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St Peter, Langtoft, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°5′20″N, 0°27′37″W)
TA 008 670
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now East Riding of Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval St Peter
now St Peter
  • Rita Wood
25 June 2004

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Langtoft has a medieval Gothic church restored and enlarged between 1900 and 1903, the last of the ‘Sykes’ churches (Pevsner & Neave 1995, 94-5, 592). It houses two pieces of twelfth-century date from Cottam (or Cotham), a depopulated village about 5 kilometers or 2 miles to the south west (see separate site report). These pieces are a celebrated font with numerous figures and a less-known fragmentary lintel with the Agnus Dei. Langtoft church also contains a plain font and a small corbel or label stop of uncertain provenance.


By the time of the Domesday Book two estates, each of 9 carucates in Langtoft and Cottam, had been assigned to the Chapter of York Minster (VCHER ii, 265); that at Cottam was waste (VCH ii, 211). It is said that ‘a church may have existed at Langtoft and a chapel at Cottam’ but their manors were the same size, and there seems to be no certain evidence as to which was the senior or more wealthy site (VCHER, ii, 270).


Interior Features

Interior Decoration




Loose Sculpture


Font. The sculpture is more than standard religious motifs, but would support much teaching. In a talk given at the International Medieval Conference at Leeds in 2004, Frances Altvater suggested that the choice of saints for the font implied a clerical interest in sacramental theology; at parish level, details of the martyrs’ histories might have been taken to refer to baptism, penance and even the Eucharist; the individual saints represent an apostle, a deacon and a laywoman. According to Allen 1887, 286, the Fall is shown on fonts in order to illustrate the ‘putting off of the old Adam’ at baptism. There is much teaching material here on the font, and much of it could probably once again have been filtered through the Augustinians. Although they had no direct responsibility for Cottam parish, the archbishop and dean and chapter favoured the regular canons: consider, for example, the similarities of Kilham and Kirkburn churches, one belonging to the archbishop and the other to Guisborough priory.

The font has one of the deepest basins of any of the Wolds fonts, suggesting that adult baptism must have been common at the time it was provided. It may be that Augustine of Hippo, for whom adult baptism was the norm, influenced practice in the Wolds.

The scenes on the font are described moving from left to right, as for the font at Cowlam which probably had the same designer and craftsman.

Scene 1: Adam and Eve: they both have apples, as at Cowlam. Palmate leaves, as in the ninth-century Moutier-Grandval Bible from Tours. Random pecking is an unusual finish for Yorkshire; the lines of bored holes on the beaks of beakheads are rarely random like this. Hollow diamond-shaped leaves: compare figure over Fridaythorpe chancel arch; font at Goxhill.

Scene 2: The Tree of Life motif suggests two Persons of the Trinity ‘in heaven’ and the Second Person on earth. There is a three-fold Tree of Life on the east face of the Fall capital at Liverton (YN); its stem is plaited (Wood 2006, fig. 6).

Scenes 3, 4 and 6: Martyrs are an unusual subject for a font, or indeed any Romanesque sculpture in England, and are presumably a warning about the difficulties of the life of the believer, compensated by the promise of resurrection and heavenly bliss in Paradise, here shown in the form of the Tree. Compare Cowlam font, where the martyrs are the Holy Innocents. It is an interesting pastoral point that both male and female suffering is shown: as it happens, the two men were historical characters, but the woman is legendary.

Scene 5. Bird-serpent. It has been described as a bird and the eagle of St John, or the dragon which was about to swallow St Margaret (Cole 1902, 115-6); Pevsner & Neave choose not to mention it at all. Altvater floats the idea that it was a filler or a grotesque, or ‘coincident ornament’ signifying ‘the ever-present threat of evil that tempts and preys on the soul’. Writers are uncertain what to think partly because of the state of the carving, which has suffered general abrasion and deliberate damage at the bottom of the field and in the centre below the head of the creature.

