Exploring the Yorkshire Wolds part 2 – Medieval sites.

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.

Wharram Percy

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.

  1. 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

St Martin’s Church, Wharram Percy

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, 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

Detail of 15th Century Rood Screen.

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

The Motte of Skipsea Castle.

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.

Detail of Christ being taken from the cross on the North Grimston Baptismal font.

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.

Exploring the Yorkshire Wolds Part 1. – Prehistoric Monuments.

A guide to prehistoric monuments you can see in the Yorkshire Wolds

In Great Britain we are spoilt to death when it comes to Heritage, we have Castles, Roman Villas, old industrial buildings and prehistoric monuments aplenty, though a lot of it has been buried by foul development of the modern world. There are however certain “magical” parts of the country which are seemingly not ruined by development. These places are blessed with winding country roads, unique historic churches and obscure monuments. One such area is the Yorkshire Wolds in East Yorkshire.

Wharram Percy, one of England’s most archaeologically explored Deserted Medieval Village.

Many historical tourists to Yorkshire miss out on the quaint Yorkshire Wolds, often they are drawn into the glamour of the City of York with its viking Centre, impressive medieval walls and minster, but drive out of the City to the East and over the Howardian Hills you will arrive into the agricultural rolling Yorkshire wolds…. ahhhh. Away from the hustle, and rat race you are now sliding towards the German ocean through winding roads and fields.

You will find when you are exploring the Wolds that it is authentically agricultural, not as many chocolate box villages but practical farming Communities, the Wolds is a topsy turvy farming landscape as it is in a bowl so agriculture is more suitable on the uplands whilst animals are put to pasture in the lowlands.

Prehistoric Wolds in a nutshell

The East Riding of Yorkshire has an abundance of archaeology dating to the Paleolithic when no doubt Early man fished the rivers using antler spear tips. Not quite in the Wolds but in the Vale of Pickering was found the hyena cave, a prehistoric cave filled with hyena, rhinocerous and elk skeletons which gives a snapshot of what early Yorkshire was like 121,000 years ago. In the Mesolithic (10,000 years ago) peoples would have migrated following herds of red deer, or tracking seal colonies stopping off at Seasonal hunting sites. As hundreds of years passed they began to settle in the fertile plains of the wolds to begin early agriculture. In the Neolithic (roughly 3500 BC) and settlement was more common many cursuses have been identified including the Rudston, Beacon, Breeze, Glebe Farm and Argham causeways which are believed to be Neolithic ritual causeways connecting religious pilgrimage routes as well as building some of early long barrows, Fordon and Kilham long barrows date to 3700 BC. In the bronze age older monuments were seemingly still honoured and hundreds of bronze age barrows were built to accommodate the dead.

The Wolds Valley is dominated by the “Gypsey Race” a Winterbourne stream, meaning a stream that only flows during times of rainfall. This strange appearance of the stream at certain times of year must have been important to prehistoric farming communities as it is along its banks that you find the best monuments that prehistory can offer.

The Yorkshire Wolds has some of the best Iron Age Archaeology in the country with hundreds of box, bowl and round barrows. It was here that the Arras Culture thrived, a people who took pride in militaristic burial practices in chariots, the most famous is the Wetwang burial and the Queens Burial which can be seen in the British museum, others can be seen in the Yorkshire museum. The Ferriby Boats were also found in East Yorkshire, possibly the oldest log boats in the country which are thought to have aided Baltic trade in the Humber estuary transporting jet, amber and pottery into the mainland.

Map showing Prehistoric Barrows in East Yorksire, Hull and East Riding Museum.

What to see.

It is thought that the Wolds has over 1400 Bronze age – Iron Age burial mounds and some of the finest follow the Gypsey Race which must have been of great Spiritual importance, these monuments can however be quite hard to find, many of them are on Private land so require viewing from a distance if you can’t find permission. So here’s the list of some of best prehistoric monuments of the Yorkshire Wolds!

  1. Duggleby Howe

On private land, can be seen from the road.

Duggleby Howe

Duggleby Howe is the largest burial mound to be found in the Yorkshire Wolds and also revealed the most stunning finds. It was excavated in the 19th Century by an early archaeologist by the name of J.R.Mortimer. They discovered that the mound had been used for burials for centuries with evidence of an original bronze age inhumation (non-cremated burial) of a high status individual, in the Iron Age over 30 cremations were inserted into the mound and it is believed that Anglo-Saxon settlers used the site based off some Early medieval finds on the site. The evidence points to a monument which has had special significance to a succession of settlers throughout the centuries as a place of burial and even been appropriated by other cultures after the original meaning was lost. The exacavated treasures can be found in the Hull and East Riding museum.

2. Willy Howe

On private land can be seen up a track from the road.

