Here in the Yorkshire Dales National Park we are lucky enough to have a long list of impressive and interesting buildings. One such building, a parish church that has been described as “unexpectedly grand and fully developed” and even “a mini cathedral”, is nestled in the village of Crosby Ravensworth. It is Grade I listed and (justifiably), attracts swathes of curious visitors each year. This is more than enough to warrant a closer look, so in this blog post aisle be discussing the in-spire-ing history of the Church of St Lawrence.
This fascinating building is a great example of how most churches went through a series of changes throughout time. The way they look today is often vastly different to the way they looked when they were first built. While at first glance it may be difficult to tell, it is worth looking closer to try and identify the different phases of construction of any church you come a-cross. These phases were guided not only by the changing needs of their occupants, but also by the individual tastes of architects, clergy members and donors, and by the changing fashions of the day.
A short history
The first mention of the church comes from the early 12th century, when it (along with a parcel of land) was granted in “frankalmoign” to the Abbot and Convent of Whitby by Thorphin de Alverstain. Frankalmoign was an exchange whereby the church was given land to hold (usually in perpetuity) in exchange for the salvation of the souls of the giver and his or her family.
At this point the church may not have been constructed of stone, as the earliest fabric of the building (the crossing) dates to around 1200. It is believed that the rebuilding of the church in stone began around 1150, although it was probably not finished until 1217.
In 1207 the church (along with all other temporalities of Whitby Abbey) was seized by King John, sparking more than ten years of conflict. The Bishop of Carlisle at the time, Bernard, fought to safeguard the rights of the monks of St Lawrence, but the crown was having nun of it and they eventually capitulated. Fortunately Bernard’s successor, Hugh, was able to re-confirm the church to Whitby Abbey in 1219, and three years later Pope Honorius issued a Papal Bull (a public decree or charter by the pope) to the same effect.
One of the many interesting things abbot this church is that it is very large for the size of the village. It has been remodelled and restored several times over the years, most notably in 1809 by Sir Robert Smirke. Smirke had recently been employed to remodel the home of the Lowther family, who held the advowson (the right to recommend a candidate to ecclesiastical position). Smirke’s design was criticised for being both “too plain” and “a poor imitation” of his inspiration – Magdalen College, Oxford. As such, a series of further renovations were conducted by the Reverend George Weston from 1850.
One of the new features introduced by Canon Weston in his “re-refurbishment” was the placement of carved heads. These were somewhat un-convent-ional. Among others, they were made in the likeness of himself as a young man, his first wife, himself and his third wife, the mason Robert Parkin, and Queen Victoria.
Taking a closer look
Below are a few annotated images to help those who are unfamiliar with some of the common features of churches.
There are many fascinating features of the church, including the northeast chapel (the Threkeld Chapel), which dates to the end of the 15th century. This was a feature called a ‘chantry’ – a chapel dedicated to the memory of a person or family (in this case, the Threkeld family).
At this time it was common for wealthy patrons of a church to give a grant of money to pay for a priest to say prayers for themselves and their family, and, if they were rich enough, to pay for the creation of a chantry within the church. This was done in order to try and lessen the time their souls spent in purgatory.
One of the most visually intriguing features of the church, the south Priest’s doorway, was built by Smirke. This is supposedly in the same position as it was in the original Norman church. The text ‘Ecce sponsus venit’ translates to ‘Behold the bridegroom cometh’. Canon Weston left the porch in place during his own renovations.
Another remarkable feature on the site comes not from the building itself, but from the churchyard.
A medieval cross stump, a scheduled monument, stands almost 10ft tall above two flagstones. The shaft was damaged during Cromwellian times when the top was broken off and discarded. Despite this damage the shaft survives reasonably well and still retains architectural decoration distinctive of the Early English style (chamfered corners with widely spaced, individual dog-tooth decoration).
There are many more interesting features of St Lawrence church, but it is impossible to include them all here. If you would like to learn more information leaflets are available for a donation inside the church – but due to restrictions it may not currently be possible to go inside. Please check the North Westmorland Churches website for updates on services and opening times.
The history of churches and church building is fascinating and complicated. If you’d like to learn more, you may wish to watch Richard Taylor’s TV series “Churches and How to Read Them” for an easy introduction – Taylor is certainly a font of knowledge!
Historic England, ‘Church of St Lawrence’, (2020) <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1311870 [Sept 2020].
Historic England, ‘Crosby Ravensworth Churchyard Cross’, (2020) <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1007599>[Sept 2020].
Pevsner, Nikolaus, Buildings of England Series, (London, 1951-1974).
Relph, J. T., Information Leaflets, (Available from St Lawrence Church, Unknown,).
Rice, Matthew, Church Primer, (London, 2013).
Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Historic Environment Record