ST GREGORY’S MINSTER - HISTORICAL NOTES
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.
There is some academic consensus in the proposition that early English churches designated 'minster' were a kind of primary missionising base for establishing Christian religious practice in a surrounding region which would subsequently evolve into the concept of 'a parish' with 'daughter' churches or chapels. St Gregory's Minster may have been conceived as one such 'mother church'. In Kirkdale, moreover, 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 - dignitaries of state or church, military units, secular landowners, messengers and traders - needed shelter, medical attention and perhaps spiritual sustenance along the principal land routes. It may possibly have been to provide these Christian ministrations as well as to teach the gospel and oversee standards of Christian living in the region that a small religious community was established there, dedicated to Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English. It has been speculated that the original settlement in Kirkdale was an early offshoot of the religious community settled at Lastingham by the direct bidding and under the patronage of the Northumbrian king. Inside St Gregory's Minster, two finely decorated stone tomb covers, generally agreed to date from the eighth/ninth 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.
St Gregory's Minster 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
For the most recent archaeological investigations of St Gregory's Minster and a summary of its known and speculative history:
St Gregory's Minster, Kirkdale, North Yorkshire: Archaeological Investigations and Historical Context,
Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts Publ. 2021, ArchaeoPress. ISBN 9781789694826.