The Lastingham Group of Churches

Lastingham, Hutton-le-Hole, Appleton-le-Moors, Rosedale & Cropton


      York  35 miles   ·   London  242 miles

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 Whitby  28   ·  Scarborough 23   ·   Pickering 7   ·   Kirkbymoorside 5


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Folklore in the Church:
the Stones of Lastingham Speak Silently

 by Elissa Michele Zacher

Folklore consists of traditions or practices that cause ‘lore’ or are the result of communal popular beliefs. This includes interpretations of folk practice, such as superstition, popular religion and local knowledge and myth. It is the material culture and social customs of a people (Gazin-Schwartz & Holtorff, 1999: 3). This shared culture makes an individual part of a group through the continuity of tradition and ritual (Sharpe, 1997: 287). What folklore can be seen in the stone fabric of English churches, especially in St Mary’s Church, in my own village of Lastingham, North Yorkshire?

St Mary’s Church marks the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of St Cedd, founded in 654, but abandoned during the Viking raids (Jenkins, 1999: 178). In 1078, Stephen, Abbot of Whitby, received permission to rebuild the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house. Stephen first had the crypt built as a shrine to Cedd, over the spot the saint was probably buried, and then began a new abbey church. In 1088, he moved to York and the site was abandoned (Lastingham Parochial Church Council, 1997: 4). The partially built abbey formed the basis of the present church, which became a parochial church in 1228. In the 13th century, the north aisle was added (ibid.: 9-10). The above-ground structure has an apse and short chancel (Weston, 1914: 224).  In the 14th century the south aisle was pulled down and rebuilt on a slightly wider scale and in the Decorated style. Other renovations occurred in 1831 and 1879 (Kennedy, n.d.: 11). The crypt is two-aisled with a small chancel and apse and Norman piers (Jenkins, 1999: 178) and nine low groin vaults with thick columns (Pevsner, 1978: 26). The bases of the Norman columns in the crypt appear to be of pre-Conquest workmanship. (Lastingham Parochial Church Council, 1997: 4). St Mary’s, Lastingham, has both a south and a north door still in use.  The south porch is recorded as having three mason’s marks (Russell, 1914: 528), although I have not found them.

The folklore of Lastingham Church revolves mainly around changes to portals.  There is the closure of a door and its passageway, possibly due to liturgical change, which created local myth over many generations. There was also the temporary closure of the north door. In addition, there is the perceived holiness of the south door and its unusual lintel of recycled stone.

The folklore of walled up church north doors, the “devil’s door”, is possibly linked with the Reformation, when some liturgical practices involving the north door were banned. For example, during baptisms the devil was thought to leave the child, through the north door, which was frequently positioned opposite the font (Gutch, 1899: 384). This notion could have originated in the Doctrine of the Cardinal Points, which taught that Satan dwelt on the north side of heaven before his fall (Colgrave: 1945: 3), and therefore the north must be “bad”. Another reason for the north’s unsavoury reputation may come from the Scandinavian “pagan” belief that the underworld was below the third root on the north side of the tree of Yggdrasill (Johnson, 1912: 334).  Brian Hoggard thinks (pers. comm., 2002) that some aims of the Reformation were to reduce the folk belief attached to the physical structure of the church, and to block entries that let in the cold. In addition, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation, there was the purging of saints’ devotionals and their associated pilgrimages, which resulted in less church income. Maintenance levels of individual churches would have varied, depending on the proceeds of each, and modifications to the structures may have resulted.