If the form projecting under the beak is a wattle, then perhaps the creature is the dreaded basilisk. The moral provided by the basilisk, according to White 1954, 168, is that ‘God never makes [or allows] anything without a remedy’. This moral could be applied to the saints’ torments, in the sense that God remedies their ill fortune by the ultimate gift of eternal life (represented by the Tree of Life on the far side of the font). Augustine also used this idea, that evil is converted by God for good. However, in the context of Romanesque sculpture in England, a basilisk is most unexpected.

There is no sign of a comb or crest (as in cocks, hens and basilisks) to match the wattle, so perhaps it was an error for some other form. For example, the ‘wattle’ might have been a sprig of foliage held in the beak, and the creature was intended as a being with eternal life.

Another possibility is that it is a wattle, and a benevolent creature was intended. Several examples of a beaked, winged quadruped with wattles has been noted on sculpture in North Italy. The earliest example is at Cividale del Friuli, and was part of the 8th-century fittings of the Lombard cathedral, probably of the ciborium. The creatures appear alone among symmetrical and fruiting foliage; similar panels having peacocks, lions, sea creatures and harts have been reconstructed as a font arcade; they could all be seen as inhabitants of Paradise. A second example is on a capital in the atrium of San Ambrogio, Milan, and would probably date from the 11th century. Here the creature has a smaller creature crouching below it, and it is opening its mouth with one front claw. There are in the atrium various other combinations of a large winged quadruped with a smaller animal, perhaps a hare in one case, and these pairings suggest sheltering and mothering at least as much as they suggest killing and tearing (Wood 2006, Fig. 31). A third example is in a floor mosaic of c.1141 in Murano cathedral, in which winged quadrupeds with the heads of pheasants or cocks are symmetrically placed, like nearby peacocks that feed from a chalice. If the creature on the Cottam font is a spiritual being - a combination of the wattled creature with a snake - it would seem to be a good spirit of some sort and might represent the resurrection body of a believer. Combination creatures in a scheme at Liverton (YN) are explained as representing believers in a paradisal context (Wood 2006, fig. 13).

If any one of these three interpretations is on the right lines, this wattled bird-serpent is an encouragement to the martyrs and to the baptised: they will have a marvellous new body in Heaven.

Scene 6: St Andrew. On a voussoir of the doorway at Brayton, breeches seem to be worn by another figure with bound hands and feet, that man probably represents Adam in Hades (Sheol).

Lintel from Cottam with Agnus Dei: Morris 1919, 130, describes visiting Cottam church: ‘the little, modern, red-brick church, and a solitary farm, now stand desolate on the windswept plateau of the Wolds; but traces exist to the north of the church of the site of a vanished village… built into the west interior wall of the church is a carved stone that is probably coeval with the font itself.’ There are photos by George Zarnecki in the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute, of this lintel on the west wall inside the church at Cottam.

The Agnus Dei is carved at Thwing in the tympanum. A fragment at Speeton with the Agnus Dei may have been a lintel which imitated the shape of a tympanum. None of the other East Riding examples include foliage, but a tympanum at St Nicholas’ church, Gloucester shows the Lamb between two trees (Keyser 1927, pl. 103). The form of the foliage can be matched closely with that on the font from Cottam.

The iconography of the lintel is complete in itself; a tympanum – if any – would have had patterns such as foliage or stars; nothing is 'higher' than the Lamb.

Reset cross in south wall of nave: The supposed consecration cross is very like one on the south west angle of the tower at Hunmanby.


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

F. Altvater, ‘“Bless this Body”: Baptismal Iconography on the 12th-century Cottam Font’, Unpublished paper, Leeds IMC 2004, session 702b

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

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

Victoria County History: East Riding of Yorkshire, II (Dickering Wapentake), 1974

T. H. White, The Book of Beasts, London, 1954

R. Wood, “The Romanesque Chancel arch at Liverton, North Riding”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 78, 111-143