Brief History of St Gregory's Minster


including a note on the reinterment grave

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #


OF THE ORIGINS OF ST GREGORY'S MINSTER, little can be known. Bede, in his History of the English Church and People (A.D. 731), records that in 659, at nearby Lastingham, a small monastic community was planted under royal patronage, partly to prepare an eventual burial place for Æthelwald, Christian king of Deira, partly to assert the presence and lordship of Christ in a trackless moorland wilderness haunted by wild beasts and outlaws.

 In Kirkdale, by contrast, an ancient route from north to south descended out of Bransdale to form a crossroads with an ancient route from west to east along the southern edge of the moors. Travellers needed shelter, medical attention and perhaps spiritual sustenance. It may well have been to provide these Christian ministrations and to teach the gospel in the region that a small community of monks was established there as a minster (Latin monasterium) dedicated to Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English. It has been speculated that the original settlement in Kirkdale was an early offshoot of Lastingham. Inside the Minster, two finely decorated stone tomb covers, generally agreed to date from the eighth century, hint that this early church had wealthy patrons - perhaps royal patrons at least one of whom may have been venerated in Kirkdale as a saint.

Memory of the sanctity and status of St Gregory’s Minster seems to have survived the Danish conquest and colonisation of North Yorkshire in the 9th century, though the building fell into ruin; for around 1060, as the Anglo-Saxon sundial tells, Orm Gamalson “bought St Gregory’s minster” (presumably, with some land attached to it, from a previous landholder) and caused it to be rebuilt, evidently upon its ancient foundations. He perpetuated its ancient dedication to St Gregory - “our Gregory” (Gregorius noster) as the English came to call their Apostle.

Like most churches of similar antiquity, the Minster has undergone various alterations and repairs in response to changing congregational needs and the erosions of time. In the 12th century Orm’s doorway in the west wall of the nave (still there) was superseded, at least for access by the laity, by a substantial doorway inserted in the south wall - reflecting perhaps a greater ritual and symbolic use of the church door. In the 13th century the north aisle was added, doubtless to accommodate an increased local population. A balancing south aisle might have been constructed in due course, had not famine and the Black Death, in the following century, wiped out half of the population of England. To the 13th century also belong the south-east (priest’s) doorway and the stonework of the east window, suggesting that the chancel as a whole underwent repair or improvement at that time.

The existing chancel, in which these ancient features are incorporated, is a 19th-century rebuild. Because of the thoroughness of this rebuild, little is known for sure of the earlier chancel. However, the structure of the existing chancel arch reveals that in the 15th century its height was increased (retaining parts of the Anglo-Saxon arch from Orm’s church), most probably in connection with alterations to the chancel itself - though another reason for this alteration could have been the installation of a rood screen and rood loft, in accordance with a popular liturgical and architectural trend in the late Middle Ages.

In the same century, windows in a contemporary architectural style were inserted in the east wall of the north aisle, perhaps to light a secondary altar there, and in the south wall of the nave, presumably to give more light to the congregational area.

The Minster’s two bells, named for Gregory and Peter, also belong to the medieval period: Gregory to c.1300, Peter to c.1500. Both - now hung in the small bell tower built in 1827 on the exterior west wall, and repaired and rehung in 1998 - are still rung before services.

These medieval alterations, improvements and repairs to the Minster were carried out under the auspices of the Augustinian canons of Newburgh Priory near Coxwold, to whom the church and its lands were granted in the 1150s by Kirkdale’s then owner and the Priory’s founder, Roger de Mowbray. For nearly 400 years the canons retained ownership and provided priests for the church until Henry VIII ordered the closure of the Priory and appropriated the Kirkdale living, at the dissolution of the monasteries 1536-39.

A poignant relic of the canons’ medieval Minster, which seems to speak silently of the ecclesiastically turbulent times which lasted many decades after Henry’s break with Rome, is the originally elegant but subsequently mutilated statue of the Virgin and Child which, early in the 20th century, was found buried - either disposed of or intentionally concealed - in the churchyard. It was shortly thereafter re-erected in the north aisle of church.

 In the century following the dissolution of Newburgh Priory, the church and its lands (the ‘rectory’ of Kirkdale) were sold into secular ownership and eventually came by inheritance into the possession of Sir Henry Danvers (1573-1643) , first Earl of Danby, a major figure in the service of the Crown, owner of estates in various parts of England. Having a legal liability as lay patron for the upkeep of the chancel, it was most likely he who paid for its reroofing in 1633.

Danvers was a benefactor of the University of Oxford, and in 1622 he presented to “the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars” a site in the High Street for the establishment of a Physic Garden to serve the study of medicine, and subsequently by his Will he assigned the rectory of Kirkdale to the University, to provide an income for the maintenance of the Garden (which today is the Botanic Garden). When, in 1827, the Minster came alarmingly close to collapse, the University contributed to the cost of repairs which included substantial work on the south wall. Again in 1881 when the chancel was completely rebuilt (though with retention of several medieval elements), the University shared costs with one of the lessees of ancient church land who had inherited chancel-obligations with his lease.

The most recent major restoration took place between 1907 and 1909 under the dynamic momentum generated by the incumbent, the Revd. Frederick Walter Powell (Vicar 1904-30). The substantial alterations undertaken in the Georgian period were to be dismantled, gallery and box pews were to be removed and something more sympathetic to the ancient origins of the building was to be achieved. The work was done to designs and standards of the eminent architect, Temple Lushington Moore (1856-1920). It was as part of this restoration that the two ancient tomb-covers,  treasures of the Minster, were removed from the exterior wall of the west end and placed under the arcade of the north aisle.

