A guide to awesome medieval places you can see in the Yorkshire Wolds
In sequel to my guide to the amazing prehistoric places you can see in the marvellous Yorkshire Wolds is a guide to the Medieval curiosities of East Yorkshire.
The Yorkshire Wolds is one of those curious parts of the country that seems to brim with history, this is hardly surprising as it has not suffered from the abominable development that has scoured and absorbed the beauty of England elsewhere. (Not naming place-names)
The Wolds as an agricultural land with small Anglo-Saxon villages and Norman churches is the epitomy of a true “Old England” untouched by the ravages time. Archaeologically the Yorkshire Wolds has much evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement with findings of old Germanic grubbenhauses/pit houses. It was once the home of King Athelbert of Deira whose Palace was at Driffield, he died in battle nearby against the Picts. It was also the scene of Danish and Norse settlement following the invasions of “The Miccel Here/Great Heathen Army” the place names take a hybrid Anglo-Scandinavian flavour and it is to these vikings that we owe the division of Yorkshire into the “Ridings”. The Yorkshire Wolds suffered greatly under the Norman harrying but as you will see its the Normans that left their mark in the guise of beautiful church architecture and planned Manorial villages.
Now I’ve got a confession to make, the majority of the sites on this list are churches, so to add variety I will be highlighting certain features in each one, but they are all beautiful and have plenty to explore in each. There are so many wonderful churches in the Wolds it would take a book rather than a blog post to give them all justice.
- The Viking Cross, Nunburneholme
On the Western edge of the Yorkshire Wolds is St James’s church in the little village of Nunburneholme. This is a beautiful Norman church which sports a fine Dog-toothed arch decorated with grotesque and cheeky faces, amongst them is a “Sheela Na Gig” a type of gargoyle that represents a woman stretching the lips of her vulva with her hands, as horrific as they are, they are quite rare but unique to the British Isles as an image representing the sin of lust. There is one in my local church here in Bray, Berkshire but its not a patch on the Nunburneholme one.
The greatest treasure in St James’s is the Nunburneholme Cross. It is a fantastic example of an Early Medieval sculpture of the Northern English variety. These were once widespread in the British Isles sometimes used as Grave markers and Shrines during the Anglo-Saxon period. They are artistically intricate and beautiful but sadly they are mostly found fragmented after they were broken up and reused in Norman masonry.
The Nunburneholme Cross is a fascinating piece because it belongs to a body of Anglo-Saxon sculpture work at a time of cultural crossover in around the 10th C. It shows a strange mixture of Christian iconography, symbolism, Pagan legends and secular military depiction. There is an image of Our Lady carrying the infant Jesus on one side, an image of a medieval priest presenting the Host and beneath it is a scene of two men roasting something on a spit, amazingly this latter image is a depiction from the popular Norse legend of Sigurd and the dragon. Scholars believe it shows Sigurd roasting and eating the heart of the dragon Fafnir, this would give him the magical ability to understand the speech of birds.
On the front is a depiction of a seated warrior, with a “warriors haircut” and beard with a very carolingian looking sword, the pommel looks like the Thors Hammer type you would find in Ireland and Norway, this depiction is stylistically unique. It could lead many to wonder why such pagan themes are on a Christian cross? In the 9th Century Yorkshire was taken over by the Great viking army who as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states eventually settled the land and cultivated it. By time the cross was commissioned the people living in the Wolds were a hybrid culture of “Anglo-Scandinavian” 2nd and 3rd generation vikings possibly with English relatives, this identity seemed to be recognised because the people of York during King Edward of Wessex’s reign were known as “Jorwiccingas” (Jorvik vikings) in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Historians believe Northumbria was ruled by vikings tills 927 AD when the last Danish King Sihtric died leaving Athelstan of England to invade. It is possible that the Nunburneholme Cross is a hybrid of English and the new Norse aristocratic styles.
The most fascinating part is the addition of that scene of Sigurd. My interpretation would be that a theological comparison is being made. Sigurd eats Fafnirs heart gaining magical powers, look above and you see a priest offering Christs body. It is likely the priests who guided the sculpturework were reaching out to Pagan Parishioners, “Look accept the body of Christ and gain resurrection, just like your hero Sigurd gained power through eating the body and bathing in the blood of Fafnir”
The seated Warrior is ambiguous, he could be a Christianised viking thegn perhaps; and even the patron of the sculpture, or he could have been a warrior Saint, the “haircut” might actually be a halo and Saint Oswald was very popular in the North. It is the fact that he has been depicted with such a Norse looking sword which is tantalising.
Whatever your interpretation the cross it is a testament to those early days when pagan viking settlers were absorbed into the Northumbrian Christian community.
To visit St James’s you have to get the key from a nice lady who lives across the road from the church in a white cottage, if shes not in, tough luck!
2. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village
Wharram Percy witnessed the most vigorous archaeological investigations of any deserted medieval village in England and has taught us an invaluable amount of detail of how the average rural person lived from the Anglo-Saxon period to the 15th Century.
When visiting it might be quiet bewildering if you’re not familiar with deserted medieval villages (DMV’s), the only standing remains are the remains of the ruined St Martin’s Church which if you examine the stonework you can see how the church has changed structurally throughout the middle ages.
