The Green Yorkshireman

Following on from my last post about sheela-na-gigs I thought today I would look at the green man.

There are a number of similarities between the two figures in that no-one knows exactly what the green man symbolises nor why it is found so frequently in churches and other buildings. Its origins are also obscure but appear to be worldwide in various forms. As with the sheela there are many theories about what the green man represents but none of them really explain all of its instances with satisfaction. The most popular is that it represents renewal, rebirth, spring and fertility. Maybe it does, but we don’t know for certain. It is likely he is in fact a mixture of many ideas and myths. There is the wildman, Jack-in-the-Green and many localised traditions that all align with the green man so his appearance may represent different things to different people and we may tend to group them together because of their similarities. The term ‘green man’ is relatively modern, first coined by Lady Raglan in 1939 but now generally accepted as an umbrella term incorporating all instances of the leafy face.

He appears quite often in Yorkshire churches though not always in the same form. It is difficult to categorise him, though some have tried, because however you draw the boundaries there will always be figures that cross them.

One of the most well-known forms is that of the foliate head. The head and face of the figure are made up of leaves and other foliage. This face from the church porch in Barton-le-Street is a good example.

Barton porch

Here’s another from a roof boss in the church at Thirsk.

Thirsk roof boss

A third, smiley face, from Sherburn church. 

Sherburn roof boss

All of the faces are made up of foliage in similar ways. Some, however, are only part foliage like this one from Helmsley. It has leaves only down the side of its face and is relatively modern, probably Victorian.

Helmsley green man

This form is not the most common, however. The type I’ve seen most of is known as the spewer, or disgorger, as it appears to be spewing foliage from its mouth, and often, nose, ears and eyes too. There are some quite early versions of this form of green man, such as this one from Hawnby church. The church has Norman origins and some of the stonework from that church still exists. This green man may well have been part of the early church.

As stated above the disgorger is by far the most common form in Yorkshire as you will note from the further examples below. The first three are disgorgers from Barton.

Barton disgorger

It is not unusual to see animal heads as ‘green men’ too. This one appears to be a lion.

Barton lion disgorger

The third is known as a beakhead, a motif that appears quite often in Romanesque architecture, this one is disgorging.

Barton beakhead disgorger

One of the most well known green men is the disgorger shown below. It is found on a window of Fountains Abbey in the Chapel of Nine Altars but probably didn’t originate there. It was this figure that set Kathleen Basford off on her trail of the likenesses in 1964 which culminated in what is regarded as the definite work on green men, The Green Man (see sources).

Fountains Abbey disgorger.

The green man takes many forms and appears in many differing locations. I have a large collection of images from around Great Britain. Some of the more interesting ones from Yorkshire are shown below.

We start with Beverley. Both the Minster and St Mary’s church have green men but it is the Minster that has the most I have ever seen in one building, there are just two of them shown here.

Beverley Minster capital
Beverley Minster column base

These two are from St Mary’s church.

St Mary's capital
St Mary's misericord

The next is from the font in Bedale church.

Bedale font

A particularly oriental looking painted figure looks down from Coxwold church

Coxwold green man

Another fine carving high in the roof is in Bridlington Priory church. He’s very difficult to see unless you know he’s there.

Bridlington green man

The wonderful church in Old Malton has two green men. The first is on a misericord and the second is hardly visible high up on the altar screen.

Old Malton misericord
Old Malton altar screen

One of my favourite churches is the disused church at Wintringham. It is cared for by the Historic Churches Trust. This image is one of the misericord green men.

Wintringham misericord

Not all green men are found in churches, this one is from the doorway of Askham Grange prison. It is of poor quality as it was taken on a very old mobile phone I used to own.

Askham Grange doorway

This final image is from inside Duncombe Park stately home, but is another poor photograph.

Duncombe Park

Here ends a quick tour of some of the Yorkshire green men. If you would like to see some more from my collection please visit my site here. As with the sheela-na-gigs I hope it inspires you to get out and search the churches and buildings of the country to find them for yourselves.

Basford, K, 1978, The Green Man

Harding, M, 1998, A Little Book of Green Men

Hicks, C, 2000, The Green Man: A Field Guide

Lady Raglan, 1939, The “Green Man” in Church Architecture, Folklore, 50:1, 45-57

Macdermott, M, 2003,  Explore Green Men

Millar, R, 1997, The Green Man

Let me introduce …

Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983). I discovered Mr Pevsner quite late in life and I wish I had got to know him earlier. Who is he? He was a German born architectural scholar, probably best know for his county guides of England. Each guide covers a county, or part thereof, and lists all the building of interest in each town and village. There were 46 volumes in his Buildings of England series and I am the proud owner of several of them. Although dated the information they contain is still relevant (as long as the building he describes still exists).

I find his writing to be interesting and amusing, he doesn’t pull his punches if he doesn’t like something. Take my town of Pickering, North Yorkshire: he describes the primitive methodist chapel as “In a terrible Italianate style”1. Whether you agree with him or not depends on your views on architecture. The offending building is shown below for your perusal.


Regardless of Mr Pevsner’s views the books are useful for the buildings they list, the descriptions are accurate and his views can easily be ignored if you wish. His entry for Pickering spans over four pages, he describes in detail the church with its fifteenth century wall paintings and then the castle is dealt with in some detail. Several other buildings within the town are given short but detailed entries. However, he ends the section on Pickering with, “Pickering town is not architecturally rewarding.” I have to disagree with him, as I often do, but his books do give much more detail than would normally be found in local guide books for visitors and as such will remain on my bookshelves as reference tools.


1 Pevsner, N., (1966) The Buildings of England BE29 Yorkshire: The North Riding, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

Enriching the list

I’m sure most of you have heard of listed buildings, those structures that have been deemed interesting or important to our heritage and have therefore been offered some measure of protection. Did you know you can view the listed buildings on the web? Historic England maintain the list and web presence and it is free to access. You can search for a particular structure or area or use the map to zoom around and see which buildings are listed wherever you wish.

A lot of the listings are quite old and may be a little out of date. Most of those in my area were listed in 1975 and the information has been transferred from the old manual listing system into the current accessible database. What makes it more interesting is that you can add to it. Yes, you can request listing for a building but I mean here that you can add to an existing listing. They call it ‘Enrich the List’, by registering on their site you can add information or photographs to any of the currently listed structures.

Many of the shops and other buildings in my town centre are listed and I have started to add photographs to the list as part of a photographic project I set myself some time ago.


The listing gives a good description of each building and shows its location on a map. I find it interesting to read about the architectural features of each building, my knowledge is increasing with each new building I view. For example, in the image above the white blocks of bricks down the edge of the building are referred to as ‘brick rusticated quoins’. The vertical posts either side of the ground floor window are ‘pilasters’, this used to be a shop window. The bay window is referred to as ‘canted’ because the sides are at an angle.


In this photograph the upper left bay is called a ‘rectangular modern oriel semi-dormer of 4 lights’.

I find it all fascinating and look forward to adding more to the list in the coming months. Take a look at the web site yourself and see what you might discover about the area where you live. Who knows, you too may feel the urge to Enrich the List.