Archaeology and detailed surveying of the architecture still offer the possibility of further clarification of the history and evolution of the Minster. It is registered as a Grade 1 Listed Building.

Despite all the repairs and alterations over the centuries, at the heart of the building remains much of the fabric of Orm’s church, still enclosing the space first sanctified in the 7th or 8th century.

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

A fuller account of the history of the church and the living, and of the architecture and furnishings of the church, may be found in the illustrated and authoritative guidebook, on which these notes are extensively based. On sale from the bookstall in the church: St. Gregory’s Minster Kirkdale by Richard Fletcher (Kirkdale 2003), 

ISBN 0 9542605 1 1.

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

The reinterment grave

In May 2014 the Vicar, the Revd Andrew De Smet, conducted an unusual interment in the 'new' churchyard at St Gregory's Minster. As the law required, human remains previously disturbed by excavations in the old churchyard close to the church itself were reverently reinterred.

The bone remains were first taken to G & M Agar, Funeral Directors, in Kirkbymoorside where they lay in the Chapel of Rest before being placed in a fine coffin generously donated by Agars. The coffin had been made some years previously by the late Mr George Agar as a showpiece of his work. A plaque identifying the remains within was provided by Agars and attached to the coffin lid. Opportunity had been previously taken to establish the date of the remains, which included three skulls - one female and two male - in strikingly well-preserved condition. It was found that the remains represent between them more than a thousand years of Christian burial in Kirkdale.

The graveside ceremony, adapted by the Revd Andrew from the regular Anglican funeral service, acknowledged the antiquity of the oldest remains by the inclusion of a prayer of the Anglo-Saxon Church (in translation). The choir sang, unaccompanied, Purcell's setting of 'Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts'.

Subsequently a headstone - gift of The Friends, supplied at a generously discounted cost by J. Rymer, Funeral Directors & Memorial Consultants, of York - was placed on the grave. The inscription reads:

+ Here lie the remains of several men and women dating from the 9th to the 19th century archaeologically excavated from the churchyard and solemnly reinterred May 2014.  May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

The grave, given for convenience a north-south orientation, lies underneath the mulberry tree presented by The Friends to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen.The gate giving access to it from the car-park (adjacent to the Stables and mounting block) is shortly to be renovated as a gift from The Friends and will be known as The Friends' Gate.

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #



The Anglo-Saxon manuscript drawing depicts Gregory writing one of his works while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies down to whisper inspiration in his ear

  St Gregory's Minster commemorates and celebrates its Patron, Gregory the Great (born in Rome about 540; died 12th March 604), on the Sunday nearest his Feast Day (September 3rd in the Calendar of the Latin Church).  It was Gregory who determined to send an evangelising mission to the still heathen English people, and thus came to be honoured as Apostle of the English. The mission, led by Augustinus (later venerated as St Augustine of Canterbury), landed in Kent in 597 and successfully laid the foundations of the Church of the English. A number of the earliest churches subsequently built in England were dedicated to Gregory; and in fact the inscription on the Anglo-Saxon sundial may imply that the church in Kirkdale, bought as a ruin and rebuilt by Orm Gamalson upon the ancient foundations which still underlie it, was already known as Sanctus Gregorius Minster - which dedication Orm then retained.

By Orm's time Gregory as Apostle of the English, and the distinguished writings for which he was named a Doctor of the Church, had long figured prominently in the definition of English national identity. As early as 713 a monk of Whitby Abbey wrote a short biography of Gregory which survives today as the oldest known 'Life' of Rome's bishop and England's apostle. The ancient Whitby manuscript can be seen online at:

In 731 Bede the Venerable completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (based in part upon the Whitby tradition) which included what was to become the definitive account of Gregory's mission to England. From then on, the concept of the tribal English as 'a nation' was established, with the Church of the English as its co-ordinating institution.

In the last quarter of the 9th century, when England was being ravaged by the Danish vikings, King Alfred of Wessex translated into English some of Gregory's writings as ranking among those works which it was most needful for everybody to know; and he required that all his bishops should study and teach onwards the wisdom of Gregory's Pastoral Care.

And in Orm's own generation the great English homilist Aelfric included in his cycle of English-language homilies for the whole of the Church's year one which pays homage to Gregory as Apostle of the English and inspired mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit.

It may be that, in perpetuating the dedication of Kirkdale's ancient Minster to Gregory the Great, Orm was deliberately reasserting the continuity of the Church of the English after the hiatus of the Danish colonisation of Yorkshire over the 10th century.

Such is the "cloud of witnesses" surrounding whoever steps into St Gregory's Minster, whether to admire, or to meditate, to pray or to worship.



This year's Patronal Festival was the occasion of the first use of an Introit in honour of Gregory the Great, specially composed for Kirkdale by Philip Moore. It was sung by the choir at the start of Choral Eucharist.

The Latin text of the Introit is taken from an authentic letter written ca. A.D. 600 by Gregory to the Church of the English in Canterbury, recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bk 1, ch.27: Non enim pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt - For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.

Continental ivory book cover (10th century) depicting Gregory writing, inspired by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove perched on his shoulder.  Below, monks make copies of Gregory's work for dissemination.