November 2016


newsletter november 2016



Dear Friend

How often visitors to Kirkdale remark upon the tranquillity of the church set so peacefully apart in its sheltering dale. The ancient trackway of Thurkilssti long since fell silent but for the call of grouse, curlew and plover; and the ancient route followed by the A170 has been realigned in modern times to skirt the narrow steep banks and the ford over Hodge Beck. Today, St Gregory’s Minster is little disturbed by the traffic of the world going about its worldly business. But, as the last Newsletter told, Kirkdale archives in Oxford record a more turbulent story. That story continues …

      When between 1536 and 1541 Henry VIII disbanded the English monasteries, he seized their assets, or the proceeds from selling off their buildings and lands, for his Exchequer. Among the rest, Newburgh Priory was sold off along with the churches which it had owned and furnished with priests for four centuries. One of those churches was St Gregory’s Minster, and by virtue of that transaction its legal status changed from that of being ‘appropriated to’ (that is, in effect, owned by) the canons of Newburgh to being an ‘impropriate parsonage’: that is, a church which had legally passed with its lands into secular ownership. St Gregory’s Minster began a new life as a marketable commodity.

      Many such parish churches were, at a stroke, deprived of security of income. Whereas the tithed lands attached to them had once generated income for the maintenance and running costs of a parochial church and a stipend for its vicar, such income was now at the disposal of their secular owners. Writing of the impetuous dissolution of the monasteries, the 18th-century legal authority Richard Burn (1709-1785) declared: “One thing greatly to be lamented is, that in the hurry of the dissolution better provision was not made for the performance of divine offices in such churches as had [formerly] been appropriated to the monasteries, which both the ministers and the parishioners of those places suffer to this day, and is justly accounted a scandal to our Reformation.” [Quoted in Marmaduke Prickett, Historical and Architectural Description of the Priory Church of Bridlington, in the East Riding of the County of York (Cambridge, 1831)].

      To be fair to Sir Henry Danvers, into whose portfolio of various marketable properties around England Kirkdale had made its way by the mid-17th century, his intention in freely bequeathing “by legall Conveyance” to the University of Oxford “the parsonage impropriat of Kirkedale in the County of Yorke with all the Rightes apperteyninge thereunto” was an altruistic and generous intention. It was, in fact, a substantial benefaction in support of medical research at a leading University - that is, an income to maintain his endowment of the “Phisicke garden att Oxford”, now the University’s Botanic Garden, one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. The University, as owners of the patronage (the advowson) and the tithe lands which belonged with the Minster, extracted its benefit from Kirkdale by leasing out the tithe lands and applying the rent income to this “Phisicke garden”.

      There was, however, one condition to the benefit of the church which still attached to the entitlement to collect tithes - though no thanks to Henry VIII’s provision, for this was a statutory obligation established as far back as the reign of Richard I. It was the Chancel Repair Liability. The chancel of the church was prior in importance to the rest of the building because, of course, it housed the altar which stood at the heart of the sacramental activities of the House of God. The nave roof could let in the rain but to keep the chancel in decent repair was a primary duty of those responsible. Thus, if the chancel needed repairs, the vicar and wardens first had to seek permission from the Patron and could then perhaps extract financial assistance from the current tithe-holders.

      Incidentally, this division of responsibility for chancel and nave also worked in the other direction. In March 1917 the vicar, Mr Powell, wrote to the University: “Mrs J. R. Shaw, of Welburn Hall, has offered to put an Oak Screen & Oak Choir Stalls at S. Gregory’s Church. The design has been prepared by Mr Temple Moore & the cost will be £230. I have accepted the gift & the tender, subject to the approval of the Patrons.” Temple Moore, informed of Powell’s half-reluctant deference to the Patrons, wrote back from his Hampstead address: “Dear Mr Powell -  The Screen is shown standing in the Chancel arch, and the Chancel arch is in the east wall of the Nave, therefore it seems to me that the new Screen will be in the Nave, speaking from a structural point of view. The Screen will be quite open, and will be no obstruction to the east end.” Plainly he regarded the screen as being, if only by inches, outside the Patrons’ zone of jurisdiction, and he briskly concluded, therefore: “ I am having the drawings prepared for the Faculty etc. Yours sincerely, T. Moore.”

