YORKSHIRE JUNE 2022.
SHERBURN IN ELMET, LEAD CHAPEL & SAXTON
It was a gloriously sunny Saturday in June 2022, and a rare trip up to Yorkshire. The main focal point of the visit was Selby Abbey, but a few e mails prior to setting out, indicated that there should be plenty of churches open in that general area. An early start from Peterborough saw us arrive at first point of call, Sherburn In Elmet at 9am.
Sherburn is a large, busy village to the west of Selby and south of Tadcaster; with a population of around 6,500. Leeds is 15 miles or so off to the west and York is not a million miles away to the north east and apparently the minster can be seen off in the distance from the church grounds here when conditions allow.
The word Elmet is of interest, referring to an independent Brittonic kingdom which existed between the 5th and 7th centuries, after the withdrawal of the Romans. This kingdom was either peacefully annexed by the Kingdom of Northumbria or taken by force in 616 or 617AD. The field next to the church once housed the palace of the Kings of Elmet, and this was later given to the Archbishop of York during the 10th century.
The battle of Towton, fought in 1461, took place three or four miles away. More of that later…
The church was due to be open that day, but there was an interment of ashes that morning. As it turned out, we arrived at the church about five minutes before the vicar, who was very pleasant and helpful. He opened up and we were warmly welcomed.
The church that we see today dates back to around 1120, but there was an earlier Saxon church on this site. It consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles, south chapel, south transept and chancel.
The nave and north aisle date back to the 12th century; with the chancel being built during the 13th century. The north aisle was extended and the south aisle was added during the 14th century. The south chapel and tower were added in the 15th century. An initial thought was that the chancel looked later, and it was, dating from 1857.
Moving inside, there is a real sense of age to the nave. There are four bay arcades to north and south with substantial pillars and intricately carved capitals and rounded arches.
With the chancel being a Victorian construction, there is more historic interest at the east end of the south aisle. There is an altar here, with two sections of a 15th century cross, each showing Christ crucified on the east and south walls. There used to be a chapel dedicated to St Mary in the church grounds here, of which nothing remains and these cross sections came from this chapel.
In among the stained glass in a three light Victorian depiction of Mary of Bethany washing Jesus feet with her hair; an angel appearing to the three Mary’s at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning and Jesus sitting with Mary and Martha.
The east window of the south aisle contains ten scenes detailing events from the Last Supper to the ascension. These include the reinstating of Peter, ‘doubting’ Thomas feeling Christ’s wounds and Jesus breaking break with the disciples he met on the road from Emmaus. As always, it was good to spend a little time studying these; a short private Bible study amid the structural history.
The chancel itself is spacious and the three single light windows each have stained glass of the same age as the rebuilding. There is also the almost obligatory bottle of hand sanitiser off against the south wall as well!
It was interesting to see a piece of wood which had the name John Cooke carpenter carved on to it with a date of 1616 carved in to it. A fascinating memento of a craftsman long since passed… what a beautiful and historic church. A great start to this Yorkshire crawl.
We headed off to find the nearby chapel of St Mary, Lead and missed a turning, perhaps we were a little excited that Firestarter by Prodigy was playing on the radio. We stopped off at a memorial to the battle of Towton, which was fought nearby to get our bearings. We were not too far away, less than a mile, but we stopped and spent a little time looking at the battle site!
Towton has the unwanted distinction as being the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. The battle was fought in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday, March 29th 1461. It is estimated that roughly 50,000 soldiers took part, with estimates on the numbers of deaths varying greatly. It is thought though that around 28,000 died, though that figure may be inflated.
This was a battle in the Wars of the Roses and the Yorkist’s achieved a decisive victory over the Lancastrians as Edward IV deposed Henry VI to secure the English throne.
Local legend states that Edward IV used the church tower at Sherburn as a vantage point to view the battle lines but this is largely disputed due to the distance involved!
We arrived at Lead chapel; a delightful single cell structure, set back from the main road, delightfully isolated across a field. I went to take a look at the information board while Gary headed for the nearby pub, looking for a board of his own; this one detailing the lunch menu!
The chapel of St Mary is all that remains of the small medieval village of Lead. The chapel itself dates back to the 12th century, but there is evidence that a much older structure was here previously. Certainly, there is a wealth of history here with the village mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086.
