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St Peter, Birstall, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°43′54″N, 1°40′15″W)
SE 218 262
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now West Yorkshire
  • Barbara English
  • Rita Wood
01 May 2000, 14 Feb 2015

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Birstall church is separated by a stream at the bottom of its churchyard from the core of the old town on the opposite hilltop. The churchyard is extensive and rises above the church. Carved pew-ends preserved in the church suggest that there was a good late medieval church, but that church was demolished and completely rebuilt 1863-1870 except for the W tower, the lower two levels of which are 12thc., and the belfry level 15thc. (Ryder 1993, 30, 142-3). The present building has an aisled chancel, a nave with double aisles, N and S porches, and a W tower enclosed by the aisles. On its E face a wall built since our first visit in 2000 fills the tower arch (plan in Cradock 1933, pl. 16).

The tower has slit windows on the N and S.

Otherwise, the Romanesque period is represented by fragments: most of a grave-marker or small coffin lid with lozenge decoration and a patterned font that has been broken in two but could be made serviceable. The 'sculpted' capitals mentioned by Sir Stephen Glynne do not seem to have been preserved.


There is most of an Anglo-Saxon cross-base, dated to the late 9thc. to 10thc. (Coatsworth 2008, 103-4).

Lawton (1842, 110) records that "Dr Whitaker says this parish was formed out of the Saxon parish of Morley, and that the church was founded by Robert de Lacy."

Cradock suggests that the Tilly family, 'Lords of Gomersal and Patrons of the Rectory in early days', may have been responsible for the building. He continues: 'at the last re-building, traces of the original plan were noted. They showed that the Church had consisted of a simple Nave without aisles, of the same width as the Tower, and that the Chancel (of equal width) had apparently ended in an apse' (Cradock 1933, 13; pl. 4).

Sir Stephen Glynne visited in 1858, before the demolition of the medieval church (Butler 2007, 100). Glynne says it had a nave and chancel, each with N and S aisles, a S porch and a square tower engaged in the W end of the nave, and that 'there is here a Norman feature in the doorway within the south porch: the arch itself is pointed, but the shafts have early capitals with abaci and sculpture...'. The arcades in the nave and chancel had 'obtuse' arches. He mentions the carved pew ends, and says that the font is 'a new one in Perpendicular style' - which may perhaps date the disposal of the font fragments discussed in the present report.


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches






Tower arch The tower arch is retooled or recut: Cradock says the tower arch was 'chiselled over about 1865 to remove the whitewash' (1933, 13, n.4). However, the arch is unusually wide (3.33m at ground level) and high (2.8m to springing), with an exceptionally complex plinth, so it is possible that it was entirely renewed.

Font: This font closely resembles the one at Kirkby Malham (30 miles or 48km NW).

Slab: Collingwood (1915, 129-299, 144f.) illustrates the slab, saying 'the work can hardly be pre-Conquest, though [it] shows the survival of one form of earlier art; at any rate, this cutting seems to indicate the transition from Anglo-Saxon work to Norman.' Coatsworth (2008, 286), says ' the pattern seems wholly Norman... of the eleventh to twelfth century.' According to Pevsner (1967, 105) the slab dates to 'probably late 12C', but the pattern and the workmanship are more likely to belong to the period suggested by Coatsworth. Some of the East Riding fonts employ a similar pattern and, although they are more regularly cut, their carvers still had problems in laying out (Carnaby) and joining (Thwing) such patterns. Compare the carving of the pattern on the tympanum at Condicote, Glos. The slab would have been small for a coffin, and might have been used to commemorate a child. (Fieldworker)


L. A. S. Butler, ed., The Yorkshire Church Notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874). Y. A. Soc. Record series 159, Woodbridge 2007.

E. Coatsworth, Western Yorkshire. CASSS vol. VIII, Oxford 2008.

W. G. Collingwood, 'Anglian and Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the West Riding', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 23 (1915).

H. C. Cradock, A History of the Ancient Parish of Birstall, Yorkshire, London, 1933.

G. Lawton, Collectio rerum ecclesiasticarum de dioecesi Eboracensi; or, collections relative to churches and chapels within the Diocese of York: to which are added collections relative to churches and chapels within the diocese of Ripon, New edition, London, 1842.

N. Pevsner and E. Radcliffe, The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: West Riding, Harmondsworth, 1967.

P. Ryder, Medieval Churches of West Yorkshire, Wakefield, 1993.