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Heritage at All Saints' Church Pontefract

History of All Saints' Church   by Harry Merrick

 

Situated below the castle and on the northeastern side of the town, within the Pontefract castle conservation area is All Saints Church, which suffered severely in the siege of the castle during the English Civil War. All Saints was the Parochial centre from Anglo Saxon times. It was possibly one of the first churches to be built in the area and its destruction was one of the greatest historical misfortunes to happen in Pontefract. During the Civil War the church was constantly changing from one side to the other.


In December 1644 the Parliamentarians decided to try and remove the Royalists, who had held the church for four days. Even though there were 11 cannons firing from the castle protecting the Parliamentarians, numbers overwhelmed them and they retreated to the castle. There was desperate fighting in the church and churchyard. The next day the troops in the tower, tried to escape by trying to descend the west end of the church by using a bell rope. Over the next few months there were several more attempts to overthrow the church and it was reported, at the time, that a total of 60, 18lb cannon balls, were fired at the church from Monkhill in one day alone. In April 1999, after a fall of masonry, adjacent to the north wall, a small cannon ball was discovered (1lb 2oz and 2" dia.), which had been embedded in the wall.


In June 1645 the Parliamentarians finally occupied the church, to be fired upon, by the Royalists from the King's Tower and the barbican of the castle. The Parliamentarian soldiers began to make siege works within the ruined church for their own defence. They pillaged the church of lead, iron and wood. By 1649 the church was in total roofless ruin.


To the west of the present All Saints Church, across the road, is the remains of an earlier Anglo Saxon church and burial ground, which was in use from 7th century onwards. It was probably a timber structure first, with chancel and nave constructed later. The earliest burials date around AD 700.


Information regarding the 12th century church is unknown, the first document referring to building work is a charter of 1219, when John de Lacy granted the priory permission to extend the graveyard with the building of a new free standing chapel on the north side of the graveyard.


The present church appears to have been started about 1300 with the building of the chancel, possibly to the east of the previous chapel. The next stage was the building of the transepts and aisles and the lower part of the tower, with its famous double helix staircase at the northwest corner. A double helix staircase is two sets of staircases, both of which wind round the same stone newel, having separate entrances at the top and bottom of the stairs (similar in form to strands of DNA). The only other examples of double helix staircases, can be found in this country in Tamworth at St Ethilda s Church, and in the Chateau de Chambard in France. The double helix staircase at All Saints extends from ground level to just short of the bell-ringing chamber, which is then reached by the continuation of one staircase only.


The tower belfry was constructed in the early to middle part of the 14th century. The nave arcades, aisle walls, north and south porches were constructed with the Lady Chapel, by the end of the 14th century the octagon was built on top of the tower. It had two storeys, the lower one decorated with statues of the Apostles and Evangelists - each with their own emblem.


On top of the octagon was a tall cross surrounded by a parapet. The work was completed sometime during the 15th century. St. Catherine's Chapel was also built in the north transept and there was also mention of a stone statue of St. John the Baptist in 1445 and one of St. Peter in 1497. Eventually part of the transepts were repaired for use as a funeral chapel and until 1810 the graveyard was the sole burial ground for the whole town of Pontefract. (In 1896 the graveyard was closed for burials by the council.)


The church formed a background to a melodramatic incident during the Pilgrim of Grace in 1536. Pilgrims, who objected to Henry VIII s religious changes, held the castle and had with them, as a reluctant participant, the Archbishop of York, Edward Lee. During a sermon in All Saints he asked for moderation. The pilgrims didn t agree with his message and hustled him back to the castle.


In 1660 the remains of the lantern collapsed in a gale. The surrounding walls of the graveyard were raised to contain burials in 1786 and the unsafe roofs of the south transept and aisle were removed in 1795.


In 1831 R.D. Chantrell, an architect from Leeds, was engaged to restore the church, as a chapel-of-ease, for St. Giles. He proceeded to block the west windows of the transepts and arcades, added an apse to the east, for the altar, which was mirrored to the west by the entrance porch which formed a polygon under the tower. The belfry was repaired and the clock faces added. In 1838 a separate parish of All Saints was formed. In 1863 the sole surviving bell, which dated from 1598, was recast and later replaced by 6 bells. The south transept window had new stained glass fitted in 1901. Floor Plan 19c


In the 20th century (around 1906) the galleries and medieval tracery of the west window were removed and placed against the north wall of the nave. In 1967 a new nave and vestry were constructed, incorporating medieval carved heads, over the new west door, taken from the old porch of 1831. In 1989, Rev. Eric Fowkes the then vicar, had the finials removed from the top of the tower for safety reasons, there was an outcry as he had failed to gain the necessary approval from the Wakefield Diocesan Advisory Council for the Care of Churches, who were concerned that the carved stone finials were removed "without any lawful authority of the Chancellor of the Diocese", that the finials were part of the tower and the church structure and it was decreed that they must be replaced. The finials were subsequently replaced in 1998, paid for by the Parish of All Saints.