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Learn, Laugh, Live

Todmorden

April 2024 meeting: Medieval Churches of West Yorkshire

This month's guest speaker Dave Weldrake.

He began by describing how Christianity was introduced by the Romans around the year AD312, when the Roman emperor Constantine had made Christianity the main religion of Rome. This is evidenced by the discovery of Christian mosaics in Roman Villas in Britain around this time. Dave said that whether or not Christianity had been accepted or practiced by the British people under the Romans’ occupation was another matter, and the rural population of Britain might not have accepted this religion for some time.

An indication of when certain towns or districts in West Yorkshire might have taken up Christianity was if part of the town’s name included the word ‘Eccles’, examples being Eccleshill, Ecclesfield and even Exley – an area of Halifax. The names come from the term ‘Ecclesiastical’, which we know as being connected with churches and our country’s main religion. There is a belief that early Christian churches were built and established in these, and other places countrywide, but Dave said there is no actual physical evidence to confirm this.

He then spoke about the Anglo Saxon population of Britain prior to Christianity. Some traces of churches used by these people still exist. An example is in the village of Bardsey, near Leeds, where the church has evidence of both Anglo Saxon and Roman construction. He said that this is probably what would have happened throughout the country, as churches were adapted and extended over time. Other churches in West Yorkshire which probably were ‘built over’ are in Castleford, Ilkley and Ledsham, which all have masonry connected with Roman buildings. Dave showed a slide of a Roman altar stone at the church in Ledsham, which had an image of a sacrificial knife carved into it.

We heard that the Saxons had no form of stone building technology and, on another slide, we saw the remains of one of their churches in Pontefract. Dave mentioned that he had taken part in archaeological excavations some years ago, which revealed the remains of sixty to seventy skeletons in the vicinity of the church. Although the ‘footprint’ of the church is quite small, Dave said that the excavations, and number of skeletons found in the area; and into Pontefract Castle, showed that the church was quite important and significant. He showed a slide of an Anglo Saxon church at Escomb, County Durham which would have been a similar size as the one at Pontefract. It had very small windows, and not much room inside, suggesting that services may well have been conducted in the open.

Dave mentioned the carvings found in churches in West Yorkshire, in particular that they would have been moved from one church to another over the years, and would have been painted. Some churches, for example one in Dewsbury, would be a ‘mother’ church or minster, guiding and supporting other smaller churches in the district.

Next, we heard about churches from after the Norman conquests. Dave said that the churches were still quite small, but were more in proportion in height to length than Anglo Saxon ones. He added that accurately dating small churches, both Anglo Saxon and Norman, was quite difficult as they had many similar features.

We saw a slide of a Norman church at Adel, Leeds – one of Dave’s favourites. The chancel arch dates from 1160 to 1170, its carvings show the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, a centaur with bow, and horseman with lance.  He reminded us that the exterior stonework of this, and other churches has been damaged – particularly in the past couple of centuries – by acid rain.

Dave spoke about somewhere much nearer to us: The Parish Church of Heptonstall, St Thomas the Apostle. This replaced the original church, built between 1256 and 1260. It had two naves, two aisles and two chantry chapels as well as a tower. Following a storm in 1847 the west face of the tower fell away. Dave said that in the days when the original church still stood, it may have been extended and improved by benefactors who thought that their efforts and contributions to the costs might enable them, in the afterlife, to escape quickly from purgatory and clear the way to heaven – and that such beliefs still exist today. He added that the first church may well have been quite small to begin with, but towers and other additions were added on over the years. He mentioned that the actual population of Heptonstall didn’t increase while these additions took place.

We heard more about a church Dave had already mentioned, Thornhill Parish Church in Dewsbury. This church is first mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086, but the fragments of Anglo-Saxon memorials – crosses and a grave slab -indicate that there has been a church there since at least the 9th century. Fragments of stones carved in the Norman and Early Styles mark rebuilding or extensions in the 12th and 13th centuries. The oldest surviving parts of the church are the 15th century tower, chancel and chancel chapels. Dave pointed out the spikes and battlements which began to appear in the 15th century, on both sides of the Pennines, with a slide showing Almondbury All Hallows Church, near Huddersfield. This church again has stone fragments which indicate it being a place of worship for five to six hundred years earlier.

Both churches now have bell towers, and Dave spoke about when church bells began to be used, and the effect on the people who heard them for the first time. It would probably have been the loudest things they had ever heard – unlike these days when there is usually some kind of noise, such as traffic.

Dave introduced another of his favourite churches nearer to us – Halifax Parish Church or, as it is now known, Halifax Minster. The church stands on a sloping site and has large windows, making the interior much better lit than many other churches when it was built in the 15th Century, as a private charity church. He showed slides of the gargoyles on the outside of the building, along with what looks like a man playing bagpipes.

Next stop was Wakefield Cathedral, where Dave showed us the Rood Screen inside the building, which separates the choir from where the congregation sit. He mentioned that some of the ceremonies and rituals of churches over the years and centuries were hidden, or difficult to be seen by the people who attended services. As well as this, the priest would be speaking in Latin for some, or most of, the services they delivered.

Leaving West Yorkshire for a moment, we were shown the paintings on the walls of Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Church in Pickering, North Yorkshire, which reminded us that the interiors of many churches in our area have similar images and artefacts for us to see.

Dave’s presentation introduced many interesting facts, as well as letting us know about the numerous churches and sites that can be visited relatively easily, by either car or public transport. After Dave answered questions, a vote of thanks was given for an enjoyable afternoon.