The Church of St Nicholas at North Grimston North Yorkshire (Also known as North Grimstone)
The Village of Grimston lies 4 miles SE. of Malton in North Yorkshire is recorded in the Domesday book as “Grimeston”. The village is also known for the iron age sword accidentally found there in 1902. The Church of St Nicholas, on which the figure resides, has a number features which date it back to the Norman period but the font is widely regarded to be Saxon which dates the building back even further.
The sheela is one of a number of Romanesque corbels some of which appear to be relocated voussoirs.The figure appears to be quite fat and unusually has a pair of pendulous breasts (see Oaksey for another example). There appears to be small cleft between the bent legs of the figure possibly indicating a vagina. The figure’s arms are held against the top of the chest. It’s quite modest in its exhibitionism, in some ways similar to the figure at Worth Matravers in Dorset. In fact a number of the figures bear a passing similarity to the carvings at Stoke Sub Hamdon and Studland far to the South. As well as the corbel table the church boasts a Romanesque chancel arch. This is another example of a figure which is not as unequivocally exhibitionist as say the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas yet still has sexual attributes (breasts in this case). It is interesting that this figure has a counterpart in masturbating male figure which seems to firmly put the carvings in the sexual sin category.
Pat O’Halloran’s site www.danu.co.uk has a number of photographs of the church, corbel table and its Saxon font. Thanks go to Pat for allowing the use of his images on this website.
Male figure at North Grimston
This figure while very worn can still just be recognised as a masturbating male figure with the remnants of a penis just visible. The motif can be seen at other Romanesque sites such as the Church of St John in Devizes and possibly at Tickhill Castle although the latter is very worn
This figure was discovered during the building of St Mary’s church Egremont in the 1800’s. While the current building dates from that period the old church was said to include elements of Norman and Early English architecture. The figure was documented by Dr C.A. Parker in his paper “Early Sculpted Stones at Gosforth, Ponsonby, St Bridget’s, Haile and Egremont” published in 1902. The photo to the right comes from this publication. A comparison between this figure and the Donna Impudica figure in Milan was made by Richard N Bailey in his paper “Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England” published in 1983 in Folklore vol. 94;i Both figures hold what appear to be shears and are in the act of cutting their pubic hair. In this article Baliey mentions that the figure was not mentioned in a later book by Parker in 1926 and states that the figure was already lost at that time.
However a recent online guide “Ghosts in the Lake District” written by Tony Walker (http://www.ghoststories.org.uk) mentions a sheela na gig at Egremont church.
“in the churchyard near the west door are fragments of sculpture. One of them is very interesting in that it is very old and looks very much like what, in Ireland, they call a Sheela na Gig. It’s difficult to make out, but it seems to be a barbaric carving of a female figure with both hands holding her vulva apart.”
Unfortunately this guide is no longer available online. It’s interesting that the above description does not exactly match the figure on the left with both hands holding the vulva apart.
I contacted Mr. Walker and tried to confirm that the carving to the left was one of the ones mentioned but unfortunately he could not remember them as he had visited the church a number of years earlier. I also contacted the vicar of the church but unfortunately no further information was available. If anyone knows any more about these carvings then please let me know as it would be nice to re-discover this lost carving. For another lost sheela see the St Ives figure.
A Crude Carving
One of the more puzzling aspects of exhibitionist figures, especially sheela na gigs, is that the quality of carving can vary considerably. In the Egremont sheela we have an example of a fairly crude, “stick figure” representation. The usual explanation for this is that the figure is “ancient” and that our predecessors lacked the skill of later artists. However we should be careful about equating crude with old. 12th century sculpture varied considerably in its quality. For example the sheelas at Lower Swell and Church Stretton are fairly crude when compared to Kilpeck or Holdgate however we can be fairly certain that they all date from around the same period i.e. the 12th century. Anthony Weir has put forward a “non sculptor sculptors” theory where the sculptor carving the figure was making it for ritual purposes (either apotropaic or linked to fertility) and was not a trained sculptor. Another more prosaic reason for the variable quality could be down to economic reasons i.e. highly trained sculptors were too expensive. There is some evidence to suggest that the reason for the crude quality of carving of the Church Stretton sheela is down to economic reasons rather than the carving being “ancient”.
