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St Helen, Stillingfleet, Yorkshire, East Riding

(53°51′45″N, 1°5′53″W)
SE 594 411
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval St Helen
now St Helen
  • Rita Wood
16 Sept, 06 Nov 2003 and more recently

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Stillingfleet village lies either side of the Fleet, a stream running west to the Ouse.

The church has a nave and chancel on the Norman plan, a 13th-century north aisle to both (the continuation to the east end of which was a chapel and is now a vestry), a south chapel off the nave, and a west tower of early 13th-century date, its top is 16th-century. The plinth remains in situ on the south and east sides of the chancel according to Hodgson Fowler, showing that the chancel was square-ended; its profile is more complex than the usual chamfered and plain.

Romanesque sculpture in situ is only the south doorway and lengths of string course at the western end of the nave, but there is much elsewhere that has been reset. These remnants include string course on the chancel, and remains of what was probably the chancel arch; mostly re-used for the north doorway, reset in the vestry and (according to Hodgson Fowler) in the upper stage of the tower. The church is famous for its old door and the ironwork on it; this has now been remounted inside.


In 1086 Hugh son of Baldric held the land, but it had passed to Robert de Stutville later, and continued in the hands of that family in the Romanesque period. Erneis de Burun and Count Alan of Brittany may have been involved with estates in Stillingfleet, together with the king and/or St Peter’s (St Leonard’s) hospital, York (VCHER 1976, 103). There was an increase in value after the Conquest (VCHER 1976, 107). The church was first mentioned in documents in 1244, served by a vicar (VCHER 1976, 109). Its patron in 1275 was the current Robert de Stutville. It is assumed in Addyman et al. that an earlier member of the family of the same name was the builder of the church, who may have been inspired by seeing the crypt of York Minster when witnessing a document.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses

Interior Features

Interior Decoration





There is a plan of the church in Addyman et al., 1979, 77.

Stillingfleet church was restored in 1877-8 by C. Hodgson Fowler (Fowler 1877). This reference includes elevations of the church before his restoration, and plans of a historical sequence of the building. He restored the nave and chancel roofs to their original pitch. Considering the movement in the south doorway shown in Allen 1889, pl xii, work was urgent.

There is a lengthy list of authorities who have written on the S doorway. J. R. Allen in 1889 could say ‘all the sculpture is in very good preservation; the details of the leaf ornaments being particularly well defined and as sharp as the day they were cut.’ There is a relatively full photographic record of the state of this doorway, beginning with the pre-restoration view in Allen. While Fowler's restoration rectified the deformity, subsequent decay of the stonework can be traced in later plates by noting the change from dark to light. When I first saw the doorway in the 1980s the sculpture was, as Allen had described it, sharp and well-defined, but it was black and almost shiny, which he does not say. This layer was chemical pollution, and since the 1980s it has been peeling off, taking all the definition with it.

N doorway: It is thought by Hodgson Fowler and followed by Addyman et al., that this doorway has been made from parts of the former chancel arch. The north arcade and hence the north wall is early 13th-century (VCHER, iii, 103-9; Pevsner & Neave 1995, 711). Hodgson Fowler explains a complex history for this wall, suggesting that the chancel arch was removed in the 16th century, at which time the 13th-century wall was repaired and altered, with the newly-assembled doorway. Addyman et al., 1979, 77, states that the chancel arch was removed about 1567. The early English label with dogtooth on the north doorway probably came from the original north doorway contemporary with the aisle.

The stones at the bottom of the north doorway are used inverted; they are described by Eric Gee (in Addyman et al., 1979, 78) as the capitals to a nook shaft, placed upside down. On the right side most of a face can be seen on the angle: the motif on the other side is not so clear. In both stones, either side, chevron mouldings continue the form used in the jambs, an unusual feature if these had been imposts or capitals. They might have been stones like the rest, but with a human head in the hexagonal spandrel. This varied development of the details in the spandrels recalls the tower arch at Etton.

Chancel arch There are several patterns which might reasonably have come from the former chancel arch, of which the north doorway supplies all of one. There is a voussoir reset outside on the north wall near the north east corner of the church, two further types in the vestry, and one or two more in the tower. These would make almost more than a chancel arch, so perhaps the east window(s) had chevron mouldings, as at Birkin, or there was a north doorway of simpler form than now.

Similarities: The report on Etton lists other churches having the radial foliate design, eg., at St Denys, York. There are also links of whole motifs to Riccall and Barton-le-Street (YN). The capitals of the 4th and 5th orders of the doorway remind me of Healaugh, Birkin and Brayton. Bubwith uses the hollow roll with an angle roll on the 3rd order of its chancel arch. Brayton has it too, in the 2nd order of the chancel arch. That arch has criss-cross cut domes in the chamfer of the imposts, which might be compared to the balls of grapes on Stillingfleet, south doorway, right capital of 4th order. There is a similar feature at Healaugh, doorway, 1st order left capital. For the voussoirs in the north doorway at Stillingfleet, suggested as part of the former chancel arch, perhaps Etton has the closest forms: there are point-to-point chevron and grape-domes adjacent in the first two orders of the tower arch, also an order of chevron and hollow chevron.

S doorway and its door The ironwork has to be dated to the same period as the doorway, that is, to the 1150s. It has been suggested that the programme of the ironwork shows the Fall, redemption through the power of the Holy Rood, and rescue by the ship of the Church (Barley 1984). The programme of the first order of the doorway (the order with individual motifs in its voussoirs) might follow on from this with the theme of resurrection. In that order, most motifs and all the symmetrical foliage illustrate this theme. The two voussoirs with stars and the two with beakheads are a common opposition and would chime with the undercurrent of struggle and victory embodied in the head of Christ with its crown of crosses at the top of the order.


P. V. Addyman, I. H. Goodall, et al., ‘The Norman Church and Door at Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire’, Archaeologia (106) 1979, pp. 75-81.

J. R. Allen, The Norman Doorways of Yorkshire: Stillingfleet, The Reliquary, NS., III/2 (1889), pp.104-107.

S. A. J. Bradley, "The Norman Door of St Helen Stillingfleet and the Legend of the Holy Rood Tree". In Papers presented to M. W. Barley, 1984, 84-100.

S. A. J. Bradley, "Quem aspicientes viverent: symbolism in the early medieval church door and its ironwork". Antiquaries Journal (LXVIII.2) 1988, 223-37.

C. Hodgson Fowler, ‘Stillingfleet church’, Associated Architectural and Archaeological Societies Reports and Papers, XIV, (1877) pp. 73-9.

J. Geddes, Medieval Decorative Ironwork in England. London 1999.

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

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire. 2nd ed. (1906) 1919, pp. 301-4.

N. Pevsner & D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd. ed. London, 1995, p. 711.

A History of the County of York East Riding, iii. Oxford 1976.