Revealing the borough’s rich medieval history

Revealing stories behind Medieval stonework from Doncaster, Sprotbrough, Wadworth, Loversall and Cantley, are among many featured in a new book.

Tuesday, 20th August 2019, 1:54 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 2:18 am
Only the upper part of this priest survives at Cantley
Only the upper part of this priest survives at Cantley

Interpreting Medieval Effigies: The Evidence from Yorkshire to 1400 is written by us, Brian and Moira Gittos, and is a new book exploring Yorkshire’s medieval effigies in great detail and demonstrating what a

rich resource they are.

Yorkshire has 231 of these seven hundred year old carved figures, which are to be found right across the county.

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Doncaster St George lost effigy

In Doncaster there is an effigy which was once in St George’s church, Doncaster but has been lost. The illustration was published in the book, History of St George’s Doncaster, by the Rev JE Jackson; destroyed by fire February 28, 1853.

The figure was part of a semi-effigial monument like the priest at Cantley and showed the praying figure of a male civilian wearing a hood, dating from the mid 14th century. It was found in the ruins of the destroyed church after the fire but has since been lost.

In Sprotbrough there are two effigies representing Isabella FitzWilliam (neé Deincourt) who was the wife of Sir William FitzWilliam of Emley. She had been a widow for six or eight years when she died and in that time seems to have organised the construction of a new chapel at Sprotbrough church and monuments for herself and her husband. The two effigies were set in separate niches, on either side of the chapel.

There is a fine collection of medieval monuments at Wadworth, some of which were originally set up in the churchyard but have since been brought inside. One is a figure that carries not only a sword and buckler (small round shield-like knuckle guard) but also a horn, suspended on straps over his shoulder. This was the emblem of a forester, an important official in medieval England who was responsible for enforcing many of the countryside laws. He dates from about 1350.

Effigy represents Isabella FitzWilliam at Sprotbrough Church

There are effigies at Loversall. One dates from around 1350 and shows a figure of a man in his best clothes, with a hood on his head. Despite carrying a shield and a sword, he is not a knight. Even men who were not knights might own weapons, so they could go to war or even just safeguard themselves and their families. Sometimes weapons might be handed down from father to son. We have not been able to discover who he commemorates but he may have wanted to be remembered for having gone on campaign.

At Cantley there are more medieval stone works. On one only the upper part of a priest survives, built into the outside of the church wall, high up in the east gable. It must have been put there when the wall was rebuilt and the monument was already so old that no one knew what it was. He holds what looks like a heart casket between his praying hands, so perhaps it was only his heart that was buried at Cantley. It dates from the first half of the 14th century, between c 1300 and c 1350.

Originally from 143 different sites, the great majority of effigies are still in the churches where they were originally set up and where, hundreds of year later, they can still be seen by anyone who visits.

We explain in our book how Yorkshire’s effigies relate to those across the rest of England (of which they constitute around 10 percent).

Medieval figure at Wadworth

The book is an archaeological study, the end product of 40 years research. We have painstakingly examined every figure, collecting a wealth of information about what those who created these monuments originally intended, including the costumes the figures wear, the way they were carved, how they were originally displayed, their history and whom they commemorate.

There are telling insights into the techniques used by the carvers and details of costume and armour which add to current knowledge. A key example is the mail-clad skull-caps clearly worn by some of the knights but not previously recognised.

We set the effigies in the historical context of the 13th and the 14th centuries, relating them to the circumstances of some of the key people and the families being commemorated.

The book will help people understand the effigies they see in Yorkshire’s churches and, by arousing interest, assist in making sure they survive for many more centuries.

P ublished byOxbow Books at £40. Available from all good booksellers and from the publisher at website.

One clear message which came from writing the book is that you have never finished dealing with this rich and complex material.