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St Peter, Thorpe Salvin, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°19′30″N, 1°13′14″W)
Thorpe Salvin
SK 520 812
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now South Yorkshire
medieval York
now Sheffield
medieval St Peter
now St Peter
  • Barbara English
  • Rita Wood
5 August 2010, 22 March 2017

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The church lies at the NW end of the stone-built village of Thorpe Salvin. The churchyard wall to the SE is built on a stone outcrop. The church itself is of magnesian limestone and consists of chancel with N chapel and S vestry, nave with N aisle, and a W tower. The nave is approximately 4.57m by 10m (15ft x 31ft 6ins) and slightly wider at the W end than at the chancel arch. Until c.1850 the building was a chapel of ease to Laughton en le Morthen, although for convenience it is referred to in this report as a ‘church’. To the NE of the church but not immediately adjacent are the considerable remains of Thorpe Salvin Hall, c. 1570s (Pevsner 1967, 515), last occupied at the very end of the 17thc.

The church was restored in 1892. Borthwick Institute, Fac. 1892/18 includes plans for before and after the proposed work. At this time the eastern parts of the building were dug out of the raised churchyard, and gutters laid: this work was not done around the porch or the tower. A vestry was built on the S side of the chancel, which may not have affected the Romanesque parts (though rubble walling shows on either side of it), but the font was moved from the chancel to a prepared semicircular plinth of two steps at the foot of the tower arch, thus taking it into the area still liable to damp.

Romanesque sculpture remains on the S doorway, the tower arch, chancel arch and N arcade, and on the unusual font.


The vill is in Domesday Book but no church is mentioned. Thorpe was already in the soke of Laughton, the land of Roger de Busli (Williams et al. 1987-92). The Salvins or Salvains may have been Domesday tenants of the Bishop of Lincoln in Lincolnshire; subsequently Osbert Salvain, born c. 1090, sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in 1130, held the manor of Thorpe [Salvin] from the honour of Tickhill; he was a donor to Nostell priory and connected with the foundation of Welbeck abbey. The Salvains sold the manor in 1358-1363 (Clay 1965, 97-110). In 1230 Ralph Salvain I acknowledged that the advowson of Thorpe Salvin was the right of the church of York as part of the Laughton prebend of York Minster (Parker 1921 and Clay 1959).


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches
Tower/Transept arches






Comments by earlier writers:

Hunter (1828) described the church, S door and font in some detail, with illustration. He remarks that the font, formerly inside the S door, was ‘now’ moved to the E, a position from which it was returned to the W end of the nave in the 1892 restoration (Borthwick Fac. 1892/18). Hunter’s drawing shows that the outer order of the S door was already damaged at the upper left. His drawings show little change to the font, except that the man warming himself had less damage in 1828 - or perhaps the artist improved what he found. Descriptions are also given by Glynne, visiting 1834 x 1842 (see Butler 2007) and Keyser (1909, 177-8). Thompson and Clay (1943) also mention the carved font.

Comments by RW:

Doorway: It is recorded that in the early 19thc an apprentice knocked off many of the little domes from the imposts and the first order of the S doorway, and that "he was suitably dealt with” (Garbett 1958, 17). There is rich use of this simple ornament throughout the doorway; it occurs in two orders, on the label, and along the chamfer of the impost. The cusped pattern used in both the first order and the label of the doorway recalls a pattern seen at Malmesbury Abbey below the tympanum of the S doorway. There the cusps terminate in threefold leaves, while little domes with central hollows fill the spandrels between the cusps and the border of the tympanum. Variations on the cusped pattern are a feature of Cluniac architectural sculpture in France. The free-standing chevrons and other forms used in orders two and three are very closely followed at Askham Bryan on the S doorway; the sculpture there has not had the benefit of an ancient porch, however.

Tower arch: The dentation pattern on L base of second order is used on the base of pier 2 of the S arcade in Selby Abbey. The pointed arch with chevrons is seen in the crossing at Campsall and the chancel arch at Kirk Smeaton (all West Riding). The arch in this shape is a Burgundian fashion, and possibly the work of Cluniac masons who came to Yorkshire to work on Pontefract Priory.

Chancel arch capitals: in the thick waterleaf form are also seen in the N arcade at Austerfield (West Riding).

Font – fabric: The font is often admired for its wealth of carving and human figures, Pevsner saying it is ‘among the most interesting Norman fonts in the country’ (1967, 514, illus. pl. 26). The font is remarkable for the fine detail of the carving, which resembles later alabaster plaques in its form and detail. The font has been authoritatively declared not to be alabaster (Noel Worley, British Gypsum, e-mail to fieldworker, November 2010). Caen stone is suggested in the church guide. Prof. Paul Buckland inspected the font in March 2011 at the request of our fieldworker Prof. David Hey, and he responded by e-mail: "I think the one thing we can be sure of is that it is not Caen Stone as the church guide claims! The colour, lack of fossils and presence of structures which look to be the result of re-crystallisation of oolites would fit with the more massive beds in the Lower Magnesian Limestone (=Cadeby Formation of more recent publications). It should react slightly with 10% HCl but I could not get a clear reaction, as I could on more definite material from this source in the fabric, although I would add that I have a piece of LML on the desk here, fossiliferous with decalcified bivalves, Schizodus obscurus, in it which similarly fails to give a clear reaction. I am fairly convinced that the source is towards the base of the LML not too far to the west of Thorpe Salvin, although the rather accomplished sculpture may have come from farther afield!" See also Firman 1984.

