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Church of England Middleham & Coverdale, East Witton & Thornton Steward
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The Parish of Middleham with Coverdale, East Witton & Thornton Steward

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Our Churches - Middleham

History of the Church

St. Alkelda

St Alkelda - History of the Church

According to legend Alkelda was a Christian Saxon princess who was murdered by two Danish women in 800AD, a time when the Danes were ravaging Northumbria and destroying its holy places. The presence of Saxon crosses and grave covers in the neighbouring area suggests that Christianity was established here, but there is no direct evidence of any Christian building in Middleham. Near to the present church lays St. Alkelda’s Well, a spring which may have been a focal point for pre-Christian religious rites and where early Christians may have gathered to worship. The old English words ‘hal keld’ mean holy well, so the name Alkelda could have originated from this. However, by tradition St. Alkelda’s bones were buried under the South East part of the present church, and certainly human remains thought to be Saxon were found there during the nineteenth century church restoration. These were reburied where they were found near the most easterly pillar on the South side of the nave.

The Norman Conquest

The Danes parcelled out he land which they took from the Saxons, and at the time of the Norman Conquest Middleham and Spennithorne were held as one manor by the Dane Gilpatric. Under the Normans they formed part of the lands given by William I to his nephew Alan Rufus, first Earl of Richmond, and then passed to his brother Ribald. The Domesday Book mentions a church at Spennithorne but none at Middleham, so presumably none existed here in 1086.

Middleham Castle

Middleham Castle and the Early Church

Ribald’s grandson began to build the first stone castle at Middleham about 1170. It was usual for a church to be built near a castle, but the only piece of Norman stonework to be found in the present church is a fragment of chevron masonry in the exterior of the north wall, which has been presumed to be part of a window of an earlier church.

The earliest church plan known dates from 1280 and shows a nave, narrow aisles and a chancel. Also, in 1281 there is a reference to Mary of Middleham, the heiress to the castle, as patron of the church, and ten years later Middleham church is mentioned in a taxation document issued on the authority of the Pope – ‘ecclesia in Middleham’ – which suggests that the endowments were then sufficient to pay the demand made. A further document of 1310 says that the church was endowed with ‘ample glebe’.

Middleham and the Nevilles

In the mid-fourteenth century the Lord of Middleham was John Neville, also Lord or raby, a man renowned for building. In 1340 the church was enlarged by moving the South walls of the nave and chancel outwards and we still see much of the building work carried out at this time. The great days of Middleham under the Nevilles then began and in 1388 Richard II granted Middleham the right to hold a fair every year on the Feast of St. Alkelda, which was originally on October 25th but later changed to November 5th. The fair was one of the largest in the area and lasted for three days. There is also growing reference to the church in tax documents dated 1365 (Edward III) and 1389 (Richard II) and in grants of land.

When Joane, daughter of John of Gaunt and widow of Ralph de Neville, died in 1441 reference was made to the advowson of the church, which went together with the Lordship of the manor and the castle.

The next important step in the life of the church was in 1470 when Edward IV granted a licence to John Cartmell, a former Rector, to found a Chantry of Our Lady in the church to pray for the soul of the founder and all Christian souls. It was founded and endowed a few months later, forming the Eastern portion of the South aisle and extending more than half the depth of the choir.

Prior to this event the King’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, had spent some years in the 1460s in the household of his cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the greatest magnate in England – known as the Kingmaker – and Lord of Middleham, whose castle was his administrative headquarters in the North. After Warwick’s rebellion against Edward IV and his defeat at Barnet in 1471 his daughter Anne Neville became the wife of Richard of Gloucester, who by permission of the King inherited the Lordship of Middleham.

The Collegiate Church Of Middleham

In the late 1400’s, although still a very young man Richard of Gloucester (later to be Richard III) had made many benefactions to religious houses and parish churches. He decided to advance the parish church of Middleham by founding and incorporating a college there for a Dean and six secular priests. He was already in possession of the advowson of the church and rectory and in February 1477 Edward IV granted a licence for 'erecting the church at Middleham into a college'. The foundation would consist of the Dean, six chaplains, four clerks, a clerk sacristan and six choristers charged with offering perpetual Masses for the souls of the Yorkist royal family. To cover the expense Richard procured a clause in the licence to allow the new corporation to acquire land to the value of 200 marks yearly - notwithstanding any other acts or ordinances.

