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St Helen, Austerfield, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°26′41″N, 1°0′17″W)
SK 662 947
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now South Yorkshire
medieval St Helen
now St Helen and St Helena
  • Barbara English
  • Rita Wood
10 June 2010

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Austerfield is about a mile and a half NE of Bawtry. The small church lies off the village street in a narrow plot, up a gated track. This approach first reveals a W wall with two slit windows (lancets), massive buttresses, and a later bellcote; beyond are the red tiles and slates of the nave, S porch, N aisle and chancel.

There is an early 12thcnave doorway with a tympanum, a chancel arch of the same period, and a late 12thc N arcade. The arcade had been walled up, probably in the 14thc, but was rebuilt in 1879 ( Morris 1919); Pevsner (1967), 87 says it was rebuilt, ‘faithful to the original’, in 1898.


The vill is in Domesday Book, but there is no mention of a church or priest. The church guide (without a source) suggests the church was built about 1080 by John de Builli, whose daughter gave it to the priory at Blythe. Hunter (1828), 79 says the gift was given by the time of Henry III.


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches







Hunter (1828 I), 79 says ‘Principal entrance is by one of those door-ways which are called Saxon, having a circular arch with the raven’s beak moulding; and within the circular part is a rude carving of a serpent or dragon.’ Nowadays, the date is understood to be definitely post-Conquest, and it is likely to be early in that period because of the use of single-scallop capitals on the doorway and chancel arch.

J. Romilly Allen (1992), 285 lists ten tympana in England with ‘dragons’, including Austerfield.

C. E. Keyser (1909), 180 says ‘S doorway v. fine. It appears to have had an outer row of beaded semi circles, now concealed by the porch. On the next order is a course of zigzag with nail heads within the chevrons, and on the inner a row of 17 beakheads. Abacus plain chamfered. Shafts and caps on each side massive, with scallop, zigzag and pellet ornaments.’ For the tympanum, see Keyser (1927), xxxix, 3; fig. 61.

Pevsner (1967), 87 says of the S doorway and chancel arch: ‘Both are clearly earlier than most decorated Norman work in this part of the county. Both have two orders of colonettes, both still block capitals, one-scallop capitals, and elementary decoration. The doorway has zigzag and beak-head in the arch, the chancel arch roll-mouldings and no ornament. The tympanum of the doorway is used for the representation of a dragon (with an arrow-like tail-end) - a rarity in the West Riding. Below a band of semicircular merlons and below that one of paterae or rosettes, etc. Only fifty or sixty years later the N aisle was added to this Norman building...waterleaf capitals… double-chamfered arch… a sheela-na-gig.’ Of other remains of our period, he says: ‘signs of a blocked second nave doorway in the S side of the nave further to the E… the [north] arcade was rebuilt, faithful to the original, in 1898.’

It has been suggested by the fieldworker that the tympanum pictures the state of the Church in the world. It shows safety, light and the King’s feast located inside the church, and spiritual darkness and the devil outside. The scene is dominated by a leaping dragon, the Devil, who is shut out of heaven by an incised arc representing the firmament and is going about doing evil in the world (Revelation 12.8, 9, 12). At the lower edge of the tympanum, the recessed panel symbolises the interior of the church, with its lights (one at each end) and its communal meal of bread and wine as small round loaves and bunches of grapes (Wood, 1994, 69-70). The teaching content is comparable to that of a drawing in the Hortus Deliciarum given the title ‘Structure of the Church’ (Green et al., 1979, vol. I, 204; vol II, pl.128). The drawing shows a section through a building filled with clergy and laity around their enthroned queen, Ecclesia, while on the roof outside three angels fight three devils.

The tympanum at Everton (Notts) also has an incised arc over the two creatures in the main field.

Beakheads of a similar character occur on a doorway in the S face of the tower at Bradbourne, Derbyshire. There, they are so narrow that the third order contains about 45 of them. Wales (YW) also has non-standard beakheads, but those are broad and flat, with triangular beaks.

The row of little arches or ‘stamp-edging’ might be compared to the pattern used on the labels of the nave arcades at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Similar patterns, for example at Bubwith on the chancel arch, use a stacked series of little arches.

Chancel arch

Numbers of early- to mid-12thc churches have men’s heads carved on the chancel arch capitals (Wales, Frickley, Skerne (YE)) but later in the period they seem to have become inappropriate there, and are found on the responds or label stops of the nave arcades, and later still on the W responds (Bawtry, Skipwith, Hemingbrough).


J. R. Allen, Norman Sculpture and the mediaeval Bestiaries. Reprint from Early Christian Symbolism, the Rhind lectures in Archaeology for 1885 (1887), Felinfach, 1992.

R. Green, M. Evans, et al., eds., Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg. London 1979.

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

C. E. Keyser, A List of Norman Tympana and Lintels. 2nd. ed. London 1927.

C. E. Keyser, 'The NormanDoorways of Yorkshire', in T.M. Fallow, ed. Memorials of Old Yorkshire. London, 1909.

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

N. Pevsner, revised by E. Radcliffe, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire, The West Riding. Harmondsworth 1967.

J. Raine, 'The Dedications of the Yorkshire Churches', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 2 (1873), 180-92.

P. F. Ryder, Saxon Churches in South Yorkshire. 1982.

St Helena’s church Austerfield founded 1080. n.p. n.d., current 2010.

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.