Church History: Anglo-Saxon & Medieval Period

The present building of St Alkelda’s Church, Giggleswick is in the late perpendicular style of the late 15th century, but during the major restoration of 1890-2, a variety of stones came to light which clearly indicated that there had been a Norman and before that, an Anglo-Saxon church on the site. The bases of two pillars near the kitchen have been identified as Norman. There are medieval masons’ marks, like primitive initials, carved into the outside walls of the porch. More recently, a stone cross shaft situated in the grave yard in front of the side door has been identified as a Northumbrian cross shaft, well over 1,000 years old. It, like a number of others in ancient church yards in Craven, Bowland and Ribblesdale was probably decapitated in the 17th century by the Cromwellian forces commanded by Major General John Lambert, who hailed from Calton in Malhamdale. You can still feel the 4 hollows on the top of the cross shaft where the head had been wrenched off. Even better examples are seen in Kirkby Malham and Waddington church yards.

Bankwell Votive Figure

We know virtually nothing of the early Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon church, as I have pointed out in the article on Thomas Brayshaw. No church was recorded here in The Domesday Book of 1086, but the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon church lie in the crypt, sealed off during 1890-2. We know from The Domesday Book entry that Giggleswick in 1089 was more or less “waste”, and that did not mean neglect through natural means. The Latin word “vasta” as used in the text gave us the word “devastated”. As punishment for rebellion in the north, particularly in what is now North Yorkshire and Durham, from 1069-71, William the Conqueror and his troops carried out a series of savage reprisals known as the Harrying of the North. According to both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham’s History of the Church in Durham, whole communities, people and animals, were massacred, and their crops ruined. Simeon wrote that not a village was left unscathed between Durham and York. Villages surrounding the Aire valley and into the Craven Dales were also targeted. Recent research has shown that the effects of this dereliction must have lasted at least a generation, so it is not surprising that Giggleswick was “waste (vasta) implied” and no church was recorded in The Domesday Book. The Norman contempt for the Anglo-Saxon people and their language extended to Anglo-Saxon saints. At the end of the 14th century, after the Scottish raids and the Black Death which virtually destroyed the medieval feudal system , people began to write in English instead of Latin. It was then that the Anglo-Saxon St Alkelda appeared in Middleham records. In Giggleswick, it was not until the 16th century, although her name must have been attached to her holy well long before that. I give more background in the Guide Book St Alkelda’s Way, and on the St Alkelda’s Way website.

Water Emerging from the Holy Well

We do not know when the Norman church was built over Anglo-Saxon foundations. Apart from the pillar evidence, there is a carved human head on the outside north wall. The eyes are close-set as they are on the sculpture of a Green Man inside above the pulpit. This, by the way, is the only example of the mysterious Green Man in an ancient church in Craven. The indications are that these artefacts are early in origin, either Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or Norman, and were probably found on the ground near the church before being fixed into their present places. There are also medieval gargoyle heads on the top walls of the church tower.

The Green Man

A “Devil’s Door”, in line with the font at the west end, was usually built into the north wall of Norman churches. This was opened during a baptismal service when the priest ceremoniously evicted the devil through the north door from the person being baptised. At the Reformation, most of these doors were turned into windows. In Giggleswick, the Batten window was once a Devil’s Door.

The Batten Window

In the wall on the right of the ancient great door is the medieval “sanctuary bolt”, and, on a pillar nearby, the quaint, 17th-century oak “Remember the Pore” Box. Alleged criminals could bar themselves in the church and claim from within the sanctuary the right to be tried by an ecclesiastical instead of a civil court. During any attacks from hostile forces, the village people could flee to the church, shut the door and draw the heavy bolt across. In A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick Brayshaw and Robinson quote from records to show that during the Scottish raids of 1318-9, Giggleswick, Settle and the surrounding area suffered very badly. They suggest that both church and village may have been destroyed and that the church may have lain in ruins for most of the 14th century. That however, does not quite match the financial records of Finchale Priory, Durham, which had held the living of Giggleswick Church since 1231. See the article Giggleswick Vicars and their times” on this website. Chapter 2 of J.C. Cox’s book The Parish Church of Giggleswick in Craven is dedicated to the Finchale Chartulary detailing the financial dealings of the Priory with Giggleswick Church (and on one occasion, intriguingly, in 1376-7 with Giggleswick and Middleham Churches together). In 1316, the payment in tithes to Finchale Priory from Giggleswick Church was £50, quite a large sum. There were no further entries until 1331 when the much reduced sum was £23.6s.8d. The church never managed to pay £50 annual tithes again for the rest of the 14th century. The figures suggest that the church had been severely damaged, but not utterly destroyed, and that its witness had been maintained, but in a reduced form. There are also applications in the Finchale Priory account rolls for money towards repairs and renewals in Giggleswick Church from near the end of the 14th and throughout the 15th century. This was the start of the practice of maintaining the fabric of the church, and of restoring, rebuilding and making appropriate, “fit for purpose” alterations which continue to the present day.

During the 15th century when the country was torn apart by the Wars of the Roses, Giggleswick was on the winning Lancastrian side and by the end of the century, a major re-structuring took place in the church. The evidence of this early Tudor influence is most visible in the shape of the beautiful east end window.