What is a boss?

The ceiling of St Mary’s church in Beverley is home to almost 700 intricate, colourful, and curious carvings known as roof bosses.

Roof bosses are found where the beams or vaults in a ceiling meet, and are ornately carved in order to decorate this architectural feature. The term ‘boss’ probably derives from the Old French ‘boche’, meaning ‘swelling’ or ‘bump.’

Rows of gilded roof bosses in the chancel of St Mary's church, Beverley.
Roof bosses in the chancel of St Mary's church

Roof bosses first appeared in England following the Norman Conquest in 1066, but they became increasingly popular from the late twelfth century onwards. Common subjects can be found in English roof bosses - such as religious iconography, folklore, foliage, or animals. Every church has its own individual local style and characteristics. St Mary’s is no different.

A fish-eye view looking east of St Michael's Chapel, showing altar and roof bosses.
The Chapel of St Michael with its stone roof bosses.

St Mary’s roof bosses are from a range of time periods. Two dozen stone bosses can in be found in the fourteenth-century St Michael’s chapel, and those in the chancel date from the mid-fifteenth century. By far the greatest number can be found in the nave and its side aisles, which house hundreds of brightly coloured wooden bosses. These bosses (and also those in the choir vestry) date from the first half of the sixteenth century. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of the church’s bosses were repaired and repainted.

The number of roof bosses in St Mary’s is astonishing. St Mary’s has many more than other churches in the region, including Beverley Minster, Selby Abbey, and York Minster. It is not solely the number of bosses that makes them significant, but the rich and remarkable variety of their subjects. There are flowers, animals, mythical beasts, kings, bishops, saints and demons. Always visible are the faces of men and women appearing in simple domestic scenes.

The bosses of St Mary’s reflect the world in which they were created, and how that world was understood by the people who lived in it. Each boss was carved for a deliberate reason. Some educate (such as those depicting religious iconography), some entertain (like animals playing instruments), and some send warnings, with their images of sin and its consequences.

A boss showing a grinning figure playing a stringed musical instrument with a bow.
A boss showing a grinning figure playing a stringed musical instrument with a bow

Positioned high in the ceiling, roof bosses can be difficult to see, let alone understand. However, for the first time, all of the church’s bosses have been photographed, and catalogued in the Curious Carvings database.

Be sure to explore the themes and subjects that can be found in the bosses of St Mary’s Church. In them we find marvels and mysteries, and a direct link to the people who worshiped here half a millennium ago.