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St Cuthbert, Fishlake, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°36′40″N, 1°0′41″W)
SE 655 132
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now South Yorkshire
medieval York
now Sheffield
  • Rita Wood
23 Oct 1995; 26 May 1996; 15 June 2001

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Feature Sets

Fishlake is now a satellite village of Doncaster, but in the 12thc. it was a small settlement in the vast area of fen around the Humber. Drainage works from the 17thc. onwards mean that the River Don no longer threatens to undermine the church as it did in times past, and a high dyke now overlooks it.

St Cuthbert’s is spacious, with a W tower, nave and aisles and chancel, with a mainly Perpendicular fenestration. It is almost entirely late Gothic, but retains its Romanesque nave doorway, which is recognised by Pevsner as 'perhaps the most lavishly decorated in Yorkshire'. There is also a plain S doorway to the chancel but no other visible 12thc. remains. During re-roofing work on the S aisle some time after 2001, the lowest parts of a row of window openings in the S wall of the nave could be seen; these could have been Romanesque, and recalled the situation at Hatfield (West Yorkshire).


The lordship of Conisbrough in 1086 included Fishlake. William de Warenne II granted Conisbrough and its dependent churches to Cluniac Lewes Priory during the last decade of the 11thc. (Hey 1979).

In medieval times the River Don ran close to the church. The site would thus have been convenient for the bringing of Magnesian limestone some 17-20km down river from the outcrop at Conisbrough. From the 13thc. onwards, the church was enlarged and altered on the N side, away from the river.


Exterior Features



General remarks

It is noteworthy that the doorway is made of relatively small stones, the many joints presumably once disguised under plaster and paint. It is rare for carved figures elsewhere in Yorkshire to cross joints between stones as they persistently do here. The quality of some of the carving is unusually high, though there were at least two craftsmen at work. Heads in the second order, together with the paired seated figures in the fourth order, are perhaps the most sophisticated sculpture of this period surviving in Yorkshire. Compare heads on the inner doorway at Barton-le-Street (North Riding), which are the closest comparison and better preserved.

The doorway expresses a complex theological programme (Wood 2000), briefly as follows: In the first order, the tree motif relates to the Tree of Life as shown on tympana in the SW midlands, a particularly close comparison is the tympanum at Buildwas, Keyser (1927), fig. 29F. Repeated, the tree motif becomes a symbol of paradise. Foliage is appropriate at the door to the church interior, which should resemble paradise according to Theophilus. Orders 2-4 are a sequence of time past, present and future; they make a history of Salvation. The second order depicts the publication of the First Coming (the Salutation) interpreted largely by typological subjects; the third order shows the contemporary work of the church: five topics, using among other things a Cluniac text and bestiary creatures. Fourth order has a more unified design probably suggesting the arrival of Christ for his Millennial reign.

First order of the nave doorway

Leafy foliage is a feature of the doorway. The leaves are usually either the palmate leaf or palmette, and the fluted, furled leaf. These are best understood as two views of the same thing, or two states of growth. The palmette is the symmetrical apical leaf of a fully expressed shoot; the furled leaf is a subsidiary leaf seen in half or profile. The individual leaflets of the palmettes radiate from a small ring at the end of the stem, a feature not seen in other Yorkshire School work even where that leaf type occurs. The furled leaf is common in Yorkshire work, note that at Fishlake the scalloped leaf is raised on a surrounding continuous ledge: this is not always the case. There are also clover-like trefoil leaves at Fishlake, these are not common elsewhere but occur at Barton-le-Street.

Second order of the nave doorway

R capital of Second order. The animal was seen as a double-bodied griffin by Charles Keyser, but he thought the lion's tails were wings; his observation does at least attest to the nature of the animal's head.The lion's head is largely gone now, but a similar lion is carved in related work on the chancel arch at Steetley, a small church just inside Derbyshire.

Voussoir 3 of the second order has broken off, flaking away naturally and not from a deliberate blow. Despite this relentless decay, there are still a few places where the original surface, and its very fine detail, can be seen. Restoration work has been minimal, though some is planned. The detached columns of the second and third orders are probably replacements. Mortar and other filling materials are very evident. The sculpture is marked by the droppings of bats which inhabit the church and are a protected species.

Fourth order of the nave doorway

W capital: A very similar mounted combat is complete but extremely worn on the tomb-cover in Conisbough church, see Wood 2001. The various ‘winged bipeds’ at Fishlake have their fellow at Conisbrough in a fire-breathing dragon.

Label of the nave doorway

The lost label may have resembled designs used at Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire. The outer archways of the south porch there are of quadrant cross-section like the fourth order. They are bordered by a label with a small plain chamfer, then a broad fillet with a foliage pattern (pairs of furled leaves off a central stem running round the arch). Intermediate arches between quadrant orders have geometric patterns of a type local to Aquitaine, which do not occur in Yorkshire. There are numerous links with the (earlier) sculpture of the S porch at Malmesbury Abbey, see Wood 1998, 53-56.


D. Hey, The Making of South Yorkshire, Ashbourne. 1979.

Jos. Hunter, South Yorkshire: the history and topography of the Deanery of Doncaster, in the diocese and county of York. 2 vols. J. B. Nichols & Son, London, 1828-31.

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

C.E. Keyser, Tympana and Lintels. 2nd. ed., 1927.

G. Ornsby, ‘Fishlake Church and Parish’, Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society, Archaeological Papers 1850-60, Vol IV: 1857-8, pp. 91-106.

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

J. Tomlison, History of Hatfield Chace and Parts adjacent, Doncaster, 1882.

R. Wood, ‘Malmesbury Abbey: The Sculpture of the South Entrance’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 91 (1998), 42-56.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque Doorway at Fishlake’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 72 (2000), pp. 17-39.

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