The college was not set up immediately as Richard had to draw up the statutes for its organisation in detail and seek confirmation from the Archbishop of York and the Archdeacon of Richmond, who controlled the religious administration of North Yorkshire. In January 1478 Commissioners met in the church and erected it into a collegiate church with a decree that it should be so for ever.

St Alkelda - History of the Church

William Beverley, the Rector of Middleham, became its first Dean. In 1481 a new Archbishop of York confirmed the acts of his predecessor and totally and finally resigned his jurisdiction as Ordinary and Metropolitan over the church. In 1482 the Archdeacon of Richmond exempted the Dean, church and all inhabitants of Middleham from all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Finally, on July 24th 1482, a Papal Bull proclaimed in Middleham church in the presence of the Abbots of Jervaulx, St. Mary's, York and Fountains, confirmed the Statutes. The College had greater privileges and was freer of outside authority than any other not under the direct patronage of the King. It was not, however, rich in spite of the fact that Richard had made endowments of lands and tithes in 1480. After Richard's accession to the throne in 1483 it became known as the King's College, Middleham - a title discarded after his defeat and death at Bosworth in 1485, although the college continued as before.   

Gravestone of Robert Thornton, The 22nd Abbot of Jervaulx.

Under the Tudors Thomas Cromwell, under the sanction of Henry VIII as Head of the Church, licensed the Dean to grant probates of wills, decide ecclesiastical suits and exercise all the other privileges within his jurisdiction, thus confirming the power and exemptions enjoyed by the College. Couples could be married in the church without a licence or publication of banns, so that by the eighteenth century Middleham had become a kind of Gretna Green.

More Modern Times

The chantry was closed in 1547 by Act of Parliament, but otherwise things continued much as before throughout the Reformation, with Deans performing their duties without fuss. Sometimes the Dean's authority was questioned, but the church remained a Royal Peculiar with ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the parish and exempt from all visitation except that of the Crown. The old stalls for the Dean and Canons remained and the church was furnished like a college chapel with seats running from East to West, but in the eighteenth century in the time of Dean Cotes they were all taken out, together with the Rood Screen, and the church was filled with square pews.

St Alkelda - History of the Church



The seal of Dean Edward Place MA
1742-1754

By the nineteenth century the chapter had long fallen into disuse and. no appointments to the canonries had been made, although the church was still collegiate in name. In 1839 the Dean, Dr. Wood, attempted to reconstitute the chapter. He appointed six canons and brought back the cathedral form of service. One of the canons was Charles Kingsley, the author of Westward Ho! and The Water Babies. However, in 1845 by Act of Parliament the status of Middleham as a Royal Peculiar, free of all outside ecclesiastical jurisdiction was finally extinguished. In 1856 on the death of Dr. Wood the office of Dean lapsed, and his successor was appointed as Rector of the parish. The canons' stalls were unfilled as they fell vacant and Middleham became an ordinary parish church subject to the usual church authorities.

Middleham Jewel

At the back of the church is a replica of the 15thC jewel discovered in a field close to the Castle by a metal detecting enthusiast in 1985. The diamond-shaped pendant has a long oblong sapphire and an engraving of the Trinity on the front and of the Nativity on the reverse. It is probably a reliquary. The replica has been presented in memory of the Peacock family.

St Alkelda - History of the Church

The Church Today

Middleham now forms part of a United benefice with Coverdale, East Witton and Thornton Steward. There are still four parish churches but one Incumbent is responsible for them all, and for the pastoral care of the scattered population of about 1600. Lay people take an active and vigorous part in all aspects of the church’s life, and there is a varied pattern of worship which includes both traditional and more modern elements. Family Services, children's work and involvement in our church school are very valued.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Alkelda

The Church of St. Mary and St. Alkelda

Welcome to our church  - set out below is a brief description of the main points of interest; both inside and outside this place of worship, which has served the inhabitants of Middleham since the 13th century.

1. South Doorway

This is 13thC, with a chamfered pointed arch and roll-moulded jambs. Above is a 14thC relief of the Crucifixion flanked by Our Lady and St. John, which Nikolaus Pevsner described as... 'Thoroughly Decorated and clearly once very good'. This is reputed to have come from the Castle. The Porch is 19thC.

2. Bell Tower

John Breare of Middleham Hall gave a peal of six bells in 1824. A fine peal of eight bells given by the Topham family and other parishoners in 1911 replaced these.

