08 October 2023
The Priory Church of
the Holy Trinity, York,
a monastic building is still
a living parish church
The Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, which I visited last week, is one of the three surviving mediaeval churches on Micklegate in York. Today, Holy Trinity Church is only about half the length and width of the church before the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Tudor Reformation, but it is the only monastic building in York to have survived as a regular place of worship.
Holy Trinity Church predates the Norman Conquest and is recorded by 1066 as a church dedicated to Christ Church supported by a community of secular priests or canons.
Christ Church was a collegiate church on a large site at the highest and most central point of the walled enclosure on the west bank of the Ouse. This mirrors the similar prominent position of York Minster on the east bank of the Ouse, and the two communities were the only collegiate churches in the city before the Norman Conquest.
Both sites were of great importance in the Roman town plan: the Minster at the centre of the former walled garrison and Christ Church at the centre of the prosperous civilian town or colonia, the centre of administration for the Roman province of Britannia Inferior.
Christ Church (or Holy Trinity) may have been founded at about the same time as York Minster in the first phase of the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity in the seventh century and was a major Anglican minster. Some suggest it was the site of Alma Sophia, a sister church to York Minster founded in 780.
The early Christ Church may have been part of a single larger ecclesiastical enclosure covering over eight acres. This enclosure may have contained a cluster of chapels around an early church foundation, including Saint Mary Bishophill Junior and two small churches between the Roman road and Micklegate – Saint Gregory in Micklegate and All Saints in North Street.
Christ Church was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as one of five great northern churches, together with the minsters of Beverley, Durham and Ripon, as well as York Minster, and they were exempt from paying customary dues to either the king or the earl. But Christ Church was described as ‘a ruined and poverty stricken church.’
The church was re-founded ca 1089 as a Benedictine priory by Ralph Paynel and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It was under the care of the Benedictine Abbey of Marmoutier in Normandy, and the French monks who rebuilt the church became known as the ‘Alien’ Benedictines.
A double church was built, with one half (Holy Trinity) providing a place of worship for the monastic community and a second (Saint Nicholas) serving the parish. However, almost no evidence survives of the early churches on the site. The re-foundation of Christ Church as a Benedictine priory contributed to a general reform of a new parochial system completed in York by the 1230s.
The nave pillars in the south aisle date from the 13th century. The pillars in the north wall, also from the 13th century, indicate there was once a north aisle. The nave is all that remains of the original monastic church, although it has been much reduced in height and width over the centuries.
A beautiful 13th century Bestiary, or Book of Beasts, was produced by the Benedictine monks of Holy Trinity, and is now in Saint John’s College, Oxford.
York’s mediaeval Mystery Plays began each year outside the gateway of Holy Trinity and for generations the scripts for the plays were kept there. This was an annual theatrical spectacle, and the plays were performed by the guilds or trades of York to tell Bible stories.
The Guild of Corpus Christi was one of the greatest of these guilds. Its shrine was in Holy Trinity until 1431, when it was moved to the civic chapel of Saint William on Ouse Bridge at the foot of Micklegate. A Corpus Christi procession was held in York from at least 1366, and the guild may have been in existence by 1388.
The procession was the focus of the mystery plays. It started at Holy Trinity Church and continued down Micklegate over Ouse Bridge along Coney Street and up Stonegate to York Minster. This processional route, also used for royal processional entries to the city, and linked the sites of the two great pre-Conquest Minster churches in York.
The feast of Corpus Christi and the popularity of the guild increased in the early 15th century, following the execution of Archbishop Richard Scrope for his role in an uprising against Henry IV in 1405. Although he was never formally canonised, he was venerated in York as Saint Richard. A chapel containing a reliquary of his severed head was built where he was executed in the fields of Clementhorpe, near Micklegate.
Scrope had strong associations with Micklegate. His family owned the church of Saint Martin in Micklegate, which was rebuilt 20 years after his death, possibly incorporating a shrine to Richard.
The growth of the guild was boosted by its association with Scrope’s cult and a wooden cup blessed by Scrope was bequeathed to the Guild of Corpus Christi in Holy Trinity Church in 1413.
