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History of the Church

This page by John Le Patourel (1981) from his Guide to the Church

A PARISH CHURCH is more than a building. It is also an institution, a religious society led by its priest or minister. This society was early put on a territorial basis as a parish, and gathered up into the organization of Christendom, as it slowly developed in rural deaneries, archdeaconries, dioceses and provinces. After the Reformation, and to some extent before it, the State made use of this organization for its own purposes, and as the parish became a unit of local government, the church served, more than ever before, as a meeting place, and the vestry as an office, and so remained well into the twentieth century. If many of these functions of government have now passed to various local authorities, the parish church often retains some marks of this part of its history, though in the case of Ilkley much of this disappeared about a hundred years ago when new ideas of the functions of a church building were gaining ground. Such monuments as have been preserved are witness to local men and women who have taken a leading part in local affairs, and the parish registers, where they have survived more or less complete, provide a continuous record of parishioners of high and low estate. But even where an ancient church is wholly rebuilt, as happened at Leeds or Doncaster, much of the evidence for its history may be destroyed but its continuity as an institution is in no way interrupted.

This institutional side of its history is particularly interesting in the case of Ilkley Parish Church, for here it is quite well docu­mented in medieval and later times, and there are reasons for thinking that it goes back a very long way indeed. The survival of the crosses may be taken to prove the existence of a church in Ilkley already in the eighth century; evidence of a circumstantial kind may, take it back further still.

Christianity was first brought to the northern Anglo-Saxons by an off-shoot of the Roman mission to Kent led by St. Paulinus. It was he who baptised King Edwin of Northumbria at York in 627. In the five years following he and his assistants preached up and down the country, but mostly in places that had been Roman towns, York, Lincoln, Catterick, for example; for early Christianity, apart from the Celtic west, was an urban religion. In their journey­ings from one place to another, they, and St. Aidan with his fellows of the Scottish Church who followed them, must have used the Roman roads, which, even if they were falling into decay, must still have provided the best means of travel. Now, two Roman roads intersect at the Roman fort at Ilkley, and they intersect at what had long been an important river crossing. One road ran from Man­chester towards Aldborough, the other, coming from York and Tadcaster, forked a little to the west of Ilkley, sending one branch in the direction of Lancaster, the other to Ribchester. It would be remarkable indeed if the earlier missionaries never passed this way, though it must be emphasised that there is no positive evidence that they did so.

What would they have found at Ilkley? The Roman garrison had moved out of the fort for the last time more than two centuries earlier; and it is likely that when this happened people living in the village that had grown up outside moved into the superior quarters now vacated, and a British village was established in the Roman fort itself. There is good reason to think that this village continued to exist through the Dark Ages. Not only was the church, when it came to be built, sited within the ramparts, but, from the most recent work on the subject, we may once more reasonably think that the name *Ilkley' is derived, in part at least, from the Roman `Olicana'. The excavations that were carried out on the Roman fort in 1919-21 showed that medieval buildings had existed on the site, but no archaeological evidence was then found, or in the later excavations of 1962, to suggest continuous habitation from Roman times. A great opportunity awaits future excavators here. The survival of the British kingdom of Elmet until King Edwin's time, however, suggests that Anglo-Saxon settlement in this part of Wharfedale did not take place until well into the seventh century, when the settlers themselves were Christian, or partly so; and the account of the consecration of St. Wilfred's church at Ripon (671-8) indicates that Christian Britons were still living hereabouts, or had been until very recently. One may reasonably suppose, therefore, that a passing missionary would have found British people living inside-the old Roman fort, most likely in patched-up Roman buildings, with perhaps an Anglo-Saxon landlord and a few Anglo-Saxon farmers in the valley. He may conceivably have found, also, that there was already a church here, deserted (as St. Wilfred's biographer tells us happened in this district) by British clergy fleeing from the advancing Anglo-Saxons; or he may have founded a church here himself, using the Roman materials that lay to hand for the building, including the Roman altars we still have. The evidence does not provide any certainty in these matters, but, such as it is, it seems to suggest quite strongly that Ilkley church was founded in the missionary age.