      As regards the Chancel Repair Liability relating to Kirkdale, the University of Oxford prudently passed it on - along with an obligation to contribute to the vicar’s stipend - to whomsoever leased from them Kirkdale’s tithed lands. Thus the lessee signed up to the legally binding requirement that, in addition to paying an annual rent to the University, and a “one yearly rent or stipend of Ten Pounds payable to the Vicar for the time being of Kirkdale aforesaid”  he should also “well and sufficiently repair uphold maintain and keep the Chancel of the said Parish Church of Kirkdale”. This particular wording is taken from an Indenture dated 6 April 1814, by which the University leased to “John Whytehead of Nawton in the County of York Gentleman” for a period of twenty-one years “All that the impropriate Rectory or Parsonage of Kirkdale” but excluding “the Presentation of a Clerk to be Vicar.” (This exclusion was important to Oxford. Dons were required to be in holy orders and to be unmarried. If they married, their fellowships were terminated, and it was then a convenience that the University and its colleges owned many advowsons in parish churches across England, and could find an incumbency for favoured beneficiaries to take up, with wife and family).

      The Whyteheads in question held the Lordship of the Manor of Nawton from 1708 until 1857 when it was acquired by Francis Barr (who in turn held it until it passed to W. F. Shepherd in 1872). With this status and the long-term tenancy of extensive lands around Kirkdale, the family no doubt wielded a great deal of local clout. This was put to the test in the late 1820s when the Vicar, the Revd Mr George Dixon, informed the University that a local builder had warned him that St Gregory’s Minster was literally close to collapse - and Mr Whytehead was unsympathetic to any mention of Chancel Repair Liability. Mr Whytehead evidently thought that the (presumably) wealthy University could and should take care of the problem. The University, quite clear as to what Mr Whytehead’s Indenture would tell him if he cared to check it, advised the Vicar to negotiate politely with Mr Whytehead but to make it plain to him that if necessary the University would have recourse to the courts, and they would certainly be reluctant to renew his lease when it expired. But the Vicar was permitted to inform him that the University would also be willing to meet half the cost. Shrewdly, Mr Whytehead stumped up, the local builder set to work, and the Minster was saved for the time being. But the economic framework of this system was chronically rickety. In the later 1830s, when John Whytehead was again engaged in negotiations with the University over the renewal of the lease, he pleaded that the “considerable” cost of draining the wetlands was making the tenancy unprofitable. Rents from subtenants could be hard to collect. The University was no less vigilant over its assets, in checking through its agent whether the Whyteheads were letting certain farm buildings fall into disrepair. The Whyteheads indignantly rebutted this claim.

      Considering the vast amount of land transferred from monastic to secular ownership between 1536 and 1541, and the sometimes complex relationship between land and the wider economy, it might seem bordering on the reckless for the Tudor legislators not to have reviewed and modified the tithing system and the land-related system for funding a church and a priest in every parish, once the monasteries were gone. But the moribund tithing system dragged on until the Tithe Act 1936 sorted things out, four hundred years belatedly; while the Chancel Repair Liability issue flared up again in quite recent years and was not finally resolved until 2013 - if indeed it is now quite resolved, which legal opinion appears to doubt.

      “No man can serve two masters” declared King James’s Bible: but the archived history of St Gregory’s Minster gives glimpses of a church in which, one might colourfully say, the service of God was inescapably beholden to the servants of Mammon. The parishioners had to make do with a building which was long in a parlous state of repair. Churchwardens and incumbents struggled with inadequate and unreliable revenues. The vicars were long underpaid (against national averages) and, until The Vicarage was provided late in the 19th century, were poorly housed. But - ‘through many dangers, toils and snares’ - the Minster and the Kirkdale church community survived. Deo gratias!

      The new Friends’ Gate is now in place: thanks to gifts from generous Friends. Remember to book for the December Carol Service - a lovely occasion for Friends to meet. The Trustees wish each and every Friend a joyful Christmas and peace, good health and happiness in the new year ahead.

On behalf of the Trustees,

Sid Bradley



The Trustees: Mrs Heather Harris (Chairman); Mrs Margery Roberts (Honorary Secretary); Mrs Diana Pearce (Honorary Treasurer); Reverend Susan Binks; Professor Sid Bradley; Mr Bob Chapple; Mrs Erica Dineen; Mr James Lloyd; Mr Gordon Mellor and Mr John Turner.  “The Friends of St Gregory’s Minster” is a charity registered with the Charity Commission, Charity Number 700344.