Legend of the Lincoln Imp

Lincoln Cathedral

Inside Lincoln Cathedral, a little stone imp sits atop one of the columns. He may be small, but he has a big personality, and even though he caused havoc in the Middle Ages, he’s much loved by the folks of Lincoln today.

On a recent short break, we went to Lincoln in the East Midlands of England. The city is presided over by its fine, gothic cathedral which sits atop a steep hill. Construction on the massive building began in the 11th century, and in the 14th century, when its tall central spire was completed, it was thought to be the tallest building in the world, surpassing the Great Pyramid of Giza. Unfortunately, that tall spire collapsed in 1548, and along with it went Lincoln Cathedral’s world record.

However, it’s still a very impressive and beautiful building. And, luckily, it has another claim to fame: He’s called the Lincoln Imp, and you can find him sitting atop one of the columns inside the cathedral. He’s perched in the v-shape created by two arches, and he has one of his little cloven-hoofed legs crossed over the other. His three-fingered hands have long claws, and his head sprouts animal ears and horns. He gazed down at visitors with a very impish, gap-toothed grin.

I love folklore and mischievous fairy folk, so as soon as I found out that Lincoln had its own imp, I wanted to hear the story. It goes something like this…

Story of the Lincoln Imp


Way back in the 13th or 14th century, two little imps decided to have some fun and wreak havoc on the north of England. Imps are known for being very mischievous, and causing trouble for humans seems to be their specialty.

So the two little trouble-makers targeted Lincoln cathedral because it was the biggest and it was attracting a lot of attention for its height and beauty. But on the way there, they stopped over at the church in Chesterfield. After playing tricks on the congregation and breaking things inside the church, they finished by grabbing hold of the church spire and whirling around in a circle. They left the spire twisted and leaning to one side – which is how it remains to this day.

After all that frolicking fun, the two little pranksters continued on their way to Lincoln in high spirits. When they arrived, they blew through the cathedral like a tornado. They flipped the furniture, pinched the parishioners, and badgered the bishop. The congregation was in complete chaos. People were covering their heads and praying under the pews.

When one of the little imps sped by the Bible, which was laying open on the pulpit, he nearly knocked it off. As the book was jostled, an angel arose from its pages and scolded the little imps, telling them to leave the cathedral.

One of them (who was a bit smarter than the other) skedaddled out of there. But the other imp decided to have a bit of fun with the angel. He began chipping off pieces of the stonework and throwing them at her. As the angel ducked the rocks, she said, “Enough is enough, if you don’t leave at once, I’ll turn you to stone.” The little imp zoomed up to the top of a column to taunt her. He sat at the top of the column, crossed one leg, and gave the angel a big, impish, grin. He laughed and said, “I’d like to see that…”

Imps in the tourist office

This particular angel was known for her kindness and forbearance, but that little fellow had pushed her to the limit. “Have it your way,” she said. Immediately the little imp was turned to stone, and he has been sitting in that very same position ever since.

As for the other imp who escaped, some say he went on to Grimbsy where he began causing the same kind of trouble in St. James church. And it seems that he also went a bit too far in annoying an angel, and he too was turned into stone and sits in the church there.

But others say that he stayed in Lincoln and that he is still flying around the outside of the cathedral looking for his imp buddy. And that’s why (so they say) that there is always a wind blowing around the cathedral.

The Lincoln Imp is a tiny little guy, but he has made a big impact on the city. He seems to have been adopted as their unofficial mascot. The tourist office is full of imps, large and small. And the football club is nicknamed ‘The Imps’. Images of the little grinning guy can also be spotted around the city on some doors, as he was a favorite door knocker adornment in the 18th century.

If you’re going to be in Lincoln this summer, you can follow the Lincoln Imp Trail. Thirty individually designed and painted imps will be placed around the city for you to discover. There will be a free downloadable app to help you find them. They’ll be in town from 3 July until 8 September. Let’s hope they don’t cause too much mischief while they are there. Read more about the Lincoln Imp Trail here.

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9 comments

    1. Well, glad I could bring back some nice memories. Did you sew him on the back of your lapel for good luck? And what was the bell for? Maybe it’s more folklore that I haven’t heard about yet. 🙂
      Best, -Margo

      1. Sorry to be so tardy. The little lapel imp was sewn in by my tailor – otherwise he would have fallen off many moons ago! The little bell is a bedside trinket, or indeed a dining-table ornament used to summon the butler; I use mine when entertaining, as a sign that I am obliged to leave the table to carry on with some cooking or other duty (more wine…) – I tinkle it, rise from the table and then assume the rôle of butler as opposed to host! The process is described in my book “Cook-au-Vin”… [I have little photographs but on this form can’t find how to post them.]

    1. Wow, thanks for all the shopping links. He’s quite a popular fellow. I bought a little magnet at the tourist info shop – which was chock-a-block with imps. They had one who was as tall as me (the big green one in the photo) and then lots of other smaller sizes.
      All the best, -Margo

  1. Thanks Margo. Another good story. Is it your photo of the imp inside? Loved it! I also liked the story about the spire on the Chesterfield church. Are there others like it? It is such an interesting design – looks like it is all wood. Best wishes, Paula

    1. Hi Paula,
      The interior photo of the imp is a public domain image from Wikipedia. The cathedral was still closed when I was there, and I think you would need a good zoom lens to get a photo like that. The imp is small and sits up high atop a column.
      As for the twisted spires, according to Wikipedia, there are ‘about a hundred bell towers of this type in Europe.’ England only has 7 of them. But France is the clear winner with a whopping 70 twisted spires! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_twisted_spires#
      I remember having seen one in Northern France, but had no idea they were so plentiful there. I guess there must have been a lot of little mischievous French imps! 🙂 🙂

      1. Gosh, Margo. It is amazing how many twisted spires there are. I guess the fist ones were accidents (like Chesterfield), but they do look very nice, so they were copied. I like them too. Paula

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