The Lady of Danby Wiske

Have you noticed how medieval depictions of people often seem rather, well, amateurish? Expressionless faces, two-dimensional bodies, limbs awkwardly attached to torsos. We forgive their clumsiness on account of their age, much like we would stick a five-year-old’s garish offering to the fridge door. We say it’s good because of their tender age, but in all truth, it resembles nothing at all.

Upon calling at North Yorkshire’s Danby Wiske Church, I saw a wonderful fourteenth-century sculpture of a woman. This life-size portrayal is said to be of Matilda, wife of Sir Brian Fitzalan, a lord of Bedale and lieutenant of King Edward I. It was discovered in 1939 having been used as a door lintel, and is now rightly displayed in the nave. That expression! What is it? Pride? Confidence? Humour? I cannot tell, but she is certainly expressive, a woman who made an impression on the sculptor. Being the wife of a lord in the King’s service, I suspect she was rather proud of her elevated status, even as she concluded this earthly life. Sir Brian was involved in the Scottish wars, and the church’s own information board suggests her stone’s usage above the door was a hasty repair effected in the wake of a Scottish raid. Truly, pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.

Although her hands are clasped in prayer, her expression is most certainly not. Would that she had been able to read the eighteenth-century scripture board which now hangs in the church along with her image, quoting Micah 6:8: