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St Peter, Conisbrough, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°29′20″N, 1°14′41″W)
SK 502 994
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
12 November 2009; 31 March 2011; 21 July 2011; 28 July 2011

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Large church of nave with N and S aisles, chancel, and W tower engaged with the aisles. From the exterior there is little trace of the antiquity of this church, with its Perpendicular tower and clerestory, battlemented nave and south aisle. The W tower may be Romanesque from interior features, and heightened in the 15thc. (Ryder 1982). The restored porch and south doorway, and two windows on the north side, show signs of earlier work. The church was heavily restored in 1866, with minor changes in 1882/3. The faculty for 1866 has only one plan, that for the ‘Proposed Restoration’. Instructions for the work include ‘if funds will allow… take down the wall of the north aisle… and rebuild… making the aisle similar to the south aisle… take down… take away…’ etc. ‘A great portion of [the church] was almost level with the ground’ says James Raine of his visit during this restoration. A restoration in 1913-4 included the restoration of the outer archway on the porch (Borthwick Fac. 1913/49). Romanesque sculptural remains of the chief interest are the chancel arch; a decayed relief reset in the porch; the nave arcades, and the tomb or memorial near the pulpit; there are many minor items as well.


The church has Saxon origins, and may have been a minster church (Coatsworth 2008). The last Anglo-Saxon lord of Conisbrough was Harold Godwinson, King Harold. At the time of the Domesday Book there was a church and a priest here (Williams et al. 1987-1992 f.321); the manor had come into the hands of the Warenne family. Conisbrough Castle was built in stone by Hamelin Plantagenet, Henry II’s illegitimate half brother and husband of Isabella de Warenne the heiress, c.1180, and the castle builders and church builders surely influenced one another. The church was given to Clunaic Lewes Priory by the Warennes: some of the early charters were forged, but Clay (Clay 1949 no.10) thinks it can be safely said that the church was given before 1121. In 1147 the 3rd Earl Warenne confirmed to Lewes Priory the church of Conisbrough with the churches and chapels belonging, that is the churches of Braithwell, Dinnington, Harthill, Fishlake, Hatfield with the chapel of Thorne, Kirk Sandall with the chapel of Armthorpe (Clay 1949 no.34). Lewes priory gave the papal chancellor the vicarage of Conisbrough in 1205 and another papal nominee was presented in 1213 (Clay 1959, 47).


Exterior Features


Exterior Decoration


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches
Tower/Transept arches





Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae

Loose Sculpture


Glynne in 1853 found the western part of the church to be ‘of rude masonry, the stone of which is much decayed’ whereas ‘the masonry of the part of the chancel is fresh and smooth, apparently Perpendicular’ (Butler 2007, 146).

Ryder 1982, 53 suggests the sequence of ‘Norman’ reconstructions of the Saxon church: early change to a wider chancel arch; simple arcades and openings N and S in tower; updated N arcade c.1175 and S arcade c.1200, with wider aisle on S. S doorway to nave Glynne says ‘a good semi-Norman door’; Ryder 1982, 54, says ‘heavily restored’ and maybe not in its original position.

Chancel arch

This arch ‘need not be later than mid C12’ (Pevsner 1979, 166). Ryder 1982, 53, says ‘capitals of a simple scalloped type, bearing incised decoration which is probably Victorian... arch retooled and otherwise interfered with in the 19th century and the outer band of voussoirs look to be of this date.’ The diamond pattern on the imposts is comparable to patterns used at Campsall on the W doorway and on the arch from the N transept into the N aisle of the nave. Engaged angle colonettes are also used at Campsall. Even to an untrained eye the stonework in the soffit of the arch is suspicious; also the neatness of all the patterns, yet they have their counterparts in genuine work. One must suppose that the arch was neatened up by restorers because it was the most obvious work seen by the congregation.

The arcades

The arcades seem ‘consistent with a date c.1175’ except that one arcade is round, the other pointed (Pevsner, pp. 166-7). The foliate motif on the base of pier 1 of the S arcade seems to tie the work to the N arcade, capital of pier 2. The stone used for the bases of both piers of the S arcade has a sheen comparable to the stone used for the font at Thorpe Salvin.

