Gargoyles and Grotesques

Carved grotesque human and animal figures adorn many historic buildings. Fearsome and fantastical, distorted and comical, they can perform a vital function or just please the eye. This gallery of photographs offers a selection of gargoyles and grotesques that can be seen in the collections of the Historic England Archive.

A 16th century gargoyle on the south side of the Church of St Thomas a Becket, Pulham, Dorset (1967-03) by Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Do you know the difference between Gargoyles and Grotesques?

Gargoyles are waterspouts that are designed to throw rain water away from the outside wall of a building.

Derived from the Old French gargouille, meaning throat, the term was first used to describe carved lions and spouts on ancient classical buildings. It later became more familiar as a term used to describe the grotesque creatures and human forms disgorging water from the parapets of medieval walls and towers.

Grotesques were originally buried Roman ornamental decorations that were discovered during the Renaissance in subterranean ruins known as grotte, hence grotesques. We now associate the term with unnatural, ugly or distorted forms, which can have the power to shock or scare those that cast their eyes over them.

Both gargoyles and grotesques have been attributed with the power to ward off evil spirits, guarding the buildings they occupy and protecting those inside.

Gargoyles on a buttress of the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire (1992-06-19) by Bob Skingle, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Gargoyles on a buttress of the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Photographed in 1992 by Bob Skingle of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA92/02757.

Read the List entry for Southwell Minster.

Gargoyles holding a head, Magdalen College, Cloister, Great Quadrangle, Oxford, Oxfordshire (1900) by Henry William TauntHistoric England

A gargoyle featuring two Mermen-like figures holding a head at Magdalen College, Oxford

Photographed in 1900 by the Oxford-based commercial photographer Henry William Taunt. CC50/00141.

Read the List entry for Magdalen College.

Gargoyles on the Church of St Peter, Gloucester Street, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire (1890/1934) by Unknown photographerHistoric England

Winged gargoyles on the Church of St Peter, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Photographed some time between 1890 and 1934 by an unknown photographer. OP27570.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Peter.

Gargoyle at the east end of the Church of St Peter, Gloucester Street, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire (1938) by Walter ScottHistoric England

A bearded gargoyle, possibly brushing its hair, at the Church of St Peter, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Photographed in 1938 by Walter Scott. WSA01/01/18062.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Peter.

A weathered gargoyle at Windsor Palace, Windsor Castle, Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead (1970-10) by Ministry of Public Buildings and WorksHistoric England

A heavily-weathered gargoyle at Windsor Castle

Photographed in 1970 by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. P/G14651/016.

Read the List entry for Windsor Castle.

Grotesque corbels at the Church of St Michael, Station Road, Garton, East Riding of Yorkshire (1989-06-13) by Tony Perry, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Grotesque corbels at the Church of St Michael, Garton, East Riding of Yorkshire

Photographed in 1989 by Tony Perry of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. BB92/02871.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Michael.

Gargoyle on the Chapter House of Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire (1992-06-19) by Bob Skingle, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

A winged beast or demon clutching a victim in its claws at Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire

Photographed in 1992 by Bob Skingle of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA92/02755.

Read the List entry for Southwell Minster.

A gargoyle representing fish, Chapter House, Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire (1992-06-19) by Bob Skingle, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Gargoyles styled as fish on a buttress of the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Photographed in 1992 by Bob Skingle of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA92/02751.

Read the List entry for Southwell Minster.

A wooden corbel with a grotesque head in the Church of St John the Baptist, Thaxted, Essex (1948) by John GayHistoric England

Wooden corbel carved with a grotesque head at the Church of St John the Baptist, Thaxted, Essex

Grotesques can also be found decorating features on the inside of buildings. This carved wooden face with staring eyes and open mouth can be found on a corbel in the Church of St John the Baptist, Thaxted.

Photographed in 1948 by the commercial photographer John Gay. AA101135.

Read the List entry for the Church of St John the Baptist.

Grotesques on the north aisle of the Church of St Helen, Church Walk, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire (1992-02-03) by Bob Skingle, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Grotesque figures atop a buttress at the Church of St Helen, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire

Photographed in 1992 by Bob Skingle of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA99/01675.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Helen.

Crocketted pinnacle and gargoyle on the Church of St Helen, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire (1992-02-03) by Bob Skingle, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Gargoyle on the base of a pinnacle at the Church of St Helen, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire

Photographed in 1992 by Bob Skingle of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA99/01683.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Helen.

Gargoyles on the south choir aisle of Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire (1994-04-22) by Steve Cole, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Gargoyles at Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Photographed in 1994 by Steve Cole of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. AA95/00239.

Read the List entry for Ely Cathedral.

A dog gargoyle on the urinal at The Square, Minsterley, Shropshire (1990-06-12) by Roger Thomas, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Gargoyle on the urinal in The Square at Minsterley, Shropshire

Not all gargoyles are to be found decorating historic churches, cathedrals and castles. This cast iron example features on a humble public urinal.

Photographed in 1990 by Roger Thomas of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. BB038805.

Read the List entry for the urinal.

Credits: Story

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

Discover the Historic England Archive.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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