A parish church is more than a building. It’s also an institution, a religious society led by its priest or minister. After the Reformation in the sixteenth century (and to some extent before it), the State made use of this organisation for its own purposes. And as the parish became a unit of local government, more than ever the church became a meeting place, with the vestry as an office – a function that continued well into the twentieth century.

Many of these aspects of government have now passed to various local authorities. And while some parish churches retain some marks of their history, evidence at our own All Saints disappeared about a hundred years ago just as these new ideas of the functions of a church building were gaining ground.

Yet the institutional side of Ilkley Parish Church’s history is actually quite well documented in medieval and some later times, and there is evidence to suggest that it goes back quiet a long way. For example, the survival of the crosses could date the church here as far back as the eighth century, while other circumstantial evidence may take it back even further.

Christianity comes to the north

Christianity was first brought to the northern Anglo-Saxons by an off-shoot of the Roman mission to Kent led by St. Paulinus. In fact, it was he who baptised King Edwin of Northumbria at York in 627 AD. In the five years following, he and his assistants preached up and down the country, mostly in places that had been Roman towns, such as York and Lincoln, highlighting that early Christianity (apart from the Celtic west) was an urban religion.

By this point, the Roman roads were likely falling into ruin. Yet they must still have provided the best means of travel across the country. So it’s thought the missionaries would have used them on their journeys between towns. Given that Ilkley lies at the intersection of two of these roads with the Roman fort and an important river crossing, it’d be remarkable if none of the missionaries had ever passed this way.

The first Ilkley Parish Church

If these early Christians had ventured through Ilkley, what would they have found?

The last Roman garrison had moved out of the fort there some two hundred years earlier. But rather than lay empty, it’s likely people living in the adjacent settlements moved into the vacated quarters and established a British village in the Roman fort itself. There’s good reason to think that this village then continued to exist through the Dark Ages, mainly because the church was later built within the ramparts, but also because past research has indicated the name ‘Ilkley' is derived (in part at least) from the Roman ‘Olicana'.

Archaeological excavations in 1919-21 (and then in 1962) showed that medieval buildings had existed on the site, but no evidence has yet been found to demonstrate continuous habitation from Roman times.

However, the survival of the British kingdom of Elmet until King Edwin's time, 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 AD) indicates that Christians were still living in the vicinity, or had been until very recently.

It’s safe to assume that passing missionaries 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.

They may have also found that there was already a church here, deserted by British clergy fleeing from the advancing Anglo-Saxons. Alternatively, they may have founded a church here themselves, using the Roman materials that lay to hand in the construction process (including the Roman altars we still have). It’s hard to know for sure. But evidence does suggest quite strongly that Ilkley church was founded in the missionary age.

There is very little record of how the Christian community fared during the next three or four hundred years, but 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. So it is possible the church in Ilkley has been in existence continuously from the seventh century at least, and remained uninterrupted by the ravages of the Danish invasions over these years.

Changing hands over the years

Prior to the Norman Conquest, Ilkley was absorbed into the growing system of country parishes. It now became standard for one priest to serve the church, as opposed to a group of priests. These institutions also started to draw the attention of the lords of the villages, who sought to acquire a large interest in them and their revenue – and also appoint the priest.

In the case of All Saints Ilkley, the Domesday Book documents the existence of both a ‘church and a priest' here. It also details how the last Anglo-Saxon lord, Gamel, was succeeded by William de Percy (the first of the Norman lords of the manor) and that the Percys continued to hold an interest in the church for some three hundred years after this.

At some point in the twelfth century the Percys must have transferred part of their interest in Ilkley church to the Kymes. In all the records we have before 1378, it was Philip or William de Kyme who presented a priest to the archbishop for institution.

However, in 1378 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. The earliest known Ilkley priest was a Richard, early in the reign of King Henry II. Yet from the beginning of the fifteenth century, the parson of Ilkley was called a vicar and that has remained the title to the present day.

When Hexham Priory was dissolved, along with the other monasteries, the Crown took the rectory of Ilkley. It was sold in 1553 to Thomas Reve and George Cotton, and then afterwards bought by Christopher Maude of Hollinghall in 1554. He and his descendants held it for more than a hundred years, then the 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.

Control of All Saints and organisation of the parish church

From the seventh century, it’s likely that Ilkley was under the jurisdiction of the bishops of York (archbishops from 735 AD).

Little is known of the organisation of the diocese of York until the twelfth century, when the archdeaconries and rural deaneries began to take shape. When that happened, Ilkley found itself 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’ (an administrative county division). However, in this case, although the deanery of Craven generally corresponds to the wapentake of Staincliff, that particular part of Ilkley parish to the south of the River Wharfe was in the wapentake of Skyrack – and 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 eleven hundred and fifty years. Ilkley remained only in this diocese until 1920, when the parish was transferred, with the rest of the ancient deanery of Craven, to the newly-created diocese of Bradford.

The main development in the organisation 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 objectives of the foundation was to provide an assistant to the vicar.

The priests and the dissolving of the chantry

The earliest known Ilkley priest was a Richard, preceded by one whose initial was B. Both were here early in the reign of King Henry II. Later, 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, 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 correct, it is probably the only physical survival of the chantry. This was dissolved, along with the other chantries, under the act of 1547.

Instead of its revenues being used to promote education in Ilkley, they were granted by the king to Sedbergh School. A schoolmaster, however, is recorded in Ilkley in 1575, and the earliest endowments of the grammar school that came into being in the early seventeenth century were originally intended to provide him with a regular salary.

Although there is no specific evidence to confirm it, it’s possible 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 and the present building on Cowpasture Road, stands on the ancient chantry lands.

Life in the parish

From the end of the sixteenth century, the registers and the churchwarden's books tell us something of parish and church life.

It’s fascinating to read about things like the arrangements that had to be made in the seventeenth century to deal with parts of the parish being cut off by floods, the problems of poor relief, and by some of the difficulties that came with the lords of the manor preserving their Roman Catholic faith.

There are also 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. This is in addition to notes of 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 – not to mention the efforts to persuade the relatives of a deceased person to permit burial on the north side of the churchyard.

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 then begun in 1878 and consecrated the following year. Finally, St. John's, Ben Rhydding, was erected between 1904 and 1910. The ancient parish had been divided accordingly.

Source: Information from John Le Patourel’s Guide to the Church, 1981.