Towton, Saxton and Sherburn in Elmet.

From the Vernacular Buildings Group report 2004/2005

Meetings of the Vernacular Buildings Group during the past year have included both visits near, (Netherside Hall), and further afield. In most meetings we have been joined by members of the Local History Group and our programme has been enriched by their contributions. Here, we share with other Field Society members something of our visit to Towton, Saxton and Sherburn in Elmet.

The visit began at St. Mary’s Chapel, Lead, situated close to junction 47 of the M1. Lead is derived from the English word ‘hlueudo’ which means ‘wood with a shelter’. The most remarkable features of the chapel of St. Mary, Lead, are its apparent simplicity, its isolation and its survival. The building has never been a parish church and seems likely to have been a private chapel attached to a manor house and small cluster of dwellings. Aerial photographs suggest several buildings in the field to the north and west of the church. Even a simple viewing of the field shows the remains of masonry and pathways. The study of aerial photographs of the whole area surrounding the adjacent farm suggests considerable activity for well over a thousand years. The present church buildings are thought to date back to the 14th century, though it seems certain there was an earlier church on the same site. Excavations in 1912 and 1934 show that church to have had a chancel of equivalent size to the present. Tombs from the early 13th can be found in the church. The liturgical furniture is thought to date from 1784 when the church was repaired, but the pews for the congregation may be earlier.

From time to time the church has required great efforts to preserve it and it is remarkable that there have always been those willing to restore it, despite the disappearance of the village and manorial family. In 1596, it was in a parlous state and at the time the chancel disappeared. By the 18th century a full restoration had taken place which included providing a three decker pulpit and wooden wall ornaments. During the 20th century restorations were necessary in the late 20s and late 70s. The building has come to become known as the Ramblers’ Church because those two restorations have owed much to their support. The Richard III Society has also provided support in recent years. The church was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund in I980.

From St. Mary’s, we moved on to Towton Battleeld. As we walked round the site, we gathered something of the atmosphere of the fateful day, Palm Sunday, 29 March1461, when the Battle of Towton was fought.

The battle was one of many within the War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Preceded by those of Wakefield, Mortimers Cross and Second St. Albans, the Battle of Towton was fought with savagery and hatred. lt has been said to be the longest, bloodiest and biggest battle ever fought on English soil. According to the Tudor historian, Edward Hall, ‘Men fought as at the Gate of Paradise.’

Our guide, Michael Healey, Battlefield Historian, successful evoked the events of that day assisted by the weather: the rain began but did not quite reach the severe blizzard conditions of 1461! Members were able to identify the positions of the opposing armies prior to the battle and gain some understanding of how topography played a major part in the outcome.

After lunch, the visit took us to All Saints Church, Saxton. Sometimes referred to as Saxton in Elmete, the village was without doubt in existence during the Anglo-Saxon period, 500 AD – 800 AD, and was thriving at the time of the Norman invasion. It had a pre-Norman church at the time of the Domesday Book but the present church dates back to the 12th century and, despite much alteration and restoration, the church still contains some architectural evidence of that time. There is a Norman window with its deeply splayed cill in the north chancel wall and another window from the Norman time is to be seen above the south door. A chapel was added to the original nave circa 1290.

The church is built from local Tadcaster magnesian limestone and the tower was re-faced and buttressed for added strength between 1450 and 1500. There were a few old grave slabs used for this re-facing and these can be seen on three sides of the tower, showing their medieval crosses. It is possible that these slabs were erected as memorials to those soldiers killed at Towton. Within its grounds, Lord Dacre, killed at the Battle of Towton, is buried alongside his horse.

The Manor of Sexton came into the Hungate family on the death of William Sally in 1492, whose daughter had married William Hungate. The Hungates were Lords of the Manor for the next 250 years until Charles Carrington Hungate died without issue in 1749. Robert Hungate, in 1619 left money to build a hospital and school at Saxton or Sherburn. The hospital was, in fact, built at Sherburn and the Group visit continued there.

Hungate Hospital, Sherburn in Elmet, was founded circa 1656 for twenty- four illegitimate orphans, over 7 years and under 15 years of age, and ‘being t should be sent to the university, or be placed as apprentices, or to some other course of life and that there should be four poor scholars at St. John ’s College, Cambridge sent from the school.’ (The latter mirroring somewhat the provision made for Threshfield School by Rev. Matthew Hewitt, Rector of Linton.)

The building, after a variety of uses, underwent restoration for use as a medical centre by the Sherburn Group Practice in 1996. The building has been sensitively and beautifully restored and our Group enjoyed a conducted tour hosted by the Practice partners.

The final stop of this visit was the Parish Church of All Saints, Sherburn in Elmet which dates back to Norman times, although an earlier church of Celtic origins had been present on the site. On entering the church, it is the magnificent nave which draws one’s attention. It is Norman work and in remarkably good condition. An unusual feature of the Norman church is that it had aisles of equal width and unusually wide. Since then the south aisle has been widened and is now half as wide again as the north aisle. The widening was probably done in the 15th century. The north aisle is still the same width as when it was built in 1100 – 1120. The chancel is as long as the nave and rather wider, indicating the former ecclesiastical importance of this church. Of particular interest is the west tower window which has many fragments of glass with heraldic associations. A Janus cross in the south aisle of the church was the subject of a dispute and suffered a ‘Solomon’ judgement – being sawn vertically so as to resolve the issue. One part spent many years in Steeton Hall before the two parts were reunited in the church. In 2004, a stained glass window known as the ‘Bellringers Window’ was installed having been commissioned and paid for by the bellringers of the church.

The visit was informative, interesting and enjoyable and the Group was thankful to Roger Peel who had made the arrangements.

Colin Wilkinson

Map to show the relative positions of places in the text.                            M.H.