Willies Howe is a prehistoric Round Barrow which can be found on private land at a model aircraft flying range near Wold Newton. Willies Howe was excavated a number of times by antiquarians but only a shallow burial was found and sadly the excavation was not recorded very well. There was evidence of a ramp and some historians have wondered whether it was used as a “Thing” (an early medieval meeting place) in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian periods. It is one of the few prehistoric monuments mentioned in a medieval Chronicle with an attached legend. The Chronicler William of Newburgh, writing in the Priory of Newburgh near Bridlington wrote in the 12th Century:

There is a village…near which those famous waters, commonly called Gipse, spring from the ground… A certain rustic belonging to the village, going to see his friend, who resided in the neighboring hamlet, was returning, a little intoxicated, late at night; when, behold, he heard…the voice of singing and revelling on an adjacent hillock, which I have often seen, and which is distance from the village only a few furlongs. Wondering who could be thus disturbing the silence of midnight with noisy mirth, he was anxious to investigate the matter more closely; and perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet. One of the attendants, perceiving him standing at the door, offered him a cup: accepting it, he wisely forebore to drink; but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed. A tumult arose among the company, on account of the stolen cup, and the guests pursued him; but he escaped by the fleetness of his steed, and reached the village with his extraordinary prize.” – William De Newburgh, “Historia Regum Anglicarum” (1196-98)

The legend must be of great antiquity, and given that William wrote that he heard the tale in his childhood adds to how old the legend must be.

3. Wold Newton Barrow

Apologies that I have no photo of this one, though I do have some limited video footage!

Nearby following the stream to the village of Wold Newton you can also see Wold Newton Barrow, but again this is on private land however you can just about quite see it from the fence. This is in fact a bowl barrow, it was excavated by J.R. Mortimer who wrote that the original inhumations were buried on a wooden platform, he suggests that the bodies were possibly left to decompose like a sky burial. Fanciful as this is, its an attractive idea and its a shame modern archaeologists couldn’t have got to it first. Interestingly the barrow had a more unusual usage in later periods, it lies next to lane called “Butt lane” this is because in the Middle Ages the barrow was used as an archery butt for those practicing with longbows on Sundays in the 14th-15th Centuries (as we all know Henry V and Henry VIII made proclamations that archery should be practiced weekly).

Apparently in Wold Newton the Gypsey Race doesn’t flow regularly and only appears every several years, when I visited it was in full spate which meant the fields around the barrow were waterlogged and flooded, the author of stone circles.org writes that they believed there was a trench around the barrow which may have been intended to flood in prehistoric times, if this were the case, perhaps I witnessed such an event.

4. Rudston Monolith

Accessible in All Saints Church, graveyard.

Rudston has one of the richest for archaeology in the country, with evidence of Iron Age Round houses, a Roman Villa, a beautiful Norman church and the jewel in the crown – the Rudston Monolith. The Monolith at 7.6 metres high is the tallest Lower Neolithic standing stone in the country rising just above the gable of All Saints Church. To raise such a monument in the Neolithic would have been such a feat. Some believe that the monolith was once part of a larger stone circle similar to Avebury and the archaeological study of the landscape has revealed the possible curcuses (ceremonial ritual causeways) that it was part of. William Stukeley the Tudor antiquarian excavated the monument and stated he found hundreds of skulls and believed the monument to be a place of druidic sacrifice. (Though as the stone stands in a graveyard that has been used since Anglo-Saxon times its not surprising!) A very similar monument is “The Devils Arrows” near Boroughbridge.

5. Garrowby Bowl Barrows

On private land, can be seen from the road.

The Yorkshire Wolds has various Bronze Age Cemeteries including the Painsthorpe barrows. The Garrowby Bowl burials are a collection of 18 burial mounds which were built along an ancient trackway linking the Derwent Valley with the Wolds, this would have led travellers through this very ceremonial landscape celebrating the ancestors. Many have been destroyed by agriculture and most are on private land.Three can be seen on private land, the easiest to see is in the grounds of South Wold Farm and others in fields alongside the A166. It seems that the barrows have not be excavated.

6. Danes Dyke

Accessible from Danes Dyke Nature Reserve Carpark.

Right on the East Coast below Bridlington is the famous Danes Dyke a monumental earthwork system constructed in the Bronze age. The ditches may have been defensive and worked much like an early hillfort enclosing an area of 5 miles possibly protecting a significant settlement, there is however not yet evidence of occupation but I’m sure archaeologists will eventually find something. You can walk along the dyke from the RSPB Nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs or the Danes Dyke Nature Reserve near Flamborough.

7. Hull and East Riding Museum

The Museum in Hull is well worth a visit if you’re really into your prehistoric archaeology. It has an amazing array of artefacts collected by the antiquarian J.R. Mortimer you can see strange votive figurines on a boat dating to the Iron Age, chalk deities possibly associated with the Iron Age Parisi tribe and Chariot burials of the Arras Culture, iron age burials which have been “ritually killed” after death with spears and the Ferriby Boats. The museum also has an amazing iron age experience walk-through with round houses and wax models of tartan clothed iron age peoples on chariots, smelting on bloomer furnaces and hanging head trophies on their round houses, its a bit dated but awesome!

I hope you enjoyed this little guide and its given you a few tips of places to discover when lockdown is over. If you liked this page please give it a *like* and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email or leave a comment. All the best – Martin. 13/04/2020 AD