The rest of the village consists of “lumps and bumps” in the fields. These would at one time have been cruck houses of villagers, each cruck known as a croft would have had a toft a long field for personal crops, most of the villagers would have been villeins working as vassals on the surrounding farmland. You can also see the mill-pond which would have fed the Lordly water mill to grind oats into flour, this was also where the village women would at one time have collected water to haul back up the hill to their croft. The pond was excavated and a huge amount of medieval pottery and leather shoes were found. Archaeologists excavated the multi-layered burials of St Martins church and revealed that the farmers had hard lives, the women had highly developed muscles from working the land and carrying heavy burdens, life expectancy if you made it out of childhood was in the region of late thirties and due to seasonal Northern diets young children often had rickets and adolescents reached puberty late at around 14-15. Most fascinating of all was evidence of sophisticated medical practice for example a skull with a healed hole from successful treppanning operation was found. Spookily, there was also a mass grave of dismembered and burnt bodies, archaeologists believe that this is evidence of a superstition of “revenants” – corpses of evil-doing people who had died without receiving last rites which could potentially reanimate and cause harm to the living, the only way to deal with them was to burn them…with fire….(W. Newburgh (1286)
It is owned by the English Heritage and can be walked as a trail, there are interpretation boards scattered around the site which are fascinating. There are 8 other deserted medieval villages to explore in East Yorkshire but Wharram Percy is the only one with interpretation.
The Anglo-Saxon Tower of Wharram Le Street
St Mary’s Church unlike its neighbour at St Martins didn’t change much since the Anglo-Saxon period. Its tower certainly dates to the earliest phases possibly to the early 11th Century making it one of the oldest church towers in England, you can still see the original diagnostic Saxon narrow entrance doorways in the West of the tower. The top section of the tower was probably rebuilt with narrow Norman windows. Inside the church is very plain with just a few Norman capitals and a very simple Norman font that didn’t get the East Yorkshire sculpture school treatment, but if you want fonts…keep reading.
The Squint holes of St Peters Wintringham
St Peters Wintringham has a little secret which people always seem to overlook. In the Middle Ages mass was one of the most important Spiritual experience when people took the Eucharist, it was also seen as important for parishioners to actually see that magical moment when the Host and the wine became the body and blood of Christ. If you are familiar with Catholic mass during this moment the Congregation will be asked to kneel and therefore many of the congregation would not be able to see, it is also possible they were carved so that children would not be able to see. It seems that in the 15th Century this problem was overcome by the carving of neat squints or peep-holes into the wooden screens, this must have been done with the Priests permission because I couldn’t imagine villeins indiscriminately carving holes in the church fabric. These are very rare, some have been identified in the South but are seldom seen in the North.
Skipsea Castle is one of the only castles you can visit in the Yorkshire Wolds. It seems like there’s not much to see now, but it used to be a mighty Norman fortress of the most complex design.
It was built in 1086 by Norman Baron Drogo De Beauviere on top of an Iron Age mound. At this time William the Conqueror had recently defeated a Northern rebellion and Harried the North, in which he burnt down villages and despoiled the land of the Anglo-Scandinavian peoples of the Yorkshire Wolds, he also feared continued antagonistic behaviour from King Svein of Denmark who possibly used the artificial harbour of Skipsea to row down the Ouse and burn York. A complex set of baileys were built to help defend this artificial “mere”. The original Norman defences have survived because the palisades and walls were raised when the Lord of Skipsea Willian De Forze rebelled against King Henry III. Eventually the castle passed to the crown and the mere was drained, the castle was abandoned leaving only the borough of Skipsea which had grown around it. Its well worth exploring these impressive earthworks and there are interpretation boards written by English Heritage to give you a better idea of the castles once impressive scale and importance in the landscape.
The Norman Fonts of North Grimston and Kirkburn.
You are probably getting an idea about how important religion was to medieval people. The fonts at North Grimston and Kirkburn are part of the East Yorkshire school of fonts, you won’t see anything like these anywhere else in the country.
The East Yorkshire school of stone carving is best described as naive (with a modern eye the faces of the figures look a bit like muppets) but they are filled with amazing symbolism and biblical images guided by a great understanding of the theology of early Christianity. It is likely that the carving was guided by the priests who had a good idea what the font would need carving on it. Seeing as fonts were mainly used during the Easter Vigil when baptisms normally took place the images revolve around the stories of Holy Week. At St Nicholas’s Church,North Grimston the font shows the last Supper with Christ breaking the bread with his Disciples and on the front shows Christ being taken down from the cross on Easter Saturday, this is the only depiction of this scene on any font in England! It is likely the clear iconographical images would have been used as illustrations for the Sermon especially for the illiterate congregation who would not have understood latin. The font at St Mary’s, Kirkburn is even more exciting, it actually shows a priest baptizing a child, with a candle bearer ready to dip the candle in the Holy water (a symbol of the coming of the holy spirit) then on the other side it depicts St Peter receiving the keys to heaven, St Augustine likened the repentance of Peter as similar to the affirmation of baptism this linking of these themes just shows how educated the clerics who commissioned the font were. There are then a series of icons and symbols including –
Cat catching a mouse -, sometimes the cat represents Jesus and the mouse the devil, in other points of view the cat is a representation of hell and the mouse peering out of its hole represents temptation leading to death.
There’s the pelican in piety – it feeds its young with its own blood like Christ,
The clubman and the lamb : the lamb of God being slaughtered for our sins,
Snake bowing to the cross – evil (satan) defeated by Christ.
Finally a very rare symbol is the Seal of Solomon a type of knot-work that represents Solomon’s wisdom – a type of medieval Christian magic! In general these fonts are magic, probably my favorite thing from the medieval wolds, go and see them!
Top Tip – If you ever find yourself in the area go for lunch or dinner at the The Middleton Arms, North Grimston. Its a merry place with a cosy fire and a welcoming black labradour, the staff a very friendly and cook up a fine big breakfast and awesome beef baguettes with veggie options too! genuinely the best pub I’ve ever been to.