No record has survived to tell us how this Christian community fared during the next three or four centuries. The sculptured crosses are evidence of a church here in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the fragments in the Museum span the gap from then until the Norman Conquest fairly well. There is no reason to suppose that the life of the church was interrupted in Ilkley seriously, if at all, by the Danish invasions. Middle Wharfedale seems to have been spared their ravages during their pagan period—Archbishop Wulfhere of York thought it safe enough, in 870, to take refuge in Addingham, the next village upstream. The likelihood is that the church in Ilkley has been inexistence continuously from the seventh century at least.

At some date between the time when the earliest crosses were put up and the Norman Conquest, Ilkley was absorbed into the system of country parishes then growing up in England, and was coming to be served generally by one priest rather than the group of priests that had been more usual in missionary days. At the same time the lord of the village came to concern himself with the church and acquired a large interest in it and its revenue. Normally he would appoint the priest. All this may be deduced from evidence elsewhere and from the facts that Domesday Book records the existence of a ,church and a priest' in, Ilkley, that the last Anglo-Saxon lord, who was called Gamel, was succeeded by William de Percy, the first of the Norman lords of the manor, and that the Percies continued to hold an interest in the church for some three hundred years after this. We do not know when the church was first dedicated to All Saints (the commonest dedication in Yorkshire), but it was so by the beginning of the fourteenth century. An 'altar of St. Mary of "Ylleclay" is mentioned in a deed of the early thirteenth century. This may represent an earlier dedication of the church, or simply a subsidiary altar in it.

After the Norman Conquest there is little to differentiate Ilkley from other country parishes in this part of England. The parish, when it can be defined, bestrode the River Wharfe and included the townships of Ilkley, Middleton, Stubham and Nesfield. At some date, probably in the twelfth century, the Percies transferred part of their interest in Ilkley church to the Kymes, for in all cases of which we have record before 1378 it was a Philip or a William de Kyme who presented a priest to the archbishop for institution. The earliest Ilkley priest whose name we know was a Richard, and he was preceded by one whose initial was B. Both were here early in the reign of King Henry II. The list of incumbents is fragmentary until the middle of the thirteenth century. In 1378, however, the church was given to Hexham Priory by Henry de Percy, earl of Northumberland, and Gilbert de Umfraville, earl of Angus (who had inherited the Kyme interest in Ilkley), and a vicarage was instituted. This meant that the Prior and Convent of Hexham, after the death of the priest who was rector of Ilkley at that time, became both patron and rector, though they were bound to make competent provision for their vicars. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, therefore, the parson of Ilkley was called a vicar, and that has remained his title to the present day.

When Hexham Priory was dissolved, with the other monasteries, the Crown took the rectory of Ilkley. It was sold in 1553 to Thomas Reve and George Cotton, speculators no doubt, from whom, presumably, it was bought by Christopher Maude of Hollinghall in 1554. He and his descendants held it for more than a hundred years. Subsequently rectory and patronage were separated. At the time of the reconstruction of the church in 1860-1 William Middleton acknowledged his obligation to maintain the chancel, an obligation that falls upon the rector, and contributed to the cost of its re­building. The descent of the advowson is given below with the list of incumbents.

From the seventh century, we must suppose, Ilkley was under the jurisdiction of the bishops of York, archbishops from 735. No doubt it would have been included in the Anglian diocese of Ripon, founded late in the seventh century, if that had not proved ephem­eral. Little is known of the organization of the diocese of York until the twelfth century, when the archdeaconries and rural deaneries began to take shape. When that happened, Ilkley found iself in the deanery of Craven, which formed part of the arch-deaconry of York. In many parts of the county the ecclesiastical deaneries coincided with the secular wapentakes. In this case, however, though the deanery of Craven corresponds in a general way to the wapentake of Staincliff, that part of Ilkley parish which lay to the south of the River Wharfe was in the wapentake of Skyrack, the remainder in the wapentake of Claro.

