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A Brief History of Our Church

History Of Our Church

Cecily Spall, Senior Archaeologist, FAS Heritage

There has been a church in Wilberfoss since at least the 1150s, when the Church of St John the Baptist was granted to the foundation of a priory. Nothing of this early church survives above ground, but a late 12th-century grave cover probably adorned a burial inside, and now serves as the church threshold stone. Today, the earliest church fabric dates to the late 14th to 15th century when the nave and chancel were built. The nave was used by parishioners and the chancel as a nuns’ quire, the two separated by a timber screen. The chancel south window and part of the old priest’s doorway are the earliest surviving features.

In 1445, the south aisle was endowed and built as a chantry chapel by Robert de Hoton of Newton on Derwent. Both Robert and his wife, Joan, died shortly after and their memorial slab and brass lie in the aisle, where they were probably laid to rest. This Lady Chapel would have been used for private masses led by the parish priest. The ‘piscina’ – stone basin set in the wall – was used to wash the vessels after mass. The church door is also probably of the 1440s.

In 1461, Thomas Nicksone died and left monies in his will for the building of the church tower. Nicksone requested to be buried near Robert de Hoton, and a memorial slab of Egglestone marble now missing its brass, which also lies in the south aisle, probably marked his grave. The tower was built by a team of skilled mason’s, many of whom left their mark on the stones.

Following the suppression of the priory in 1539, the church was given over to the parish, served by a vicar or curate paid from a variety of small landholdings. The interior was stripped of decoration. During the 16th and 17th centuries, several recusants were recorded in the parish, in 1571, Roger Wilberfoss and Edward Harling appear to have kept the timber of the rood loft and stones of the church cross.

Wilberfoss Church Floor Plan

History of Church (Phase plan of the church)

The church was repaired during the late 17th century following an assessment which named many individuals who contributed, including several of the Wilberfoss family. The church bells were rehung in 1629 and payments made for recasting in 1753 and 1791; there are three surviving bells from 1667, 1759 and 1790.

In the 18th to 19th centuries the church was painted white inside and had a gallery, perhaps set to the rear of the nave. The chancel interior and roof were heavily restored in the mid-19th century.

Reconstructed plan of priory and cloisters

History of Priory (Reconstructed plan of priory and cloisters)

No charter of foundation survives for the Benedictine Priory of St Mary the Virgin. A charter issued by Henry II in 1175, confirms that in c.1150, Jordan son of Gilbert, gave the Church of St John the Baptist, it’s chapel at Newton on Derwent and seven bovates of land to found the priory. A much later charter issued by George, Duke of Clarence in 1464, confirms that Alan de Catton, son of Elias, also granted his hall with a croft in Wilberfoss, and all the land he held lying towards the river Derwent to the priory. It is likely that together both grants founded the priory, the church was developed with cloisters and the land formed the estate.

Further gifts of land were made including at Meltonby, given by Robert the son of Ernisius de Melthaneby; at Yapham by Simon Archer and Robert de Neuby and John the son of Ivo; at Youlthorpe by Matilda, daughter of Alan de Catton. The nuns also held a meadow in Cave, land with tofts and crofts in Easthorpe, land in Newton- and Sutton-on-Derwent, and tenements in Seamer near Scarborough. Matilda de Catton, also gave a mill to the priory, which was perhaps located in the field to the north of the church.

The names of some Prioresses and nuns are recorded in documents. During the 1230s, a Christiana was named as Prioress, followed by Letitia in 1240 and Isabella in 1276. Emma de Wallcrimgham was elected Prioress in 1298 and resigned in August 1310. The following election recorded 19 nuns including their roles. Alicia Vghtred was named as ‘sacrista’ or sexton; Isolda Cayvill was the ‘cantrix’ or choir leader; Margareta Chauncy was the ‘celeraria’ responsible for food supplies and preparation and Margareta de Brampton was her deputy.

The priory was dissolved on the 20th August 1539. A detailed survey from that year describes the priory, allowing the plan to be reconstructed. The nun’s quire was fitted with 16 stalls and a gilt altar. The north wall of the nave was originally built ‘blind’ – without windows – forming the south side of the cloisters. A chapterhouse, dormitories, kitchen, brewhouse, hall, chambers and stores are among the buildings listed. The buildings were timber, taken down soon after, leaving little trace of the nunnery.