N arcade, Capital to pier 2

At one time, the floor was a little lower since at present the plinths of the piers are hidden, but this capital was never too high to see clearly. When also, in the medieval period, there were no pews, it would have been easy to walk around the capital, look up at the figures from below, and ponder their significance. On the NW angle, the man grasping foliage, can be compared to the almost naked figure carved at Selby Abbey, S arcade capital 4, NW angle, a man who is smiling as he stands amid plentiful foliage (some of it free-standing). In Selby Abbey, the flourishing symmetrical foliage is symbolic of spiritual life, particularly, the abundant new life of heaven, but at Conisbrough, the surroundings are not yet perfect, there is struggle to endure. The physical effort which the earthbound (clothed) man has to make to retain his hold on the foliage is illustrated by the thickness of the muscles across his chest: this carving is a metaphor for a man in his earthly existence struggling to maintain his hope of eternal life, or his hold on spiritual thoughts. He would probably not have been shown smiling, but with a determined, rather grim, expression. SW angle, someone at prayer. The arms are expressively entwined with the foliage. This figure wears a long gown, whereas others seem to wear a short tunic, often with trousers. There is no trace of long hair or head-covering to indicate that this was a woman, so probably the figure was intended for a priest or a monk, in this church that would have been a Cluniac. The posture of “hands together” for prayer is thought to have been developed from the homage ceremony, where it signifies the acceptance of the overlord and the exchange of service for protection. In the religious context, the posture particuarly signifies petitionary prayer, the desire for protection and assistance (the orant position being the posture appropriate to praise). The example of ‘hands together’ on this capital is a fairly early one, compare a capital at Vezelay (1130s?) showing the temptation of St Anthony, who has his (broken) hands with palms pressed together, and possibly a figure carved on the tympanum at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, both illustrated in Kraus 1967, pls. 37, 96. NE angle, the man having a snake as his penis is carrying a weight of sin (a millstone?) round his neck; or perhaps he is shown as both lustful and miserly. With both his hands engaged in the world, he is unable to grasp any foliage, he is doomed. Note that, in contrast, the spiritual man on the NW angle has an apron of foliage. On the SE angle, the large man grabs the head of the smaller one and traps his foot. The little man does his best to escape by pulling on the foliage: it is not obvious which of them is going to win this struggle. Two snakes came from the mouth of the larger figure: one coils round to the right to sting the small man, the other snake moves to the left and, its head upside down, emits foliage. The first snake is actively tempting the little man, the other snake is defeated by the Resurrection: again there is ambivalence as to the outcome. Due to damage, some activities on the left side of this group remain uncertain, but there can be no doubt that the larger figure represents a bad external influence over the little man, who, however, resists evil and tries to hold fast to the good – but the great effort made by the man on the NW corner opposite shows that the little man may need to try harder. To summarise this capital: standing facing E, that is, facing the altar in the correct manner, on the NW and SW angles we would see the man maintaining his hold on spiritual things, and the man in prayer. Standing facing W, that is, with the back disrespectfully to the altar, two complex, moralising, subjects are seen on the SE and NE corners: the undecided contest between the little man and the power of temptation, and the miser/lustful man who is already doomed. It may be relevant that the same symbolic orientations were used in 4thc. baptisms, when the adult candidate faced west (darkness) to assert his rejection of the devil, and then turned east (to sunrise) to accept Christ as Lord. This action was detailed by Cyril of Jerusalem in the 19th of his Catechetical Lectures (c.360?), where he explains the significance of the rituals in the baptism ceremony. Cyril also speaks there of renouncing the ‘tyrant’ Satan, the author of evil, and of the holy man praying to be delivered – these are commonplaces of teaching, but here shown in sculpture. The virtuosity of the sculpture on this capital is exceptional for Yorkshire and probably for England; a little free-standing sculpture can also be seen in the capitals of the Conisbrough castle fireplaces, at Riccall and in Selby Abbey.

Altar slab

A chance encounter at a book fair recently (October 2013) yielded some useful information about the altar now used in the north aisle of St Peter's. The informant was a former resident of Barnsley who is now about 80 years old. He remembered seeing the altar slab on-end leaning against a wall in the church; he said the stone had been found during the miners' strike in 1926, by some miners who dug it up from the ground somewhere near the castle. Apparently when found there was a 'casket' or little box in the cut-out on the edge of the long side, this can be seen in the photo. The box was taken to the vicar, who, I was told, also saw it, but it has since disappeared. This is an unusual position (I think) for a relic box, but maybe that is what it was.


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

Anon, Conisbrough St. Peter church guide., n.p. n.d. c.2002.

J. Carter, Ancient Sculpture and Painting, vol. 2, London, 1791.

C. T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters 8: the Honour of Warenne, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series Extra Series 6. Wakefield 1949.

E. Coatsworth, Western Yorkshire, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture 8, Oxford, 2008.

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

Joseph Hunter, South Yorkshire, Deanery of Doncaster 1, Nichols, London, 1828.

C. E. Keyser, ‘The Norman Doorways of Yorkshire’, in T. M. Fallow, ed. Memorials of Old Yorkshire, 1909, pp. 165-219.

H. Kraus, The Living Theatre of Medieval Art., London, 1967.

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

Fasti Parochiales, A. H. Thompson and C. T. Clay, eds, I part I (Deanery of Doncaster), Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 85 (1933).

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

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

P. F. Ryder, Saxon Churches in South Yorkshire, South Yorkshire County Council Archaeology Monograph no.2. Sheffield, 1982.

P. F. Ryder, ‘St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough’, proceedings of 1980 meeting, Archaeological Journal, 137 (1980), 407-415.

S. R. Tufi, Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani, I, fascicule 3, Yorkshire., Oxford 1983.

R. Wood, “Not Roman, but Romanesque: a decayed relief at Conisbrough Church”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 76 (2004), pp. 95-111.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque Memorial at Conisbrough’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal , 73 (2001), pp. 41-60.