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Church of England Middleham & Coverdale, East Witton & Thornton Steward

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


Our Churches - Thornton Steward

St. Oswald's Church

St. Oswald's Church, Thornton Steward

Recorded in the Domesday Book and believed to be the oldest church in Wensleydale, this has been a place of Christian worship since the days of King Edwin, centuries before the Norman Conquest. Cross heads and 9th century stones can be seen. Some scholars claim it is Anglo-Saxon but it is generally believed the existing building is mostly Norman on Saxon foundations and was built by Alan, first Earl of Richmond and nephew of William the Conqueror, whose steward dwelt in this village. Hence the name Thornton Steward.

The church stands apart from the present village, possibly because the original village, which may have surrounded it, was wiped out by the plague.

Among many interesting features, spanning the centuries in this superbly situated church, is the Bell Cote containing two bells. Apart from summoning people to worship, bells were rung to announce the births, deaths and marriages of the highest in the land. During violent storms they might be rung in the belief that they would calm the local inhabitants.

Oswald was a Northumbrian Prince, follower of St. Columba and converted to Christianity. Towards the end of the 7th Century he regained the Kingdom of Northumbria (lost by the death in battle of King Edwin). He sent for Missionaries led by St. Aidan, who set up their base on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) near Oswald's Capital at Bamburgh! Oswald translated Aidan's Irish into English as he preached. He was a remarkable, brave man of great initiative who contributed enormously to the Establishment of the Christian Faith in England. He was killed in battle at Oswestry and miraculous healings occurred thereafter.

The Parish of Thornton Steward forms a United Benefice with Middleham, Coverdale and East Witton, with Brendan Giblin the Rector.  The United Benefice is fortunate indeed to have such an ancient historic church within its boundaries.

Inside St. Oswald's Church

St. Oswald's Church Thornton Steward has, in its main body more ancient features than any other in Wensleydale. As St. Mary the Virgin at Redmire and St. Andrew's Finghall, it stands apart from the village. There may be varying reasons for this; the most popular being that the original village which may have surrounded the church was wiped out during the plague. Be that as it may, the site of the church is recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as TORNETON(E); in 1157 the name became THORNETON, with STEWARD added in 1252. Before the Conquest THORNTON was held by GOSPATRIC and he was succeeded by WYMAR who was "dapifer" or "steward' of the Earls of Richmond.

The foundations are quite likely to be ANGLO SAXON because the narrow shape, without aisles, is typical of the Anglo Saxon church style although there is some debate as to whether the quoins are Anglo Saxon.

The blocked nave windows are most likely to be NORMAN and the South doorway with its incised zig-zag pattern is typical of that period but has been moved to its present position from the now blocked entrance which can be seen inside the church on the South wall.

St. Oswald's Church, Thornton Steward

The crossheads are possibly 9th century and at the latest 10th century and are of great interest. There are also some in the churches at Masham, Finghall, Thornton Watlass and Patrick Brompton.

The Sepulchral Arch

Because it is on the North wall in the Sanctuary area it is probably an Easter Sepulchre where the annual liturgical drama was celebrated in Mediaeval times and a vigil was kept from Good Friday until Easter morning. Had it been on the South side it would have been the burial place of someone of note. Patrick Brompton and Kirby Wiske also have a Sepulchral arch.

The Sedile

This is contemporary with the other interior stone furnishings and is a stone throne or armchair where the Priest would have sat during the singing of the Kyrie, Credo and Gloria in the Mass.

St. Oswald's Church, Thornton Steward

The Font

This is 13th century. It may well have been turned out of the church during Cromwell's time and returned after the Restoration. It stands on eight supports with stiff-leaf capitals - the legs and wooden top are probably Georgian or Victorian.

On the West wall is a LOZENGE - wealthy people had these in their homes to indicate a death in the family. When the member was buried the lozenge was often then hung in the church.

The Bell Cote

This has two bells; a bell was rung to summon people to worship; for many centuries this was as much as five times a day. It was also used to announce the births, deaths arid marriages of the highest in the land and there was also a belief that ringing these bells during storms and tempests would calm them.

St. Oswald - Patron Saint of Thornton Steward

St. Oswald - Patron Saint of Thornton Steward

There is evidence of Christians living in the North back to Roman time, while after the departure of the Romans in 410 the British kingdoms were nominally Christian.