In 1836 the deanery of Craven was taken from York diocese to form part of the diocese of Ripon, then revived after some eleven hundred and fifty years. Ilkley remained in this diocese only until 1920, when the parish was transferred, with the rest of the ancient deanery of Craven, to the newly-created diocese of Bradford.

The chief development, so far as we know, in the organization of the parish church and its work during the later Middle Ages was the establishment of the chantry of St. Nicholas. This chantry was founded, apparently in 1474, by William Middleton, with an endowment of £4. 7s. per annum from the revenue of the manor of Ilkley. His son, Nicholas Middleton, when he held the manor (c.1500), assigned the rents of certain lands on it to make up this sum. At the time of the dissolution of the chantry, in 1551, these lands were described as 'Bakeston Beck, Leeds Hedes, Longlandes, le Cowlease, le Cowclose, Bowdyn Rayne, Cowclose, Holme Ynges, Gylclose, Stones, Hugh Crofte, le Byndeholme, Gayres Header, Dykeclose and Estclose', and they were then in the hands of six tenants. One of the objects of the foundation was to provide an assistant to the vicar, 'for so much as the same parish is of great circuit and a river called Wharfe passing and running through the midst of the said parish so that when the floods is up the curate being of visitation in the one part of his parish, cannot come to the church by the space of two days'. The Wharfe is an unruly river-, and perhaps there was something in this plea, for it had been used when Robert Plumpton wished to found an oratory in his manor-house at Nesfield in 1366.

We know the names of the first chantry priest, Robert Calverley, and of the last, William Mason. It is also possible that Robert Warde, described as 'capellanus' in the record of the court of Ilkley Manor in 1522, was serving the chantry. The altar seems to have been at the east end of the south aisle of the church, as it then was, in the position marked by a modern piscina. The ancient piscina in the chancel is said to have been brought from this position. If this is so, it is probably the only physical survival of the chantry. This was dissolved, along with the other chantries, under the act of 1547, and its revenues, instead of being used to promote education in Ilkley, were granted by the king to Sedbergh School. A school­master, however, is recorded in Ilkley not long after, in 1575, and the earliest endowments of the grammar school that came into being early in the seventeenth century were intended, originally, simply to provide him with a regular salary. It is not impossible, though there is at present no specific evidence for it, that the chantry priests had previously acted as schoolmasters in the village, and that the chantry of St. Nicholas is the ultimate origin of Ilkley Grammar School. The old school building, which still survives, was erected in 1636-7; the present building on Cowpasture Road, stands appropriately on the ancient chantry lands.

Further research might make it possible to say more about the history of the parish during the Middle Ages, but it is doubtful if this would ever amount to very much. From the end of the sixteenth century, however, the survival of the registers and the churchwarden's books make something like a history of the parish and of church life here possible, though a good deal of work would have to be done upon them before such a history could be written. On a casual reading, one may be struck by the arrangements that still had to be made, in the seventeenth century, to deal with those occasions when one part of the parish was cut off from the other by floods, by the problems of poor relief and by the difficulties attributable to the fact that the lords of the manor had preserved their Roman Catholic faith. There are the usual records of burial in wool, of payments for dinners, bell-ringing and minor repairs to the church fabric, and for a wild cat's head in 1691; contributions to those who came collecting, armed with 'briefs', for the relief of distress caused by disasters of all kinds in all parts of the country. Local attachment to ancient ways is shown in the trouble which the changes in the calendar, made in 1752, gave to the compilers of the register, and the efforts which were still necessary, well into the nineteenth century, to persuade the relatives of a deceased person to permit burial on the north side of the churchyard. Such tit-bits, however, do not make the history that could be written, and which has not been attempted in this booklet.

The very rapid growth of Ilkley in the second half of the nineteenth century made even the enlarged parish church too small for its needs. In 1874 the first, temporary, St. Margaret's church was opened; the present building by Norman Shaw, was begun in 1878 and consecrated in the next year. Finally, St. John's, Ben Rhydding, was erected between 1904 and 1910. The ancient parish has been divided accordingly.