The reuse of stonework, including “pagan” iconographic blocks, has occurred in churches from the early Post-Roman period onwards; such masonry is often located in the chancel, porch, doors, nave and arches (Catling, 1998: 63, 69) and is frequently, blatantly visible. A local example is a Roman altar in Malton Priory, a common occurrence in the north of England. The historical Church’s view on this practice was contradictory and varied. Pope Gregory ordered Abbot Mellitus to convert pagan temples to Christian use only to tell King Ethelbert to destroy them (Eaton, 2000: 99). In his “The Law of the Northumbrian Priests”, Archbishop Wulfstan instructed the early 11th century clergy not to put “unsuitable things” in churches (Hey, 1986: 23). Tim Eaton proposes a number of possible explanations as to the reasoning behind the reuse of stonework: pragmatism, acquiring apotropaic (deflecting evil) attributes intrinsic to the imagery, acquiring the perceived power of the icons and inscriptions in a positive manner for the Church and negating/controlling this same power by surrounding the stone by the physical church (2003: 70) and its inherent holiness that came from being a building dedicated to God.

When I first came to Lastingham, the door on the north side of the main body of the church was quite firmly closed. Yet, it was still there, contrasting other churches in the area like All Saints in Sinnington, which has blocked doors on the western and northern sides.  The present incumbent has inquired about the closed north door and was told that it was only permanently shut in the mid-1990s, following a burglary. Before then it was in occasional use (Ferguson, 2008. Pers. Comm). Therefore, the shutting of this particular portal has nothing to do with liturgy and ritual and everything to do with practicality – it leads to a less visible part of the graveyard and access to the main road.

On the north side of the crypt is a narrow “dog leg” corridor, with tunnel vaulting, leading to a door which has long been blocked up. Kennedy believes this tunnel was the original entrance to Stephen’s crypt chapel (n.d.: 11) and that pilgrims could go directly to the shrine of St Cedd (Lastingham Parochial Church Council, 1997: 4). Primary attendance on the saint was part of local ritual and liturgy in many churches. However, in 1559, under Elizabeth I, the two Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity ended saints’ days, votive masses, Purgatory, pardons, pilgrimages, indulgences, holy water, incense, pagan and semi-pagan practices (Paul, 1996: 37). During the English Reformation images were removed and certain ceremonies were denounced as superstitious (Hey, 1986: 127-8).

Over time, legends became attached to this door. One fable is that it was a secret route, via a long tunnel, for the Catholic priests to escape out onto the moors during the Reformation. The second is that priests would secretly visit the nuns at Rosedale Abbey (Gutch, 1899: 395). In 1859, Whellan recorded in his History of the North Riding, there were persons who could remember when the tunnel was still open to about 40 or 50 yards (Bulmer, 1890), though whether this passage was navigable or not is not mentioned. No evidence of a tunnel has ever been found. However, once the wall was opened up, rubble was located (Weston, 1914: 72). Unfortunately, any physical evidence in the external wall has been obliterated by restoration and the construction of a vestry. What does this tradition of naughty nuns and priests have to do with the alteration of the crypt? Was this the method by which the new Church denigrated the old by allowing (or creating) such lore to put the Roman Church in a bad light? Did the folk tale replace the truth? – the existence of a pre-Reformation ambulatory focused on St Cedd’s burial, which the new Church may have wished people to forget? Knowing the geography of the area, I imagine the crypt tunnel was on the north side for practical reasons. Did the fact that the passage is on the north side, the devil’s side, have any bearing on its closure? However, when was this passage closed? An engraving from 1816 clearly shows an external door in this area (Lastingham Parochial Church Council, 2006), but is this the door to the tunnel or to the vestry? Yet, there is the seemingly more sympathetic story of escaping priests to consider as well.

*     *     *

The lintel of the Lastingham Church south door is quite unique. I can find no reference to this slab lintel in parish histories or in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture. I have found no means by which to date what looks to be a grave slab with a Scandinavian Yggdrasill. This  “Tree of Life” is a symbol of cosmic regeneration (Wessells, 1994: 149). It binds heaven, earth and hell, for its evergreen branches are in heaven while its roots lie in the subterranean world (Evans, 1981: 1209). The Yggdrasil becomes associated with the cross in the 4th century (op. cit.: 151), perhaps because of the legend of the Norse god Odin’s self-sacrifice upon this tree to gain knowledge (Orchard, 1997: 185-6).  The carving has its branches to the east and its roots in the west. The south door is reset from the 13th century round headed predecessor when the aisle was widened in the 14th century (Russell, 1914: 528), but was that when this stone was included? Was it much earlier? It is unlikely to have been an accidental insertion during the renovation of  St Mary’s.

