The wonderful south doorway of St. John’s Church at Healaugh, near Tadcaster, is a fine example of the Romanesque style of carving of the Norman period. It dates back to c.1150 A.D., and shows an entertaining series of animals, birds and human figures within the triple arch.
There are about 300 churches in Yorkshire which incorporate features from the Norman period or earlier. In some cases, this might be a simple round-headed arch or window, whilst others, like Healaugh, have extensive carving around doors, windows and capitals, which are well worth studying. There are excellent examples at Adel (near Leeds), Kirkburn (near Driffield), and Birkin and Brayton (near Selby).
The shape and style of the windows is usually the best clue to the age of a church. Around 1200 A.D. a new style emerged, which incorporated the pointed arch and window. This important feature, which came into this country from France, and was probably inspired by what the Crusaders had seen of Byzantine architecture, was soon found to be structurally safer and more economical than Norman work. The style became known as Early English, and led on in the 14th Century to the Decorated style where increasingly complex patterns of stonework or “tracery” were developed within the pointed arch.
In York Minster the celebrated “ Five Sisters” Window, in the North Transept, is a superb example of plain Early English work; whereas the later great West Window, known as the “Heart of Yorkshire” is Decorated at its most magnificent. These basic styles of medieval church architecture can be seen in many parish churches around Yorkshire without, of course, achieving the majesty of the Minster.
In the 15th Century, the final development in medieval church architecture, the Perpendicular, emerged, where rows of mullions set out in grid-like patterns enabled windows to be greatly enlarged. The classic local example of the Perpendicular is Halifax Parish Church, where the main windows were built in about 1470 A.D.
Yorkshire is well blessed with fine churches of all periods – there are about 550 altogether built before the Reformation of 1540. Each one is unique, and each one has its own fascinating features. This is a wonderful historical legacy.