Gargoyles, Corbels and A Green Man

There are examples of all these early church architectural features outside or inside St Alkelda’s Church, Giggleswick.


The name derives from a French word, “gargouille” meaning “throat”, but in actual fact the word refers to an old French legend about a dragon called La Gargouille which terrorised the town of Rouen. The dragon was vanquished by a Christian priest who cut off its head and attached it to an outside wall of the church to ward off any other evil creature which attempted to violate the holy sanctuary of the church. A stone gargoyle on a medieval church is often a hideous human or mythical animal head with gaping mouth. The gargoyle head juts out at the bottom edge of a roof or from the 4 corners of the church tower and acts as a drain to shoot rain water well over the edge away from the wall. It too, like the dragon’s head, had a spiritual purpose. These days, we hardly notice the gargoyle doing what it was meant to do as the water is channelled down drainpipes to the modern underground drainage system. As for a spiritual purpose, those who are not dismissive, will still find the presence of a gargoyle meaningful.

There are gargoyles on the top of Giggleswick Church tower, which is probably older than the rest of the 15th-century main building, according to Thomas Brayshaw writing in the pamphlet Notes Historical and Descriptive: Giggleswick Church, which is inserted in the Red Book. The gargoyle on the north side looks more unpleasant than the others. That was probably quite deliberate as the devil’s door through which the devil was evicted in the medieval baptism service was on the north wall. The door was still there in 1677 when it was called “the back church door”. We do not know when it ceased to be in use, or when it was removed. In the Red Book photo Brayshaw took of the west end of the church before the 1890-2 restoration was complete, there appears to be a plain glass window instead of a door. This was removed in 1900, when a stained-glass window in memory of Annie Batten was created in the devil’s door space.


The word “corbel”, in use from the 15th century, is from the French word meaning a “raven”, but originally from the Latin corvus “a raven or crow”. Why it is so called is unclear, unless it suggests a protruding beak. Corbels are sculpted or carved structural pieces of stone or wood, placed on a wall or roof beam of a church carved or shaped to carry a super incumbent bent weight. Outside, they are usually of stone; inside, sometimes of wood. Occasionally, on some of the earliest medieval examples, they appear to be growing into or out of a wall. Corbels can feature geometric shapes, plant or vegetable forms, human faces, pleasant or unpleasant, animal heads or mythical monsters.

There is one on the outside north to north east wall of Giggleswick Church, a stone carving of a human face which appears not to be upholding anything but growing out of, or cemented into the wall. One wonders if it was found in the graveyard and stuck there centuries ago. It features just a bare, hairless face and head. The expression is pleasant and the eyes as on many early medieval pieces, close together. In appearance, it is very similar to the identified Celtic head on the north wall inside the ancient parish church of St Andrew, Slaidburn.

A Green Man

Sculptural representations of a human head encased in greenery or with leaves spouting from the mouth occur in many ancient cultures of the world. This type of archetypal head is thought to represent fertility, a symbol of rebirth or a nature god. A common view is that it is a pagan artefact derived from the ancient Celtic worship of the head. The sculptural type on church and other architecture first appeared in Britain after the Norman Conquest, but remained largely unnoticed until just before the Second World War.

In the Red Book, Thomas Brayshaw describes as a corbel the Giggleswick stone head with leaves issuing from its mouth and supporting a roof beam at its junction with the north wall above the pulpit canopy. It is indeed a type of corbel and is the only one of its kind in North Craven. The nearest one is on the roof of Bolton Abbey Church.

Structural Renovations of 1890-2

Green Man Sculpture

Recent close examination of the one in Giggleswick Church showed that this rather primitive sculpture of a man’s head had eyes close together and teeth which appeared to be gripping the 2 leaves, one at each corner of its mouth. It was not until 1939, several years after Brayshaw’s death, that Julia, Lady Raglan had noted in her travels amongst different cultures a number of carved and painted human heads which featured similar characteristics. These heads were surrounded by, or shaped by vegetation or with leaves issuing from their mouths. It was Lady Raglan who invented the generic term Green Man, to cover the various vegetative expressions. In Giggleswick Church, the Green Man seems to have been in position supporting the end of a beam on the 15th-century roof before the structural renovations of 1890-2. Perhaps it was on the Norman church before? From Brayshaw’s excellent black-and-white photo of a roofless nave, taken during the renovations, there seem to be several corbel-like structures jutting out into the open sky from the top of the north wall. What happened to the others? This photo is pasted in the Red Book.

Another Giggleswick Mystery

Thomas Brayshaw seems to have been one of the last people to examine the Anglo-Saxon and tomb contents of the crypt before it was sealed up. In the Red Book, he also describes the items that were brought to the surface. In the description below, he is referring to the area where the choir now sits on the south side, but which was open into the Lady (Memorial) chapel, and where the floor is higher than the one in the main nave. The inner walls were also exposed:

“On this raised portion are many of the old stones which were found in the course of the restoration. Here may be seen specimens of Saxon work such as the stone corbel with 3 raised bands ornamenting the end of it ….” [my italics]. Brayshaw goes on to tell us that many of the finds were incorporated in the interior of the new walls, but where are those which were not encased in walls? On my way out of church one day, I looked up at the tower and noticed for the first time that the 4 mini pinnacles rising one from each corner, appeared like upright corbels with 3 raised bands decorating the stem of each one.


Brayshaw, Thomas, The Red Book (Giggleswick Church Archives), collection c.1880-1933
Harding, Mike, A Little Book of The Green Man., Arum Press, 2006
Jenkins, Simon, England’s Thousand Best Churches. Penguin, 2000
Metford J C., The Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson, 1983
Various websites, including Google and Wikipedia.