24 May 2023

An afternoon visit to
the churches and
chapels in Knaresborough

Saint John the Baptist Church is the largest church in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

When Charlotte and I were visiting Knaresborough earlier in mid-May, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the site in the Market Place of Knaresborough’s medieval synagogue, recalled in a plaque at the entry to Synagogue Lane, beside the library.

Knaresborough has at least churches, including two Church of England churches, Saint John the Baptist and Holy Trinity, a Roman Catholic church, Saint Mary’s, a Methodist and a United Reformed church, and a number of mediaeval chapels.

So, as we walked around Knaresborough, we visited a number of the churches and chapels in this town by the gorge of the River Nidd and the railway viaduct in North Yorkshire.

‘Redeeming the Time’ … the clock and sundial on the tower of Saint John the Baptist Church in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1, Saint John the Baptist Church:

Saint John the Baptist Church on Church Lane, just off Bond End and High Street, is the largest church in Knaresborough. This beautiful mediaeval church is a hidden gem and a treasure house at the heart of this market town in North Yorkshire. Although we arrived late in the afternoon, the church is usually open every day all year round.

There may have been a church on the site in the late Saxon period. But the first written record dates from 1114, when Henry I granted the church at ‘Cnaresburgh’ to the Augustinian canons of Nostell Priory.

Originally it was a cruciform church with a central tower, Much of the church dates from the 15th century, although it incorporates parts of an earlier 12th century building.

There are visible signs of the early church in the string course of brickwork and in the blocked up windows in the chancel, which is flanked on either side by 13th century chapels. The church was first dedicated to Saint Mary and kept that dedication until the Reformation, when it was rededicated to Saint John the Baptist.

The church has good Early English features in the chancel, a late-mediaeval font, a 17th-century font cover, a Jacobean parclose screen, a Perpendicular font with a late 17th century cover, and 17th century memorials in the Slingsby family chapel.

The church developed independently of the castle and had close links with the growth of the town. The church was damaged by Scottish in 1318, andwas still in a poor state a decade later in 1328, when Edward III spent part of his honeymoon with Queen Philippa at Knaresborough Castle.

The king promised his bride he would finance rebuilding the church, and Queen Philippa took a close interest in the project. She was involved in rebuilding Saint Edmund’s Chantry, now Saint Edmund’s Chapel, the townspeople dubbed the restored building ‘the Queen’s Church.’

The priest of Saint Mary’s in 1428 was John Mason, which suggests a link to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, a wayside chapel cut into the cliffs above the River Nidd and below the castle. According to local lore, the chapel was built by John the Mason, a master mason working for Henry IV who built it in thanks after his son was saved from death in a rockfall at the quarry where John was working. Was John Mason that same boy?

A memorials shows Sir Henry Slingsby (1560-1634) wrapped in his shroud and standing upright under a niche. Also standing upright under a niche is an effigy of Sir William Slingsby, who died in 1638. In the centre of the chapel is a tomb chest with effigies of Sir Francis de Slingsby (died 1601) and his wife Lady Mary Percy (died 1598), a daughter of Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland who was beheaded for treason by Elizabeth I in 1572.

The church was restored in 1878, and has stained glass by the William Morris studio.

Holy Trinity Church, Briggate, was inspired by the Catholic Revival in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

2, Holy Trinity Church, Briggate:

The spire of Holy Trinity Church can be seen for miles around, and is a Victorian Gothic gem, hidden behind an archway.

Holy Trinity Church was built on land given by the Slingsby family, and was consecrated in August 1856. It offered 612 free places in its pews to serve the town’s expanding industrial population. Inspired by the Catholic Revival, its architecture focuses in the High Altar. The spire, 166 ft above ground level and a familiar feature of the local skyline, was added to the tower in 1864.

Holy Trinity Church was built in the 14th century Gothic style, with a north-west tower, a six-bay aisled nave with clerestory and north porch, a three-bay chancel with a north vestry and a three-stage tower. <=br />
We did not get inside the church this time, but I understand the interior details include arcaded piers, foliate capitals, double-chamfered pointed arches with head stoops, and an elaborate carved and gilded stone reredos with heads of Apostles and symbols of the Passion.

