29 August 2022

Saint Mary Bishophill Junior and
Saint Mary Bishophill Senior,
two mediaeval churches in York

Saint Mary Bishophill Junior is possibly the oldest surviving church within the city walls of York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

My visit to York earlier this month was my first, but was short and brisk. In just a few hours it was impossible to arrange a proper visit to York Minster, although I managed to catch glimpses of it as I walked along part of the city walls and through the city’s narrow streets.

The Domesday Book listed eight churches and a minster – not the current building – in York in 1086. About two centuries later, York had around 45 parish churches in 1300. The number had fallen to 39 by 1428. Now, 20 survive, in whole or in part – a number surpassed in England only by Norwich. Today, 19 mediaeval churches are in use and 12 are used for worship.

This time, I managed to visit nine of those mediaeval churches or their sites as four of us walked around York.

The first to visit were Saint Mary Junior Bishophill in the centre of York, just behind Micklegate, and the site of Saint Mary Bishophill Senior, close to the now-closed Quaker Burial Ground at Bishophill I was describing last week.

Saint Mary Bishophill Junior is possibly the oldest surviving church within the city walls of York, but it is usually missed by most tourists and ignored by most travel guides.

The church is close to the city wall on Bishophill Junior, between Smales Street and Prospect Terrace. It stands within what was the colonia or civil quarter of the Roman garrison of Eboracum and pieces of Roman tilework can be seen in the tower.

The double-arched belfry windows in the west tower dates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The west tower dates from the late Anglo-Saxon period. It was built in the 10th century using masonry of very mixed materials, including blocks of brown sandstone and limestone blocks, some laid in herringbone fashion, and re-used Roman stone. The quoins are mainly of brown sandstone laid in a ‘side-alternate’ fashion and with no buttresses, factors that often mark Anglo-Saxon architecture.

Another typical feature is found in the double-arched belfry windows with a single round column dividing them, in this case outlined in strip-work, with the imposts on the columns projecting out from the wall.

The rather plain lower section tapers slightly from base to top, with the decoration of the belfry section on each of the four sides.

Inside the church, the arch has been described as ‘the finest pre-Conquest tower arch.’ There are fragments too of pre-Conquest stonework inside this church.

Saint Mary Junior has a small congregation in the Anglo-Catholic tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The nave and the north aisle have their origins in the 12th century, the chancel in the 13th and north chapel and south aisle in the 14th century. Other points of interest include pre- conquest carved stones near the tower arch and the mediaeval font.

There are four small panels of late 15th century glass in a window on the south side of the chancel. These depict Saint Michael, the Blessed Virgin Mary, an archbishop holding a pastoral cross, and an archbishop with a pallium.

The reredos behind the high altar dates to 1889 and was designed by Temple Moore, a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Moore also designed the pulpit and its sounding board.

Saint Mary’s also has a modern dramatic set of Stations of the Cross by the local artist, Fiona Kahn FitzGerald.

Saint Mary Junior has a small congregation in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The Eucharist is celebrated at 9.30 am each Sunday, with some exceptions. There is midweek service or compline at 7.30 pm on Wednesday evenings.

Saint Mary Junior also host the Greek Orthodox Parish of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.

Saint Mary Bishophill Senior was demolished in 1963 … an image on a noticeboard on the churchyard railings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Nearby, the Church of Saint Mary Bishophill Senior once stood on a site where there has been human activity since at least 350 AD.

Saint Mary Bishophill Senior stood on the base of a Romano-British wall that could possibly also have been a church. There is some speculation that this was once also the site of a Saxon cathedral. However, this has not been confirmed by archaeological excavations, although the remains of some Roman buildings were revealed.

The mediaeval church included reused Roman and Northumbrian stones and had early Anglo-Saxon features, including its monolithic construction.

The church was enlarged ca 1180, and again early in the 13th century, doubling the size of the pre-conquest church. A severe thunderstorm on 6 April 1378 destroyed the wooden porch and part of the belfry.

The church was restored in 1866 by JB and W Atkinson. But Saint Mary Bishophill Senior ceased to be parish church in 1878, and it had fallen into a derelict state by the 1930s.

Although the church was listed at Grade A, it was demolished in 1963. Much of the stonework was rescued by the church architect George Pace and parts of the fabric were incorporated into his new Church of the Holy Redeemer on Boroughbridge Road, while some of the monuments and furnishings found a new home in Saint Clement’s Church, Scarcroft Road.

Shortly after, York Civic Trust described these as ‘all the interesting parts of the structure.’

The churchyard remains, including a number of memorials, and the 19th century wall and gates that incorporate part of a 10th century building.

The local residents in Bishophill have now taken responsibility for maintaining the churchyard as a community garden.

More tomorrow

Local residents maintain the churchyard of Saint Mary Bishophill Senior as a community garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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