Historians discuss whether there was a separate church dedicated to Saint Nicholas or if this was an altar dedicated to Saint Nicholas in the nave of Holy Trinity. The parishioners of Saint Nicholas built a stone belfry tower above the Saint Nicholas Chapel in 1453.
Holy Trinity continued to serve as a parish church throughout the Middle Ages, and wealthy parishioners founded chantries in the church. When the priory was dissolved with the other monastic houses in 1538, the parishioners continued to worship in the nave, which survived as a parish church.
The central tower collapsed in a great storm in 1551. The chancel of the former priory church was demolished, the stone was used to repair the city walls and Ouse Bridge, and the nave was restored but reduced in size.
For about 200 years from 1700, many of the sisters from the Bar Convent were buried in the churchyard and the chancel. The stocks in the churchyard date from the 18th century.
An 18th century memorial commemorates Dr John Burton, who wrote a two-volume book on monasteries in York. He was lampooned in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760) as Dr Slop.
The south aisle was rebuilt in 1850-1851 by JB and W Atkinson of York. A new aisle, 3 metres (10 ft) wide and 18 metres (60 ft) long was added on the south side by opening the original arcades, and new pews were installed throughout the church.
The chancel and vestry were rebuilt in 1886-1887 by the York architects Charles Fisher and William Hepper. The chancel was rebuilt on the site of the central tower of the former monastery church, and truncated remnants of the 12th century masonry piers can still be seen. The chancel was 12 metres (38 ft) long and 7 metres (23 ft) wide, and included a new vestry and organ chamber.
The east window and the reredos depict saints associated with York and the north of England. The panels of the reredos flanking the central scene of the Supper at Emmaus depict six saints associated with the north: Cuthbert and Aidan of Lindisfarne with Hilda of Whitby; and Paulinus, Wilfred and John of Beverley, Bishops of York.
The west front was rebuilt by Charles Hodgson Fowler in 1902-1905. The fine roof bosses at the west end originally came from two other York churches, Saint Crux and Saint Martin, Coney Street.
The church has stained glass of national significance, with many works by Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), one of the leading figures in 19th and 20th century decorative arts. His distinctive wheatsheaf monogram is seen in several windows.
The East Window (1907) is one of Kempe’s last great works before he died. The window shows the Crucifixion and saints and church figures associated with York, including Saint John, Saint Helena, Eborius who was Bishop of York in 314, and Alcuin, the renowned scholar and Benedictine monk.
Kempe’s West Window (1904) depicts Saint Benedict of Nursia, Saint James, Saint Martin and Saint Thomas whose altars were in the former priory church.
Kempe’s window in Saint Nicholas Chapel (1905) depicts Saint Nicholas restoring to life three children who had been killed by a wicked inn keeper and kept in a brine tub. A window in Saint Nicholas Chapel (1953) by George Pace and Harry Stammers is a collaboration between an influential modern architect and an important 20th century stained glass designer.
The church also has windows by two of York’s most significant exponents of the Gothic Revival, John Joseph Barnett (1789-1859) and John Ward Knowles. The North Chancel window (1850) by Barnett is the earliest surviving stained glass in the church. The North Nave window (1877) is by Knowles.
The octagonal font has a carved cover, and a gilded dove is suspended over the font.
The organ was built by Hill, Norman and Beard of London.
The sculpture of the Holy Trinity, carved by Matthias Garn in 2010, is a reproduction of the mediaeval original once in the church and now in the chapel of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York.
The church was united with Saint John’s Church, Micklegate, York, in 1934 and with Saint Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate, in 1953.
Holy Trinity is a living, inclusive church. The Revd Simon Askey, former Dean of Undergraduate Law, University of London, and Honorary Assistant Curate of Walworth Saint John in the Diocese of Southwark, is the Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity. The Sung Eucharist on Sunday mornings is at 11 am. The church is currently only open during and after the Sunday , and I availed of a welcome opportunity to visit the church last Sunday after the Choral Eucharist in York Minster.