There were various periods of restoration here but the church had fallen in to disrepair by the 1930’s. It is known as the ‘Ramblers Church’ as it was saved from neglect by a group of ramblers during that period. The chapel was repaired and St Mary has been looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust since 1980.
As mentioned earlier, this is a single cell structure, which has obviously had a hard life, with much rebuilding evident. A bell turret can be seen at the west end and the south door has a rounded arch. At one point this structure would have been larger, with the chancel extending out seven metres beyond where the east wall presently is. It is also suggested that there would have been stained glass here.
The church was open to visitors; moving inside, the interior is a delight. The altar is of stone and incorporates a medieval stone coffin lid. Five medieval coffin lids line up in front of the altar, facing east. The pulpit stands at the north east corner of the chancel. There are no services here anymore, but the pews are still there and I would be surprised if more than 20 people could have been seated.
A sign up on the east wall reads ‘Godliness is gaine if a man be content with yt he hath. For we brought nothing in to y world and nor may we carry anye thing out’, which is taken from I Timothy.
The inside of the south door marks several periods of restoration, and those associated with these. Interestingly, there is also a memento mori warning which reads ‘O mortal whoe er thou art thou must shurely die and stand before God in judgement art thou ready’.
This is a glorious little structure. It reminded me of Houghton On The Hill in Norfolk. A church that exists today which probably shouldn’t. One that has survived against the odds due to the efforts of a team of people who refused to let it decay to ruin. Solitary, unconsecrated but loved and visited!
Going back briefly to the battle of Towton; after the battle itself the Lancastrians were routed,; losing more as they fled the battle site than they did in the battle itself. Close to the chapel at Lead is a stream called Cock Beck. Many Lancastrians were killed in this stream, attempting to flee, unable to cross as the stream which was flooded with melted snow. This gave rise to the legend that for days, Cock Beck ran red with the blood of the dead.
The third church looked at on this first page of my Yorkshire churchcrawl is Saxton, and the church of All Saints; which maintains the connection with the battle of Towton.
Saxton is a small pleasant village of around 250 people, a short distance to the west of Lead and less than a mile south of the battle site. The church of All Saints is located in the centre of the village, with some delightful stone cottages close by.
Accounts state that some of the dead from the battle were buried in the church grounds here, including Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gillesand who, reports state, was killed by an archer in a tree. He was allegedly buried in the church grounds here, upright and sitting on his horse. But not allegedly, as the Victorians are said to have excavated and found skeleton of horse and rider!
The church here was open, as were the majority in this friendly and welcoming area. The church of All Saints consists of west tower, nave with south chapel, south porch and chancel. The church here dates back to the 11th century; the two bay south chapel dates to the 14th century and the west tower dates to the early 15th century, with what we see of the tower today covering over an earlier 12th century tower.
Looking at the exterior, the tower is buttressed, pinnacled and battlemented with a church clock facing out from the west. The south chapel is large and impressive; buttressed and with two light windows to the south and east walls.
Moving inside, there is a real sense of space here. This is a large church! The south chapel is of two bays; the chancel arch consists of a rounded arch with the tower arch appearing to date from later with its pointed arch. To be fair, there is little in the south chapel now, bit given its size, this would have been an impressive place of worship in its day.
The east window in the chancel contains Victorian glass, with Christ in majesty at the top, robed and crowned, sitting over nine scenes which detail some of the events of Holy Week. These are the triumphal entry; the Last Supper; Jesus washing an unwilling Peter’s feet; Jesus accepts the cup that He must drink from at Gethsemane; Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss; Jesus stands trial; Jesus carries His own cross; the crucifixion and the resurrection ‘He is risen’. I like this ensemble very much.
Elsewhere, a two light window details a small part of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy’.
A bier, used to transport coffins to the graveside stands in the south aisle. Wall monuments include a deaths head; a depiction of a human skull used to symbolise the mortality of Man to the onlooker and an angel who is carrying off the souls of what appears to be a mother and child to Heaven; a poignant reminder of when days were so hard for so many, including those of wealth.
I enjoyed looking around these three churches very much. There is a great deal of historic interest here; made more so with the events that happened locally in 1461. What stories these stones could tell!
I have taken a few liberties with timings here as these three churches were broken up with a visit to Selby Abbey inbetween, which we needed to hit early as there was a wedding being held there during the early afternoon. Therefore, the next page will cover this visit to Selby.
After leaving Saxton though, we headed out in a long circuitous route to Tadcaster; finding an assortment of open and beautiful churches along the way.