If I am correct in thinking it is a Scandinavian ‘tree of life’, is this then an example of Christianising pagan beliefs, or demonstrating that the Church is the successor to the old ways? Could its location in the south door bear some relation to the Doctrine of Cardinal Points, that being the ‘holy’ side? Is it ‘pointing’ east – to the altar or to the Holy Land?? According to this doctrine, the south and east were “good” sides (Evans, 1981: 791). Was it to remind the congregation that salvation lay within through Christ’s (rather than Odin’s) sacrifice on the cross? If it is a Saxon stone, then was Stephen (or someone else) trying to appropriate the power and memory of Cedd’s monastery to enhance the social position of his own Norman church in the local mindset (just as the Saxons did with Roman masonry)?

*     *     *

A building can be thought of as a text (Jones, 2000: 47, 126-7).  The door and tunnel to the Lastingham crypt have been blocked for some time. If this passage was part of a processional way deemed unnecessary by the reformed Church, do we see here a probable effect of the Reformation in the suppression of saints’ cults? By placing a possible Yggdrasill stone as the lintel of the south door, was the Church cleansing a Scandinavian relic or reminding those who entered that the way to life eternal lay within?  These two tales are written in the fabric of St Mary’s – perhaps someday we will truly know them.


Bulmer, 1890, History and Directory of North Yorkshire.

Catling, J. 1998, The Appropriation of Meaning: an Examination of Roman Stones    Re-used in an Anglo-Saxon Context. Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of    Durham, Department of Archaeology.

Colgrave, B. 1945, A Short Account of the Saxon Church at Escomb, Diocese
   of Durham

Eaton, T. 2000. Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval Britain,    Tempus, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Evans, I. 1981. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Cassell, London.

Ferguson, A.S. 2008. Personal Communication.

Gazin-Schwartz, A & Holtorff, C. 1999. “As Long as I’ve Ever Known It”,
   in Gazin-Schwartz, A, & Holtorff, C. (eds.) 1999. Archaeology and  Folklore,    Routledge, London. Pp. 3-20.

Gutch, Mrs, 1899. County Folklore. Concerning the North Riding of  Yorkshire and    the Ainsty, David Nutt, Oxford. Vol. II.

Hey, D. 1986. Yorkshire From ad 1000. Longman, London.

Hoggard, B. 2002, personal communication.

Kennedy, S. D. No date. Lastingham and Hutton-le-Hole. No publisher.

Jenkins, Simon, 1999, England’s Thousand Best Churches, Penguin Books, London.

Johnson, W, 1912, Byways in British Archaeology, Cambridge University Press.

Jones, L. 2000. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. Vol. One. Harvard    University Press.

Lastingham PCC, 1997. St Mary’s Lastingham. English Life Publications Ltd,    Derby.

Lastingham PCC, 2006,

Orchard, A. 1997, Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend,  Cassell, London.

Paul, W. 1996. Enjoying English Parish Churches, The Pentland Press,
   Bishop Auckland.

Pevsner, N. 1973. Yorkshire: The North Riding. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Russell, A. 1914a. “Ryedale Wapentake, Lastingham”, in Page, E. (ed.) The Victoria History of the Counties of England. York. North Riding. Vol. 1,  Constable & Co. Ltd. London. Pp. 524-8.

Sharpe, J. A. 1997. Early Modern England : a Social History, 1550-1760. Arnold,    London.

Wessells, A. 1994. Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian? SCM Press Ltd, London.

Weston, F. A., 1914, History of the Ancient Parish of Lastingham, J. Whitehead & Sons, Leeds.



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