The Churchyard and Burial Ground

It is quite true to state that all churchyards attached to ancient churches are a wonderful repository of the history of the area. Those who in the past were able to erect a memorial of their loved ones have left a footprint, a little bit of history, and a memory of the people who have gone before us.

That churchyards are history is only one facet of their value to the community; because of their nature, churchyards are able to protect and to nurture a huge variety of plants, of flowers, and an equally good home for animals and insects. We try and encourage wildlife at Wilberfoss by leaving a fairly large part of our land free to grow with a minimum of management. Most of the rest is closely mown, yet even those areas have free-growing grass and flora growing close to the memorial stones.

The churchyard is bounded on the South by a fine row of horse Chestnut trees, and other smaller trees are present. All this provides shelter and cover for a variety of insects, invertebrates, small rodents, together with the larger residents which feed off them. The finest collection of wildflowers are within the far Eastern boundary with among others; Knapweed, Ladies bedstraw, vetches, and clovers. During the springtime, we have a wonderful show of wild daffodils; quite near to the roadside, on the Southside of the church.

Churchyard And Burial Ground Of Wilberfoss Church

There is also interest in the grave stones, with memorials to several established families, among them the Blakes, The Etheringtons, the Gillahs, the Hessels and the Haytons, the Hugills, and the Kettlewoods; among them an 18-year-old Flt. Cadet Arthur Kettlewood, R A F who lost his life in 1918, during his Pilot training. We have several members of the Smith family in the churchyard, also Walkers and Shepherdsons. Together with many other well-established families.

A couple of the many with a slightly mysterious but very interesting tale to tell are two graves, set together, both containing wives of a Captain Leef. One was Ann, who died in 1800; the other Hannah, whose death occurred in 1812. These ladies were both the wives of Captain Thomas Leef of the Royal navy. Among many exploits, Capt. Leef commanded a raid upon the port of Dunkirk, during the Napoleonic war. He attempted to ram his fire ship into the assembled French fleet. Although the Fire ship failed to connect, the raiding party did make off with a valuable French vessel.

It is always sad to see the memorials of children, and one quite extraordinary stone is just on the left as you enter through the gate. It is in memory David William Walker, who was killed by lightning, aged 13 in 1879, as he taught a class of infants at the school. Many of the older stones are in remarkable condition; some of the 18c monuments have clear carving and almost no erosion.

The churchyard of St John the Baptist also has a monastic past. A priory was founded in the 12c and thrived for many years. Part of the footprint of the old priory building coincided with the present church building, but much of the construction would have been non-permanent, with little or nothing left for posterity

Any spare stone would also have been gratefully added to the church as it developed over the years. The priory became very poor in its latter years, although it survived longer than most during the dissolution because Thomas Cromwell’s granddaughter (Jane Seymour’s daughter) attended the priory school. Even at a priory there could be found bits of scandal over the years, manufactured or real and the last but one Prioress, Margaret Easingwold, is said to have found herself in love with a member of one the important Pocklington families. Legend has it that Margaret, buried at Wilberfoss, and her swain at anything but rest in Pocklington, caused all sorts of ghostly shenanigans until they were allowed to be at rest together in Pocklington.

There is so much of interest in this piece of land. Churchyards have been called ‘God’s Acre’, a really lovely description. It is available to everybody with an interest in it, and people do treat the churchyard with respect. There is a great deal of mystery revealed by the memorials; there is also much that is unknown that forever will remain hidden. We are better now at keeping records of burials so that even if there is no memorial we now can identify the space where a grave is situated.

The churchyard is a special place; for many a place of memories, it is also a wonderful space for people to have an opportunity to just wander around and enjoy the spaces and the memorials.

Meet the Ancestors

If you are keen to search for your ancestors you may be interested to visit the Explore York website.

A new project for the future is to include information on who is buried in our Church and Churchyard.

War Graves At Wilberfoss Church

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