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Programmes/Posters : History of St Margaret's Church, Walmgate

Item type: Programmes/Posters
Archive reference: YMP/B/14/5
Date/year: 2000
The Church of St Margaret, Walmgate, York opened its doors in 2000 the National Centre for Early Music

The first mention of the church is in a document of 1165-75, in which Walter, son of Fragenulf, granted the two churches of St Margaret and St Mary to St Peter's Hospital (later St Leonard's Hospital). The dedication is probably to St Margaret of Antioch. According to a fifth-century legend, she was a priest's daughter, a shepherdess, who resisted the blandishments of the local pagan governor and refused to become his wife, for which obstinacy she was finally beheaded. Her popularity revived considerably at the time of the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, perhaps by association or confusion with Queen Margaret of Scotland who died in 1093 and was canonised in 1250.

Of the original 12th-century building, all that remains is the piece of wall between the west wall and the first pillar of the arcade, which formed the north-west corner of a rectangular church that was probably the size of the present nave.   In 1308 the parish of St Mary's was united to St Margaret's, after which the church was rebuilt and enlarged, adding the tower at the centre of the west wall and the north arcade, which provided a narrow aisle. The east windows of the nave (one of which had a stained-glass window with the name of the 1399 rector) and that of the north aisle are decorated in style. The north and south windows are perpendicular, 15th-century.

The sanctuary was at the east, enclosed by a wooden screen; the parishioners worshipped in the western part. The high altar, with two 'latten' candlesticks bequeathed in 1515, stood beside the existing piscina, where the sacred vessels were washed after the mass. Members of the parish formed themselves into a group or guild, to honour Our Lady, setting up an altar and statue, probably at the west end. There was also an altar to St Bridget of Sweden.  'Lights' (candles) were kept burning in front of statues of St Nicholas and St Loy (Eligius), the patron saints of sailors and blacksmiths.

Unlike its Walmgate neighbour St Denys, nearer to the centre of York, St Margaret's was poor in endowments and had no rich stained glass. Nonetheless, in the first half of the 15th century it could afford accommodation successively to two anchoresses in the churchyard.  Perhaps the existing vestry on the south side was built for that purpose. Adjacent to its doorway is a fragment of a gravestone with a Latin inscription that translates: 'Pray for the Soul of Agnes ... who died September MCCCCCII (1502)'. 

The Reformation (1536-40) began a series of changes in church life in St Margaret's as elsewhere. The side altars, candlesticks and sanctuary screen were removed and a wooden table replaced the stone altar. In York's parochial reorganisation, the church of St Peter-le-Willows was sold and its parish was united with St Margaret's. 

Between 1670 and 1675 the steeple collapsed onto the nave. The tower was not rebuilt until 1684, when extensive brickwork (rather than stone) was used in the repair (see photo below). In 1700 two bells cast by York bellfounder Samuel Seller were installed in the belfry; a third bell by Dalton was added in 1788. About this time the parish also acquired a silver chalice and paten made by Marmaduke Best, a local silversmith. 

But the greatest acquisition was the south doorway that came from the church of St Nicholas, which had suffered severe damage in 1644, during the Civil War, when York was beseiged by Parliamentary armies. This remarkably fine but now much weathered Romanesque doorway dates from the end of the twelfth century. The outer band of the arch depicts the astrological signs of the zodiac in twelve oval medallions, and the Labours of the Month in twelve circular ones. The heads of the capitals include stories from Aesop's Fables. It is hard to recognise many details, but the sign of Pisces (the fishes) and Scorpio (the crab) can just be identified, with the help of eighteenth-century engravings. The doorway would have been all the more striking in its original bright colouring.

There were still fields beneath the city walls and along the river Foss at the start of the eighteenth century. That quieter way of life is reflected in several elegant memorial tablets, the style of the Lord's Prayer beside the East window, and the charities recorded on the Benefaction Boards near the door of St Margaret's. 

However, the nineteenth century brought a large increase in the size of York's population.  Many were Irish labouring immigrants, for whom St George's Roman Catholic Church nearby was built. In 1851 at St Margaret's various alterations were made: a western gallery was set up and a window pierced in the south wall. At the same time, the north aisle was increased in size and a new font placed at its west end. The congregation was given pitch-pine pews, a new pulpit and choir stalls (facing north and south) were built, and an organ installed. The architect was Thomas Pickersgill, who became City Architect, Engineer and Surveyor in 1865 and who also restored nearby St Denys' Church. He designed the existing churchyard gates for St Margaret's, which were cast at the nearby renowned foundry of John Walker.

As the nineteenth century proceeded, Walmgate as an area deteriorated, and there were many crowded slum courtyards.  At the start of the twentieth century, plans for rehousing the inhabitants were initiated. But progress was slow. The number of servicemen commemorated on the War Memorial indicates the size of the population. 

It was to take decades before rebuilding and re-housing work was completed and the area redeveloped. Throughout this period the church continued its work, although its survival depended on the generosity and zeal of a decreasing number of parishioners. One aspect of its ministry was the development of uniformed organisations, epitomised by the stained-glass window on the north side, which depicts St Margaret commissioning a boy in scout uniform. But perhaps the spirit of the time is best instanced by the small tablet on the westernmost pillar, which records the death of a sidesman after a Sunday evening service.

The church was declared redundant in 1974 and its parish was united with that of St Denys, Walmgate. For a number of years the building was used a store for props from the Theatre Royal, and was held in trust by York Civic Trust along with some other redundant York churches.  Now it has a new life as a centre of excellence for the arts, the National Centre for Early Music. 

So music returns to St Margaret's. Perhaps prophecy of the church's future can be seen in the stained glass window in the south side, which depicts King David the Psalmist, holding his harp, alongside St Gregory, the 'originator' of church music. Moreover, in the churchyard are the bells that once hung in the tower of Holy Trinity Church, King's Square, at the end of the Shambles.  These three 'Clitherow Bells', all cast by William Chamberlain of London around 1440, were once heard in the Shambles where the Blessed Margaret Clitherow lived before her martyrdom. One has the Latin inscription: 'Holy Margaret, pray for us'. So Margaret's bell has returned to Margaret's church, at the beginning of a new chapter in the church's life.
© Henry E. C. Stapleton
The National Centre for Early Music has a sound-proofed performance space, state of the art acoustics, recording facilities and conference/event facilities, including wedding celebrations and other parties.  Attached to the church are purpose-built offices, which house the administration of York Early Music Foundation and its sister organisation York Early Music Festival.
NCEM in St Margarets church

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