Unfortunately the Copgrove figure is now badly worn and almost impossible to photograph. It’s very hard to make out the outlines of the figure even with the naked eye. Known locally as the “Devil Stone” the figure has been regarded as being of Romano British origin. It consists of a stick like figure with a large head holding a a circle in one hand next to the figure is a T shape which has been interpreted as both an axe or a tau cross. This may have been a later addition. Between the legs of the figure there is a slit which could be vaginal but equally could be phallic given the style and primitive nature of the carving. The figure has been moved a few times. According to Anderssen the figure was originally located on North Chancel wall but was moved to the North east corner. Recently it has been moved again, this time to the inside of the church to prevent further weathering. Taking into account the primitive nature of the carving this could be one of the oldest sheelas in Britain. However it may be misleading to go solely by the style as it may equally be the doodling of a medieval mason.
This figure is also reported as being in Scholes. The figure is unique in the UK and Ireland due to it’s location on a font. The font is thought to be Norman and while the carving borders on crude the motifs are similar to those found in othe Romanesque sculpture. The round headed blind arcading would seem to suggest the Romanesque although this is open to interpretation. The exhibitionist figure is one of a series of human and abstract/foliate carvings contained within the round headed blind arcading. The figures appear in the intersection of the arches giving the heads their pointed appearance. The other figures on the font include a round headed figure and a bearded figure with a pointed head.The sheela na gig figure is different from the rest in that its legs with its in-turned feet escape the confines of the arcading and are carved on the base of the font. While the execution is fairly crude the deeply carved cleft between the legs, as well as both hands gesturing towards the cleft make this an unequivocal exhibitionist or “sheela na gig”.
This figure is reported in Images of Lust as being a possible Beakhead sheela unfortunately it is covered in a thick layer of whitewash which makes identification and study of the figure difficult. When Keith visited the church the vicar informed him that the whitewash was due to be removed at some time in the near future. It would be interesting to see what type of figure would be revealed. I hope to have more information on this figure when I visit it in person.
History and other figures
Although this figure is covered we can make some inferences about it’s likelihood of of being a sheela na gig. The carving the rest of the church appears to be Romanesque so we are at least in the right period for an exhibitionist figure.
Other whitewashed figures in the church.
There are some very good pictures of the carvings at this website below
This Sheela was located in the 12th century cloister of priory church of St Mary’s, Bridlington. Little now remains of the cloisters except for their foundations on the south side of the church. When the Sheela was found in the church yard, a portion of the arcading which contained the figure was reconstructed, and placed on display in the north aisle of the church.
The Sheela straddles two modern colonnettes.. It stands 1.65 metres from the ground, and measures 12cm long, and 9cm wide. Although somewhat weathered the mouth, broad nose, and eyes are just evident. The figure has a broad well marked forehead, and this combined with possible small ears, gives the appearance of some head gear. Her two spindly arms are held down the side of her trunk, and it appears as if the left arm passes beneath the left knee. Below the trunk her faded two hands come to rest on a small distinct clefts which suggests the genitals, and some fingers can just be made out. A very thin rather spindly left leg is held away from her body, but her right leg has weathered away. Her shoulders appear humped, while her right shoulder is much thicker then her left, and seems to be pushed forward, perhaps deliberate to give the appearance of a hump-back.
Horse-shoe like structures also decorate the Sheela, and according to Walker (1996):
‘Hindus, Arabs, and Celts regarded the yonic shape of the horseshoe as a symbol of the Goddesses ‘Great Gate’, thus it was always esteemed as a prophylactic door charm’.
Although this figure is weathered it would seem from the remaining visible carving that it may a have been exhibitionist. It’s interesting to compare this figure with the one at Haverfordwest which is similarly on a cloister capital. Since the cloisters were meant primarily for use by the clergy it would seem to suggest that these two figures served as warning against lust rather than serving an apotropaic function.
Hard to Photograph
This figure like the one at Croft on Tees has the reputation that it is difficult to photograph. David Clarke and Andy Roberts in their book Twighlight of the Celtic Gods tell of Jean O’Melia a colleague of Sidney Jackson who had difficulty photographing the Croft on Tees Sheela. She failed to get pictures of the Bridlington figure and of another unnamed sheela na gig in Ireland.
The church of St Helen’s, Bilton in Ainsty is situated on the B1224 York to Wetherby road. Although the church dates from Saxon times, it was considerably altered under Norman influence.
As you enter to church through the porch walk over to the vestry in the top right hand corner. The twin sheelas are situated corbel table, near the eastern wall. Formerly both corbel tables in the vestry, and Lady Chapel. were on the outside wall prior to the extension of the church in 1869.