3. The Tower Room

Erected in 1997 to the memory of Dr. Elsie E. Adams, (benefactor) who loved this church.

4. Tomb Cover

The large tomb cover on the wall is that of Robert Thornton, twenty-second Abbot of Jervaulx, who died in 1533. It is believed to have been brought to Middleham for protection at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries about 1536. The Abbot's remains were also brought to Middleham and are buried near the Pulpit. The legend reads;

Orate pro a'i’a domino Roberti Thorneton abbat hui domi Jorvallis vicesimi sc'di.

Between each of the words are thorn leaves, as in the diapering in the centre, which with the tun, or barrel, form a rebus of his name Thornton. From the tun springs a pastoral staff, behind which is a mitre, and at the sides the initials .R and T. The two shields at the top contain the sacred monogram to the left and on the right the initial M is crossed by a spear and a sponge. At one time this cover stood on four pillars close to the existing pulpit.

5. The Nave

The four-bay Decorated arcades have two chamfered orders on simple capitals. The piers are octagonal with tall broached bases. In the early 18lhC the pews faced North and South, but during the tenure of Dean Coates (1719-1741) these were replaced by square oak pews. Later more fashionable pitch-pine furniture was introduced, to be replaced by the existing oak pews given by Mrs.Topham, of Middleham House, in memory of her husband Mr. Lupton Topham-Topham, in 1928.

There had at one time been a gallery under the tower with .access from the tower stairway. In 1804 a gallery was also built into the north aisle. This was divided into four 'private' pews for which an annual rent was paid. These were removed in November 1943, when according to a local newspaper…."The Rector of Middleham, the Rev.C.A.Atherley has, to use his own words, 'flung into the churchyard' the four private box pews which were in St.Alkelda's church". Due to difficulty in obtaining labour the Rector was assisted by the Sexton and local Constable in an act which brought great critical comment in the newspaper's correspondence columns.

Middleham jewel

6. Middleham Jewel

This is a replica of the 15thC jewel discovered in a field close by the Castle by a metal detecting enthusiast in 1985. The diamond-shaped pendant has a long oblong sapphire and an engraving of the Trinity on the front and of the Nativity on the reverse. It is probably a reliquary. The replica has been presented in memory of the Peacock family.

7. North Aisle West Window

Fragments of 15thC glass have been assembled here. The martyrdom of St. Alkelda is to be seen in the right hand light, 'A napkin twisted round her neck’.

8. Madonna and Child

This is a copy of part of Raphael's painting in the Sistine Chapel of St. Peter's in Rome. It was presented by the Rev.J.G.Hardwick, Rector 1945-57.

9. North Aisle Windows

Note how medieval grave covers have been used as lintels above all three windows during some bygone restoration. One has a good, early, wheel cross and chalice indicating that it was the tombstone of a priest or clerk in holy orders. The others show crosses and what could be shears, a sign indicating the grave of a woman.

10. Font and Cover

The 10ft. high 15th C Perpendicular canopy, reconstructed from fragments found in the attic of the old Deanery (now Kingsley House) was regilded and erected in 1898. The font at that time was a marble one, a memorial to a one-time Rector, the Rev. Miles Booty. Soon afterwards the existing 14thC font was 'rescued' from a local garden. Its was moved to its present location when the Tower room was built in 1997.

11. Vestry Screen

A splendid oak screen erected in memory of the Rev.Harry Gillespie Topham M.A. Rector 1903-25. Inside the vestry are two unusual medallions set into the windows. These show the martyrdom of St.Alkelda and her ascension into Heaven. They came originally from the saloon of a yacht, the St.Alkelda, built about 1850 for the Topham family. The church registers date from 1604, volume one being somewhat mutilated.

12. Chancel Arch

This is 14thC Decorated with chamfered mouldings. There are marks to be seen indicating the earlier existence of a Rood Screen.

13. The Dean and Canons' Stalls

In setting up the College, Richard HI named each stall after his and Lady Anne Neville's favourite saints. Each canon was appointed to a specific stall, thus there could be no question of seniority. The original stalls were replaced by Dean Cotes in the early 1700s. The names carved above each seat are:- left to right in a clockwise direction - St.George, St.Ninian, StAnthony, (Rev.Charles Kingsley), the Sacristan, a clerk, St. Barbara, St.Cuthbert, St.Catherine & the Dean's stall, St.Mary.

