English Churches  - East Riding of Yorkshire

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn


One of the best Norman churches in East Yorkshire


Kirkburn is a tiny village just off the busy A614 and feels miles away from the modern bustle. The church is set back from the road and surrounded by a large churchyard which is a conservation area. It is an attractive building with solid square tower at the west end and long low nave and chancel.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The church dates from the C12th and began as a simple apsidal church with a bell cote. The tower was added later and the chancel apse replaced by a larger chancel in the C14th when the south porch was added.

By the C19th the church was in poor condition. The chancel had been replaced by what was described as a ‘barbarous building’. In 1855, Sir Tatton Sykes I funded the restoration of Kirkburn Church. He employed JL Pearson as architect, who was a great believer in retaining as much of the original fabric as possible and that any restoration should be sympathetic to the original designs. He completely rebuilt the chancel in what is described as “Victorian Norman Romanesque style’. In fact it is difficult to distinguish his work from the original. The Norman lancet windows of the chancel with their chevroned arches are pure Norman.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

On the outside of the church below the eaves is a corbel shelf. Where possible, Pearson kept the original carvings and any new work was a faithful copy of the original. There are faces looking up to Heaven, demons, animals. Each one is different. 

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The glorious south door has been protected by the C14th porch and has a carving of the Virgin and Child above the doorway. Round columns with carved capitals support five carved arches. The carving is hardly eroded even after 750 years. There are chevrons, beakheads, animals and strange beasts. This must be one of the best Norman doorways in the East Riding.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

Inside, the chancel arch is pure Norman too. 

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

Again it is supported by round columns with carved capitals. Above are four rows of chevron carvings. The arch would originally have been semi-circular but the weight of stone above has flattened the arch. To reduce the weight, Pearson inserted three small open ‘Norman’ windows in the wall above it. These have been so cleverly done they look as if they have always been there.

At the back of the nave is a carved Norman tub font. This is C12th and is one of only six similar carved fonts in the East Riding. Others are in CowlamLangtoft and North Grimstone Churches.

Originally the font would have been painted but during Puritan times it would have been covered with a heavy coat of lime wash in an attempt to hide the carvings.

Round the rim is a narrow decorative band of interlacing and arcading. Below are two rows of carved figures and animals, separated by a plait design. The top set of figures clothed in long flowing robes. The clergy are shown holding a book. Below is a series of animal carvings including a snake and a cat catching a mouse.

The top row is described as ‘The Easter Vigil’, an annual event which lead to baptism. It is divided into three groups. The first shows a baptism scene with a small head appearing above a simple font. Above is a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The person on the left is holding a candle with stylised flames.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The next main group shows Christ handing the keys of Heaven and Hell to St Peter.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The final sequence shows the Ascension. Christ is holding his hands to show the wounds of the nails. He is surrounded by a circular Mandorla held by two angels. Immediately below on the lower band is the Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, carrying a cross. On either side are men with a large club and an axe ready to kill the lamb.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The tower at the back of the church is open to the nave and has a flight of stone stairs leading to the clock and bell chambers.

The chancel screen is C19th and was designed by GE Street. Again it is an accurate representation of a medieval rood screen with its open tracery arches and base panels. It fits in well with the rest of the church.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

At the top is a crucifix.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

It took two years to complete the paintings. The base panels have representations of Archangel Gabriel, Matthew and Mark on the left.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

On the right are Luke, John and the Virgin Mary. The figures on the doors are the four Doctors of the Western Church; St Jerome, St Ambrose, St Augustus of Hippo and St Gregory.

The pulpit to the left of the chancel arch is a typical Victorian stone pulpit with arched panels with carved capitals and darker stone columns. It is the only part of the C19th restoration which feels out of character.

Above the altar is a carved alabaster reredos designed by Street. In the centre is the crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St John on either side of the crucified Christ. The panels on the left have the Annunciation and Nativity. On the right is the descent from the cross and the raising from the dead.

St Mary’s Church, Kirkburn

The three lancet windows above are dedicated to Sir Tatton Sykes. They show the Crucifixion, raising from the dead and the Ascension into Heaven. The rest of the chancel windows show local saints. 

We have always liked Norman churches and this is possibly one of the best Norman churches in the East Riding. It is also a good example of sympathetic Victorian restoration. The church is open daily and there is parking on the road outside.

The post code for the church is YO25 9DU. The grid reference is SE 980551.

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