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St Mary, Cowlam, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°4′34″N, 0°31′30″W)
SE 966 655
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
formerly St Andrew
medieval St Andrew
now St Mary
  • Rita Wood
25 Jun, 06 Aug 2004

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Feature Sets

Small, simple church rebuilt in 1852 on the site of the medieval church. ‘The church stands alone in a farmyard with the earthworks of the former village to the E’ (Pevsner & Neave 1995, 392). See also Morris, 1919, 135-6.

An analysis of the building was made during 2003 when the church was threatened with redundancy. 'The church was found to contain a substantial amount of twelfth-century fabric in the north wall and the building morphology was suggestive of an incorporated earlier church. In 2004 the additional discovery of a small fragment of medieval wall painting supported the conclusion that the church was not rebuilt in 1852 as previously thought, but was rather substantially altered at this time' (Jane Grenville pers. comm.) (Neal 2007, 4).

The font is the only item of Romanesque sculpture.


Before the Conquest, Chilbert and his brother had an estate of 6 carucates here (VCH II, 205). At the time of the Domesday Book, the king and Bishop Todeni each had 6 carucates, while the archbishop had ½ a carucate (VCH II, 325). ‘The church of Colnun’ belonged to Archbishop Thomas, with the same half a carucate of land (VCH II, 212). It was part of the archbishop's estate of Weaverthorpe.

An estate of 6 carucates at Cowlam was held by Berenger, holder of Buckton, and it was waste (VCH II, 243).

The church, with 1/2 a carucate, as above, was 'itemised in Archbishop Thomas II's grant of Yorkshire lands to Herbert the Chamberlain c.1109... it does not seem to have been part of [St] William's 1121 grant of Weaverthorpe church to Nostell priory. It subsequently passed out of the control of the [Fitzherbert] family' (Norton 2006, 48-9).





If you are not standing by the font itself, it is an advantage to have a diagram of the cylinder in a strip, since this makes clearer connections that might have been made between the subjects (Cole 1902, 114-5, pl. viii; see also Allen 1887, 189-90, 200; figs. 57, 59). These placings show that, although the craftsmanship is unsophisticated, the sculpture was designed by a literate cleric. Like much sculpture in the E Riding, this suggests it was made to be used by Augustinians with a pastoral ministry. The font is described from L to R because of the time sequence of the biblical scenes 1, 2 and 3.

1. The Fall. Eve and Adam have been reversed from their conventional positions, which would have Adam on the L as, for example, on the Cottam font (at Langtoft). This is not just chance or a mistake, but so that the Wise Virgin (6) stands close to Eve (1), making it easier to draw a contrast between them. As at Langtoft, however, both Adam and Eve take an apple; an example of the pastoral wisdom of the Augustinians.

2. The Massacre of the Innocents is being planned by Herod and his minion (Matt. 2:1-18). This massacre might be seen as equivalent to the martyrdoms of three identifiable saints on the Cottam font, since from an early date these infants were accounted the first Christian martyrs. The children died in place of, or ‘for’, Christ. The medieval play about the Massacre, examples of which are known from at least the 13th century, concludes with the arrival of the Innocents in heaven. This story had practical applications in pastoral care: contemporary children might die young, but though not martyrs, if baptised they were assured of going to heaven.

3. The scene is the Epiphany, the presentation of the Child to welcoming gentiles, perhaps intentionally contrasting with the refusal of the Jews, in the person of their king Herod, to accept their Messiah (subject 2). On a wider note, the Epiphany introduces God’s antidote to the Fall (subject 1). This idea, that God always brings a good outcome from evil, is an Augustinian one. There is at least one sermon of Augustine on the subject of the Magi and Herod, Sermon 200.

The scene of the Magi before the Virgin and Child, including its decorated semicircles, is very reminiscent of the same scene on the 8th-century altar of Ratchis in Cividale. A feature on the font from Cottam also recalls North Italy (see Langtoft report). A line of foliage decoration below this scene occurs on some 9th- and 10th- century ivories; on the Hildesheim bronze doors, the Magi walk on foliage. The semicircular form with ‘demi-rosettes’, along with other similar extensions where a Cross meets a border, is discussed by George Zarnecki in his paper on the Lenton font; he mentions Celtic, Carolingian and Roman sources (Zarnecki 1998, 137-8). It is regrettable that the stone below figures 4 and 6 is damaged or broken away.

The mother and large child, both crowned and Mary holding up foliage, are seated on a further little platform above even the decorated semicircles. Mary is stiff and regal whereas the kings are individualised by the swinging thurible and their various glances and clothing. Mary may represent a Throne of Wisdom.

4. It is possible that the bishop may represent St Augustine. As suggested in note 1 above, where Ecclesia and Eve are placed alongside each other, the bishop stands next to the depiction of the spiritual struggle (5), something Augustine had experienced and written about. The bishop on the North Grimston font stands on a semi-circle with a plain border; its filling is lost. It has been suggested that St Augustine appears twice in the sculpture at Kirkburn (Wood 2003, 13-14; 48-49).

5. This scene probably symbolises the interior struggle e.g. between soul and body; or good and evil impulses. A pair of wrestlers is part of a programme on the S doorway at Foston, N Riding (Wood 1997, 73), and is one of the subjects on the font from Hutton Cranswick now in the Hull & East Riding Museum. It is unlikely that these three examples are by the same sculptor, but it is very likely that they were meant to convey the same teaching.

6. From parallels elsewhere in Yorkshire, including an early example at Danby Wiske (YN) and one roughly contemporary at Kirkburn, it is suggested that this figure is a Wise Virgin (see Wood 1994, 74-76, fig. 7). At Kirkburn the woman holding a flaming torch is at the apex of the S doorway; the fieldworker has suggested that in that programmme the Wise Virgin could also be interpreted as Ecclesia, the Church (Wood 2003, 37-9). This would make sense here too, making the teaching of immediate relevance, for example, to indicate actual companionship in the individual's spiritual struggle, just as bishop Augustine (4) would have been a reliable adviser.

This series of subjects provides a rounded programme of teaching, concentrating on endurance or tenacity in earthly life. It is interesting that, like the Cottam font, this one gives role-models for both men and women. The fact that Archbishop Thomas held the church at the time of the Domesday Book could have lead to Augustinians serving it under Archbishop Thurstan and designing the font (as the author has suggested happened at Everingham).


J. R. Allen, Early Christian Symbolism, London, 1887

F. Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications or England's Patron Saints, 3 vols, London, 1899, 97

E. M. Cole, ‘Ancient Fonts on the Wolds of East Riding’. Trans. East Riding Antiquarian Soc. 10 (1902), 107-117

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire, 2nd ed. (1906) 1919

C. Neal, "The dynamics of human activity and landscape processes on the Yorkshire wolds; an assessment of dry valley deposits at Cowlam Well Dale". Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 79 (2007), 1-15

N. Pevsner & D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd. ed., London, 1995, 392

Victoria County History: Yorkshire II, 1913, reprinted 1974

R. Wood, ‘The Augustinians and the Romanesque Sculpture at Kirkburn Church’, East Riding Historian, 4 (2003) 3-59

R. Wood, "The Romanesque doorway at Foston church", Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Report for the year 1996 York, 1997, 67-75

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque Doorways of Yorkshire, with special reference to that at St. Mary’s Church, Riccall’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 66 (1994), 59-90

G. Zarnecki, ‘The Romanesque Font at Lenton’. British Archaeological Association Conference Proceedings 21, Southwell & Nottinghamshire: Medieval Art, Architecture and Industry, Leeds, 1998, 136-142