14. Chancel Clerestory Windows

These commemorate the Croft family, one-time standard bearers to King Richard III.

15. Chancel Walls

The frescoes were painted and the walls stencilled in 1900, the oak reredos (a BiTch memorial) erected in 1901 and the panelling of the sacrarium and the sedilia installed by the parishioners as a thank-offering at the end of the Boer war in 1902. The canons' stalls were shortened and set back under the arches at this time.

16. East Window

A 14th C pointed-arched window with curvilinear tracery & four lights. Beneath the present window are two plain, square, filled in, windows (clearly seen from outside) which are said to have been windows of a former crypt. If so, the sanctuary would have been at a higher level than now. Alternatively, there may have been four windows of this size, two. above the others, prior to the restructuring of the church in the l4thc. The window was raised in 1901 to accommodate the new reredos

17. Brasses

Only three remain, the oldest, on the south wall of the sanctuary, commemorates Dean Christopher Colby, died 1727. Nearby, a small brass reads E.P. Ob. 28Ap. 1785. AE58. - from the tomb of Edward Place M.A., the younger, Dean from 1754-85. The third is a small brass now on the south wall of the tower.

The Treasure in the Hay-Loft

On March 4th Lucy and Luke, a remarkably well-behaved double act, were baptised in Middleham Church. A happy service, like all baptisms. I looked up at the beautiful 15th Century font cover and imagined all the hundreds of babies and the assembled parents and god-parents, all in their best gowns and doublets, that it had seen. Perhaps it originally came from Jervaulx Abbey or was a gift from Warwick the Kingmaker or Richard of Gloucester. But for 150 years the canopy was lost.

It had been taken out of the church, along with the stalls, the rood screen and other medieval woodwork, on the orders of Dean Cotes, who installed plain oak pews as more in keeping with the fashions of his day. This vandalism was very unpopular and the Dean had to foot the bill himself. He died in 1741, not greatly lamented by his flock. If the Dean was the villain of this piece, the unknown hero was some resourceful person who rescued the canopy and hid it in one of the Rectory outbuildings.

There it remained until the Summer of 1895, when 20 or 30 pieces of medieval carving were found in the Rector's hayloft. It was estimated that the cost of restoration would be about £30 and that it would make an appropriate memorial of Queen Victoria's coming Diamond Jubilee - the fragments pre-reconstruction and restoration are pictured on the right. In the Summer of 1898, Mr. Kerr-Smith appealed in the Parish Magazine for funds. “If everyone who had been baptized in the font would give one shilling only, we should have more than enough." A further search of the loft revealed more fragments.

The work was entrusted to Mr. W.S. Hicks, a well-known architect of Newcastle who had recently overseen the restoration of Grinton Church. The final cost was about £60 and the results (a then contemporary picture is on the left) are superb, especially as most of the fragments were from the middle section and very little remained of the pinnacle and the lower portion.

On November 11th 1898 the Archdeacon of Richmond came to preach, a good congregation attended despite bad weather, there was a "merry peal" from the bells and the canopy was back where it belonged. Now it is once more a treasure to be prized and adds greatly to the beauty of Middleham Church. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Hicks. Not all restorers in that enthusiastic age were as sensitive. We also owe an equal debt to some unknown parishioner, perhaps a churchwarden, who saved the canopy for us, so long ago.

Nigelle Munro

St Alkelda

There are only two church dedications to St Alkelda, one here at Middleham, with the other at Giggleswick, so Alkelda was a very local saint. William Grainge writing in the mid-1800’s , thought the saints name may have originated from a holy woman who was linked with a sacred spring, eventually becoming known as St, al-kelda, - the saint of the holy well. Some scholars suggest the name Alkelda is simply derived from the Old English 'haeligkeld' meaning Holy Well. Both Middleham and Giggleswick have, or perhaps in Middleham’s case I should say, had wells near their churches. There is a quite well established  link between sacred wells of ancient origin, pagan wells, and the advance of the Christian religion. Rivers, wells and springs were sacred places for the Celtic peoples. It was the custom of the early Christian Church to "baptise unto Christ" any site formerly used for pagan practices.

While no healing attributes have been given to the Middleham well within living knowledge, but in Giggleswick, as I understand it, there is an association between the water of a well and the healing of eye infection or disease.