The style of the carving, the arrangement of figures and even some of the naturalistic details can be paralleled in later alabaster plaques, but the models for the font must have been other 12thc fonts (arcading as a framework for the design), ivories (for the arrangement of figures and the detailing) and manuscript art (for calendar figures). The figures are not of the kind usually found in stone, though comparisons might be made with sculpture on the doorway at Riccall, where free-standing details of arms and legs has often been broken off, and surfaces look cut almost with a knife, while the stone was very fresh.

Because Thorpe Salvin was a chapel of ease until c.1850, its status for baptisms in the 12thc is not clear, as the mother church often retained rights of baptism, marriage and burial. There is therefore the possibility that the font was only brought here later, when baptisms were allowed; however, RW is inclined to think that the tall tower arch and the adjacent little window were intended as the setting for a font. From the architectural detail on the font, there is no need to think it later than the actual architecture of the Romanesque church. Waterleaf capitals (on the font), for instance, would have been known to artists and patrons, and the Burgundian Cluniac architecture of the church uses a version of that form. Fonts usually have cubic or single scallop capitals, presumably for practical reasons. To use waterleaf capitals suggests it was contemporary with their introduction.

Font – comparisons and symbolism:

The baptism scene is the only scene which spreads into two bays of the arcade. Realistic details include the heavy clothing of the four people (at least one is a woman); the (broken) book that one of them holds (and how many had books in those days?), the robes of the priest, and the fragility of the naked baby in the cold church. The font at Kirkburn, East Riding, shows a baptism in progress that also seems realistic, with bishop, priests and people present, but Christ performs the actual baptism.

There are curious details which are probably best understood as symbolic. For example, the pictured font does not have the same form as the actual font; it is a cylindrical font symbolically united with the column of the arcade (as it were, threaded onto the pillar). Fonts carved on the actual font at Darenth (Kent) and on the tympanum at Pampisford (Cambs) are tall and narrow, quite unlike contemporary fonts, but much of their oddity may be due to the limited space available for the carving. The complete pillar, conforming to the arcade but rising from or through the bowl of the font, may be interpreted as a symbol of Christ.

The size of the priest and his triple tonsure suggest this is figure represents the Church under the pope, which is subtly different from showing Christ as the officiant at Kirkburn (where that is an allusion to a statement of Augustine of Hippo). Another symbolic detail is that the patrons, congregation or family attending, and the baby, are shown reaching out and laying their hands on the church fabric, either the central pillar or the arch. This is an action also seen on the tympanum at Pampisford (Cambs), and of Mater Ecclesia in one of the Exultet Rolls of Norman south Italy (Wood, 1999, fig. 7, pp. 12, 13, 15). It probably signifies assent on behalf of the infant, or self-identification with the Church (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Apart from the baptism scene, other subjects in the open arcade are read from R to L; this order is followed, for example, by the font of Burnham Deepdale (Norfolk) which has a full series of labours of the months (Bond 1908, 190-91). In use, the priest would probably have stood against the intersecting arcade, with the congregation facing the pictorial arcade. A late 12thc or early 13thc font at St Martin’s Hull (East Riding) has one side blank, the other three with teaching material (human figures). The Everingham font (East Riding), of early 12thc date, with 40% of its cylinder blank, can be seen as used in this manner too.

The chevrons and three masks: The motif of a column in the mouth of a monster or bestial mask is quite common in England, though not to my knowledge seen elsewhere in Yorkshire (RW). No verifiable single interpretation is known for the motif of a mask emitting a column (or chevron mouldings, as here). The motif might provide a sequel to the baptism scene, in which case it should probably be seen as the overturning of evil by light, and (if it is a human face at the top), the baptised man, at last in heaven, himself exhales light. Baptism was called ‘enlightenment’ in early sources. For the chevron pattern as both spiritual and natural light (see Wood 2001, 22-25).

The man warming himself is a frequent illustration for the month of February, it also occurs on the doorway at Bishop Wilton (East Riding), but there it is used as a reference to St Peter’s denial of Christ. The font shows a man in a high-backed wicker chair warming his legs in front of a stove with an elaborate hood. The grate holding the fire is supported on a cylinder raised on columnar legs; the hood or chimney resembles those at 12thc houses at Cluny and Bayeux (Wood 1965, Pl. 1, C and D). If the supporting legs are realistic and not conventional, then a portable brazier (with its own chimney?) is shown.

