Friday, 18 July 2014

Scandinavian Ironwork on an ancient Yorkshire door?

Ancient Door, St Helen's Church Stillingfleet York

The South West Norman doorway of St Helen's Church, Stillingfleet, near York, Yorkshire is one of the finest in England with multiple layers of intricate stone carving. The orginal door, however, is even more famous, and is now kept inside the church to protect it...

Doorway St Helen's Church Stillingfleet York

St Helen's is the parish church of Stillingfleet, a village about six miles south of York in North Yorkshire, just near the banks of the River Ouse. The origin of its name lies in Old English and means 'stretch of river belonging to the family or followers of a man called Styfel', being composed of the elements Styfel (name of landowner,) inga (followers of) and fleot (stream, inlet or creek.) It was recorded as Steflingefled in the Domesday Book.

St Helen's Church, Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire
St Helen's Church, Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire

The recorded history of St Helen's goes back more than 800 years, to the middle of the 12th century, and was probably built by Robert de Stuteville.

Carved detail from South West Doorway St Helen's Stillingfleet

A notice board just next to the stunning South West doorway of St Helen's has the following information: 

"The outer arch has double rows of conventional leaves. The second is carved with 36 beak heads, the third and fourth with a chevron pattern. In the receding angle of each chevron of the third arch, there is a design apparently intended for a tree or foliage. The fifth is enriched with a variety of figures.
On the keystone of this inner arch, there is a man's face with a crown surmounted by three crosses, possibly intended for Henry II. On the seven stones to the right are first a bird and a dog, united by a string; second - two heads of animals and scroll work; third - a geometric pattern; fourth - heads; fifth - two beak heads; sixth - heads facing each other; seventh - a rose.
To the left there is first - a beak head; second - a man's head; third - a dog; fourth - a scroll; firth - a lion; sixth - a rose; seventh - a man's head.
Round the actual entrance arch there are billets and fir cones carved in relief, double and treble. The nook shaft capitals are fluted on the left; on the right on the first pair - two dragons with necks entwined, second and third - fluted; fourth - on the right - head in leaves, on the left - foxes and grapes; firth - on the right, some beautiful interlaced work, on the left - a head in leaves and entwined stalks."

Carved detail from South West Doorway St Helen's Stillingfleet

The  external wooden door, though still impressive, is not original, as this is now kept inside the church itself.

Original door St Helens Church Stillingfleet
Original door St Helens Church Stillingfleet
Original door hinges St Helens Church Stillingfleet
Part of the original hinges are also displayed inside the church

The original door possibly dates from as early as the 10th century, and might have been reused by the Church in the 11th or 12th century, although its exact dating is debated. Many believe the ironwork to be Scandinavian in design and it is included in Wilson's catalogue of Anglo-Saxon metalwork.

Original door St Helens Church Stillingfleet

Whatever the date and the origin, the focus of the ironwork is very intriguing, showing, amongst other things, a ship, a pair of figures, a horned figure and various other bits of decorative ironwork.

Original door St Helens Church Stillingfleet

It is possible that the ship is a representation of a Viking Longship, possibly commemorating the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

The door, with its enigmatic ironwork, is in remarkable condition for its age and is among the oldest to survive in Britain. It is internationally famous with visitors coming from all over the world to see this beautiful and historic artefact, as well as the intricate carvings of the doorway. 

North East Doorway, St Helen's, Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire
Main entrance to the Church now through the smaller Norman Doorway

The Church of St Helen's is well worth a visit just for the door and doorway, but also contains lots of other interesting features and history.

Please consider leaving a donation, if you do visit.

Thanks for reading!


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Sources and further information:

Cambridge University Press Journals Online: IV. The Norman Church and Door at Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire
Rural South York Churches: St Helen's Stillingfleet
Notice with details of the doorway, (posted outside St Helen's Church :)
Wikipedia: Stillingfleet
Topp & Co: makers of the 'modern' door replacement

Original article first appeared on the Justbod Facebook Page


  1. I enjoy your shares - thank you for highlighting these ancestral creativity

    1. Many thanks for the kind words Mick - much appreciated!

  2. Did you actually go to the church to see it?

    1. Yes we did Anon - the photos were all taken by us. We're fortunate as it is in our local area. Well worth a visit, if you get the chance :)