The sheela nearest to the east wall has very broad shoulders, and haunches. Although it is claimed by Roberts ‘with her arms held on her abdomen’, her hands holds the lower part of the genitalia, which broadly occupy her trunk up to her neck.. The other is said to be ‘badly damaged hacked at, presumably because, the right arm and the hand held beneath it suggest a very patient posture.’ Although the head and shoulders are reasonably well defined, the damage to the lower half of the sculpture is so bad, it is difficult to determine any features. There are several very interesting carvings found inside the church including a Saxon Cross, various corbels including monsters, and a mermaid stresses puller.
The church is kept locked, although a key is available from the Old Vicarage, Bilton.
This figure can be found atop a capital in the Church of St Helena in the small village of Austerfield in Yorkshire. a lot of the original masonry can still be seen. The church has strong connections with the pilgrim fathers. The governor of the community which sailed on the Mayflower, William Bradford was baptised in this church on the 19th of March 1589.
A Hidden Sheela
The figure is large and more crudely carved than the other carvings in the church. The face is missing, has weathered away or more likely, has been defaced at some time. A number of scratches on the face seem to lend weight to this interpretation. However the it may be that the figure never had a face as the proportions of the head seem reasonable and there is no indication of the mouth. The figure appears to be wearing a headdress or has a full head of hair. The right hand gestures to the groin where a fairly modest vulva is indicated by a cleft. The left arm is truncated at the elbow. A raised area on the chest may indicate breasts but there appears to be no space indicating clevage. The figure has spent most of the last 500 years or so hidden in a wall. The norman pillar, on which the sheela resides, was walled up with its neighbours possibly in the 14th century when the North aisle of the church collapsed. Rather than rebuild the aisle the pillars were filled in and replastered to make the outer wall of the church. During the 1898 restoration of the church the pillars were rediscovered and uncovered. Fortunately parts of the capitals protruded from the wall which alerted the architect of the restoration that there might be something within the wall.
The Church and the Bullies
The church leaflet states that the present church was built in 1080 by John de Bully (alternate spellings are Busili, Buslim Buesli and Buili) as a Chapel of Ease for the people of Austerfield. They had previously had been making a 12 mile round trip every Sunday to attend Blythe Priory. John de Bully lived from 1054 to 1089 (?), since the church would have built between these dates or soon after, it places the carving of the sheela firmly in a Norman context but one which is quite early for a UK sheela na gig. This of course assumes that the sheela was carved at the time of building. Even if the sheela is a later addition the pillars are still Norman work (12th century?). Whichever century the pillars belong to it still firmly places the figure in a Norman context. The church is also famous for its tympanumover the south door which shows a fairly crude dragon. An article by the Rev Edward Dunnicliffe in the Southwell review of 1954 places the dragon tympanum in the 8th Century and relates it to the Synod of Austerfield of 702 which settled the manner in which the date of Easter should be calculated. However an article on the CRSBI site (below) seems to imply that the tympanum is the work of the Yorkshire school of Romanesque sculpture rather than earlier Saxon work.
Austerfield is approximately 5 miles to the east of Tickhill Castle which houses some possible exhibitionist figures and was owned by Roger de Bully who is renowned “for being famous in the Domesday book and nowhere else”. So once again we seem to have a local tradition of carving exhibitionist figures and the same family acting as patrons.
There is a fairly detailed page on St Helena’s at Doncaster Family History Society websitehttp://www.doncasterfhs.co.uk/churches/austerfield.htm
No mention is made of the sheela na gig.
An article on Romanesque sculpture in the West Riding of Yorkshire can be found here
Thanks go to Chris Harrison for supplying the images and the church leaflet
Picture copyright Tim Prevett used with permission
This figure was found in a pile of loose sculpture fragments in the church by Akiko Kuroda on a Northern Earth Walk
The find was subsequently published in Northern Earth magazine.
The figure is of a monster eating someone with only the legs and buttocks protruding from the mouth. The monsters head is recognisably Romanesque with striations on the face that can be seen at many other sites (Kilpeck and Romsey are good pair of examples). The motif of someone being eaten by a monstrous head is reasonably common in religious Romanesque sculpture (Devizes has a similar monstrous figure with legs protruding from the mouth). This figure with the additional exhibitionist motif is to my knowledge unique. A pair arms holds open what appears to be the labia between the legs of the figure. It is difficult to see in the photo whether the arms belong to the monster or the person being eaten. The motif of a person being eaten is very much a symbol of sin and damnation. A number of Romanesque manuscripts and sculptures show the damned within the jaws of a huge monster. The theory that sheela na gigs are warnings against lust was put forward in Images of Lust by Anthony Weir and James Jerman and has been argued against by some people. Here however we have a example which unequivocally places both exhibitionism and damnation within the same context. The figure as now been set into the wall inside the church for safekeeping.