Man going out to sow seed: In the Winchester Psalter, fol. 41r, there is a hatless figure with a similar basket energetically casting seed. The scene is for March (Wormald 1973).

Man on horseback with foliage: The month of May can be shown by a man or woman carrying a spray of foliage (St Margaret’s, Walmgate, York, sculpture eroded but documented). Occasionally, May is illustrated by a rider carrying a hawk on his fist, as in the Winchester Psalter, fol. 42r, and on the lead font at Brookland, Kent, see Allen repr. 1992, 321. That does not seem likely here because, firstly, the bird would appear to have been facing forwards at the viewer in a realistic manner, whereas a medieval or Romanesque hawk would have been sideways, made legible as ‘hawk’; secondly, what then would be made of all the foliage, whose stems are held in the man’s hand?

Man harvesting: This represents the month of August. A man harvesting is carved on the doorway at Riccall. There, the man faces R, holds the top of the stalks up in his L hand and pulls the sickle towards himself with his R hand. A similar pose is shown in the Winchester Psalter, fol. 43r, for July, but that is not the action here. The reaper has one bound sheaf standing behind him, he is working in an area of cut stalks, and there is standing corn in front of him. His sickle is tucked in his belt and he appears to be binding the sheaf, in the process or twisting or turning straws to fasten it all together, as the bound sheaves above him are. From the awkwardness of the pose, this might have been an attempt to copy an actual movement observed by the carver. The areas filled with curving lines of stalks below the butt end of the sheath are not easy to understand, they are neither cut stalks nor standing corn; perhaps they were a pile of cut stalks waiting to be gathered and bound.

In the baptism scene, the man at the top, the one who holds the broken open book, looks away from the baptism to the R, into this adjacent scene of harvest. Perhaps we are to understand that the thoughts of the man are guided by the book, and are on the child’s eventual coming to harvest, that is, to judgment (Matt. 3:12; Rev. 14:15, etc.). The idea of the Last Judgment is sometimes evoked on fonts (two Tournai fonts on the continent illus. in Drake 2002, pls. 95, 115), and probably on the tower arch at Nunburnholme, East Riding.

Regarding the sheaves ‘floating’ above the workman, a point of a symbolic nature may be represented here too. The sheaves in this area total ten: nine are stooked together with the ears of the corn interlaced, and the single sheaf is above. If this arrangement had been meant to picture the actual harvest field, three or four sheaves leaning together in a pyramid would be normal. The grouping of so many sheaves in this way could be a reminder that the tenth sheaf, the tithe of corn, was due to God, in the person of his minister.


J. R. Allen, Norman Sculpture and the Mediaeval Bestiaries. Reprinted from Early Christian Symbolism, the Rhind lectures in Archaeology for 1885 (1887), Felinfach, 1992, 321.

F. Bond, Fonts and Font Covers. London, 1908, reprinted 1985, 190-91.

Borthwick Institute, Fac. 1892/18.

L. A. S. Butler, The Yorkshire church notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874). Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 159, Leeds, 2007, 409.

C. T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters 12 (Tison Fee), Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series Extra Series 10. Leeds, 1965, 97-110.

C. T. Clay, York Minster Fasti 2. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, Wakefield, 1959, 50.

C. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Woodbridge, 2002, pls. 95, 115.

R. J. Firman, 'A geological approach to the history of English alabaster', Mercian Geologist, 9 (1984), 161-78.

H. Garbett, A Brief History of the Church and Village of Thorpe Salvin, Yorkshire West Riding. Bradford 1958.

J. Hunter, South Yorkshire 1, London 1828, 312.

C. E. Keyser, ‘The Norman Doorways of Yorkshire’, in T. M. Fallow, ed. Memorials of Old Yorkshire (1909), 177-8.

J. Parker, Feet of fines for the county of York, from 1218 to 1231.Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 62.Leeds, 1921, 128.

N. Pevsner, Yorkshire: West Riding. The Buildings of England. Harmondsworth, 1959, 2nd. ed. revised E. Radcliffe. 1967.

J. Raine, 'The Dedications of the Yorkshire Churches', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 2 (1873), 180-92.

A. H. Thompson and C. T. Clay, Fasti parochiales I part 2, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 107 [Deanery of Doncaster part 2]. Leeds, 1943.

A. Williams et al., The Yorkshire Domesday. Alecto Historical Editions. 3 vols. London, 1987-1992, fol. 319.

M. Wood, The English Mediaeval House. London, 1965, plate I, C and D.

R. Wood, 'Geometric patterns in English Romanesque sculpture', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 154 (2001), 1-39.

R. Wood, 'Real People in English Romanesque Sculpture'. Medieval Life, 11 (1999), 8-15.

F. Wormald, The Winchester Psalter. London, 1973.