William Grainge described the well in Middleham as rising in the fields near the church and being piped to a trough by the road. This road was probably a green lane or field road, and I believe that it did look as if a trough once stood by the wall to catch the water.

Unfortunately Middleham may qualify for the award of Yorkshires most neglected holy well.

Back in 1988 there was a small wooden sign nailed to a tree, the sign reading  "St Alkelda's Well" but this was the only indication of the significance of this spot. The water should have flowed out of a hole in the dry stone wall, but apparently this stopped after the new school was built in the field behind the well.. In 1999 the situation became,  if anything,  more depressing, the wooden sign was still there, but the new houses on “The Springs” were built in the surrounding fields and right alongside the well. The opportunity to restore the water to the well at this time was missed and the site has lost any charm it may once have had.

The great shame of St Alkelda's Well, Middleham

St Alkelda

Another derivation of the name Alkelda has her as a Saxon lady living in Yorkshire who suffered martyrdom at the hands of Danish women, being strangled for her faith. Her martyrdom cannot have taken place much later than the tenth century, which was when the Danish folk were prominent.  Her name is first mentioned in the context of Middleham church in the late 13th century. Stained glass in our church, shows the head of Alkelda at the moment of her death. She has been said to be a Saxon princess, and there is the story that she was throttled by Danish women she encountered as she journeyed between the two churches. The throttling is shown in our stained glass, in the fragments of the ancient glass in the west window of the north aisle, but our saint appears to be smiling.

In Giggleswick church, I read that St, Alkelda is portrayed on several panels, with a particular link to your Ebbing and Flowing Well, the water for which emerges from a double-siphon in Giggleswick Scar. I also read that your churchwarden’s staves at are topped by representations of Alkelda.

Did Alkelda live? Because her name incorporates ‘Keld’, the old word for spring, was the name created when pagan sites, including wells, were being Christianised. .

Brayshaw and Robinson, who wrote the classic history of the ancient parish of Giggleswick in the 1930s, commented that the biographical details relating to St Alkelda “are entirely the fruits of 20th century imagination.” Did she exist?

When the fabric of Middleham church was thoroughly restored in 1878,  and the interior reseated with open oak benches, in lieu of the old fashioned box pews. a very primitive stone coffin was discovered under the floor, near the spot where, according to tradition, St. Alkelda was interred. The coffin contained some human remains, which were declared by the doctors to belong to a female. It has been supposed to have been the tomb of the martyred saint, and in the pillar near the spot there is a brass plate, bearing the inscription "Near this pillar, on the spot indicated by tradition, were found, during the work of restoration, the remains of St. Alkelda, patron saint of this church, Anno Domini 1878. F. Barker, rector; T. E. Swale and S. Croft, churchwardens."

But is this adequate proof that she existed?

As at least one or two people here know, Heather Edwards, in a quite comprehensive paper last year in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal reviewed the evidence, knocked , and knocked very hard, any theory that the name Alkelda derived from an Old English expression meaning holy well or spring. She suggested the the mediaeval form of  the name Alkelda

was either Alkild ( with an ‘i’) or Alkyld (with a ‘y’) - she also argued that the ‘k’ should be replaced with ‘ch’ . So she finished up with ‘Alchild’ as the medaeval form of the name.

But she argues for a genuine historic woman in the dedications of our churches.

Canonisation to sainthood in earlier times was a bit simpler than the process which is being galvanised for the last pope. In Anglo-Saxon England, a monastic community, or indeed any other group of people, provide they had some support from the clergy, did declare an individual to be a saint. There is a very substantial list of Anglo-Saxon women living before 1066 who have at some time been regarded as saints; in her paper, Helen Edwards produces an A-list of those who probably existed and a ‘B’ list of those who probably never existed. The monastic type of life was the route to sainthood, and many of the women were aristocrats so Alchhild as a Saxon princess could be O.K. And I should reassure you that Saint Alchhild, which has come down to us as Alkelda, is in the ‘A-list’ -  she may well have been an aristocratic abbess of a 7th. or 8th. century monastery at Middleham and Heather Edwards suggests the possibility a daughter house at Gigglewick.

Heather Edwards, however, is rather dismissive of Alkelda’s murder by Danish women, and she sets out her reasoning for this.

A real person, yes; a holy person. yes, but she may have died peacefully!