The Anglo-Saxon Invaders who enlarged their foothold soon afterwards were pagan, and organised Christian religion probably disappeared in their areas. However one British kingdom, Elmet in the Leeds area, survived until around 620, which suggests there may have been Christians hereabouts.

Oswald crowned as a King - from a 13th century manuscript

When in 625 the Kentish Christian princess Ethelburga came north to marry the Northumbrian King Edwin she brought as her chaplain Bishop Pau1inus, one of the Roman colleagues of St. Augustine. King Edwin himself was baptised on Easter Day 627 in York, to be followed by many of his people. However five years later, with his death in battle, and the return of his widow and her chaplain to Kent, the Roman mission collapsed. Only James the Deacon was left in Northumbria, probably at Catterick - his presence is remembered at our sister Oswald church at Hauxwell.

Into this dire situation came Oswald, a Northumbrian prince who had been exiled in Dalriada (Argyllshire), and there, among the followers of St Columba, had been converted to Christ.  He regained the kingdom at the battle of Heavenfield, near Hexham, raising a cross among his small force prior to the battle against a vastly superior enemy. Victorious he sent back to Iona for missionaries, who led by St Aidan, set up their base on Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the Northumbrian coast, and in sight of Oswald' s capital at Bamburgh.

Oswald was a committed Christian who took an active part in the evangelism of his people by translating Aidan’s Irish into English as he preached. He spent so much time in prayer that his habitual posture while sitting daily in his judgment hall, was to have his hands on his knees, palms upwards, in a prayer posture familiar today. One day, when sitting down to feast, Aidan being his guest, Oswald's steward told him there were beggars seeking food at the palace gate. Oswald not only handed over the meal to them, but instructed (there being no coinage in circulation) that the silver dish be broken up and distributed.  Aidan was so impressed that he prayed that that arm of Oswald should never decay. Tradition has it that it remained incorrupt, and is reported by an eye-witness as being such, many centuries later, when it was preserved in Peterborough cathedral.

After his death miraculous healings occurred in connection with a fragment of the cross from the Heavenfield battlefield, from the ground on which Oswald had been killed in battle at Oswestry, and from contact with his bones.  Some of these relics are revered in northern Italy and Austria to this day.

As it was Aidan and his followers who were principally responsible for establishing the Christian faith in almost all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (apart from Kent) the church in England, and we their twentieth century descendants, owe a great debt to Oswald who initiated their mission.

Thornton Steward Village

At the eastern end of our united benefice, Thornton Steward is in sharp contrast to Horsehouse in the west. It naturally looks towards Bedale and the Vale of Mowbray, and the reservoir supplies water (pumped from the River Ure) to that area and to Lower Wensleydale via the Sowden Beck reservoir above East Witton.

Sited around a small village green, the village enjoys a wonderful southerly aspect with views across the broad valley to Jervaulx Abbey, Ellingstring and Witton Fell. Sheltered from the north by the higher land towards Finghall, it is surrounded by fertile farmland including the interesting Manor Farm and Danby Hall.

The small ancient church is situated on lower land a quarter of a mile away, and centuries ago may have been in the centre of the original settlement. The recently discovered thirteen hundred year old graves to the west of the present church suggest ancient settlement in the area.

The “neat, Gothic structure” dedicated to St. Oswald was part of the Diocese and in the patronage of the Bishop of Chester in 1823. The Reverend John Ewbank lived in the fine vicarage in the village, and between 1917 and 1953 the ministry of the blind Reverend Swayne was well known throughout the Ripon Diocese. This church is one of the oldest and most attractive in the country, abounding in history and interesting architecture. The surrounding area is preserved for wild plant and animal life and is a haven of peace and solitude.

In 1815 the school was erected by Captain George Horn, Esquire, when the population of the parish was two hundred and sixty five. He was the wealthy “gentleman” of the village and provided a neat School House for John Story the schoolmaster, and an endowment of ten shillings per annum for the education of the poor children of the parish.

In 1823 there were eight farmers (including Christ Winn!), two shoemakers, one grocer, a blacksmith, a joiner and two victuallers(!), making the village somewhat self-supporting in its isolated position, some distance from the two east-west main roads between Wensleydale and the lowlands. 

Ken Stott