria History of the County of York, vol II (London, 1912), reprinted 1974.

G. Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140 (London, 1951).