There once was a chapel to the left of the Tudor Courthouse in the grounds of Knaresborough Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

3, Knaresborough Castle chapel:

The Tudor Courthouse still stands in the grounds of Knaresborough Castle. Display boards illustrated by Caroline Miekina on the site show there was a chapel to the left of the courthouse.

The chapel and the lodging were replaced in the 1700s, when the east end of the courthouse building was extended and used as a prison.

The Methodist Church, Gracious Street … the Methodist presence in Knaresborough dates from 1742 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

4, The Methodist Church, Gracious Street:

The name ‘Gracious Street’ has been associated with the Methodist Chapel in Knaresborough for many years.

The attractive name of ‘Gracious Street’ has it roots in an Anglo-Saxon word that means ‘ditch houses’ and that refers to the houses built alongside the town ditch, which was probably an open sewer.

John Wesley visited Knaresborough on 27 May 1742 on his way to Newcastle. A small group soon began to meet and the people called Methodists grew in numbers. A small meeting house had been built at Bond End by 1795, and as numbers grew a larger building was needed, precipitating a move to Gracious Street in 1815.

A large galleried Victorian chapel opened on the site in 1868, with a day school and a Sunday school. The Victorian building became difficult to manage by the end of the 1960s, and it was demolished and rebuilt. The present church on Gracious Street is the third on the site was built in 1975, incorporating parts of the original 1815 building.

The last phase of building work was completed in 2009, when the worship area and halls were linked together. The building was refurbished in 2014, and Gracious Street Methodist Church is known locally as ‘COGS’ (the Centre on Gracious Street).

The former Primitive Methodist Chapel on High Street, now divided into flats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

5, The Primitive Methodist Chapel, High Street:

The Primitive Methodist Chapel on High Street was built in the 1850s, and a plaque on the building states it was built in 1851.

The chapel premises were used by a coat manufacturer for a good part of the 20th century.

The chapel was converted into four flats in 2001.

The pathway leading up to Our Lady of the Rocks above the River Nidd and below the castle cliff (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

6, Our Lady of the Rocks, Abbey Street:

The tiny mediaeval Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, close to the River Nidd, is in an old quarry on Abbey Road, about half a mile from the centre of Knaresborough. It was carved from the cliff face below the castle by John the Mason in 1408, during the reign of Henry IV.

The chapel may have been built as a wayside shrine for pilgrims walking between the town and the priory. It would also have been a place of quiet and prayer for the workers in the nearby quarry.

One version of the legend says John the Mason was working in the nearby quarry when he saw that a rock fall was about to engulf and kill his son. Unable to reach him in time, he prayed to the Virgin Mary and miraculously the stones changed direction and his son was saved. John the Mason pledged to create a chapel as thanks for the miracle.

The chapel is now a Grade I Listed Building reached along a narrow path and steps. The chapel has a carved altar with a canopied niche, gargoyles, a vaulted ceiling, roof bosses, pillars with floriate capitals, a Celtic head, a piscina and externally a large carving of a mediaeval knight guards the entrance.

The figure of the knight may be contemporaneous with the chapel, although some sources date it to 1695-1739. William Wordsworth mentions it in 1814. The head the knight is separate from the body and may have been re-carved in the Victorian times.

The chapel become the property of Ampleforth Abbey and was reconsecrated in 1916 as a Catholic place of worship. Three carved heads located on the right-hand wall were taken away at this time, and a new statue of Our Lady of the Crag.

The chapel suffered from vandalism in 2019, and the glass in the mediaeval window frames was smashed. But the windows have been conserved, the figure of the mediaeval knight has been restored, a modern statue of Madonna and Child has been placed in the shrine, and the shrine regularly hosts ecumenical services.

Saint John the Baptist Church in Knaresborough, seen from the north-east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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