The church was dedicated to St Peter in 892 St Oswald Archbishop of York. The church has a number of Romanesque features including an arch and other architectural fragments built into the walls along with other newer features.
The church also holds one of the oldest gravestone in the country bearing the date of 1518
Video of the figure Copyright Charles Wildgoose used with permission
The Croft on Tees Sheela resides in the Church of St Peter on the banks of the river Tees.
The Hard to Find Figure
For some reason I spent a long time looking for this sheela despite the fact it is about 2 ft high 1 and half ft wide and right next to the main door. If my friend hadn’t pointed it out I would have walked right past it. As you can see from the pictures it’s quite large and is at head height. Its hard to tell if the sheela was originally moved from somewhere else because the pointing on the walls looks very recent. The stone does seem to fit very well into the door frame although there are smaller stones behind it. It may well be in situ but it is impossible to tell whether or not it’s been moved from somewhere else (Local legends would suggest this is the case, see below). The carving is quite crude and considerably differs from the rest of the carving in the church . The carving has a small deeply incised slit for a vagina which is quite narrow and not immediately obvious. There are the remains of a saxon cross in the church which would seem to indicate that the site has had religious connections for quite some time. When I first visited the figure no mention was made of the sheela in the documentation. Apparently this is not the case as of April 2005 where the figure is described as male???
Male or Female?
The church guide and a number of websites describe this figure “Romano British” and as being male. The evidence for the figure being male is due to damage around the navel of the figure which can be seen in the photograph. No mention is made of the nipples or breasts on the figure which also can be seen in the photograph. Given that the figure has a deep if narrow cleft between the legs which extends up into the body I find the description of the figure as being male a little odd as it has no discernable male characteristics and is very smiliar in features to other sheela na gigs.
The church’s main claim to fame is that Lewis Carroll’s father was the rector there while Lewis was growing up. Both his mother and father are buried in the church yard. The church also has a carving of a grinning cat’s head which from some leaflets in the church is supposed to be the original Cheshire cat. (See below)
Updated Feb 2002
Thanks to John Leech who got in touch with the following information on the figure:
“In the late 60’s Rev Littleton used to show the children of the school round the church and tell us loads of things about it. An interesting church with its two family pews, thought to have sprung up as a place of worship for the ford across the Tees of yesteryear. We were told that the carving was an ancient water god that people consulted before braving the water. Well… we were all kids.”
Interestingly the book Twilight of the Celtic Gods also relates this tradition that the figure originally resided on a bridge and was “a local deity of the sea”.
Hard to photograph
There is a tradition that this sheela is very hard to photograph and people have come away with no usable prints. Jorgen Andersen reported this and a newspaper article on the same subject is mentioned in “Twilight of the Celtic Gods” in a chapter entitled “The Curse of the Sheelas”. I was completely unaware of this at the time and happily snapped away coming away with some nice images. I’ve since been contacted by someone who reported the same problem while photographing the figure. He put it down to technical difficulties (which he failed to elaborate on) rather than any supernatural reasons which are hinted at in “Twilight of the Celtic Gods”. Interestingly people with digital cameras don’t seem to have any problems. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has had difficulties in photographing this sheela as the stories surrounding seem to be piece of folklore in the making.
Update Sep 2004
I’ve since been contacted by an American lady, Robin Powers who has travelled around photographing most of the British sheelas. She didn’t have any problems photographing it either and used a film camera. It would definitely seem that these “you cant photograph it” stories are definitely a bit of folklore in the making based on a few failures to photograph a figure in difficult lighting.
Update Dec 2006
I recently visited the figure again and managed to take some higher quality photographs (again with very little trouble). I also took a closer look at the carvings on the sedilla near the altar. The sedilla is of a later date but has some rather odd carvings above the arches including what appears to be a beakhead. There are also a number of other carvings in or on the church including two Saxon cross fragments and some faint allegedly Roman carving set into the church wall.
The sedilla at the church has a number of later carvings, the meanings of which are not immediately obvious. They include a fighting couple, grimacing men, animals and what appears to be a beakhead. The Cheshire Cat carving can be seen on the right of the picture under the grimacing man.