YORK in the middle ages was a city of churches. They were everywhere – no fewer than 47 of them within the city walls alone, according to a new book by local historian Paul Chrystal.

Many, such as St Benet’s on Swinegate or St Mary ad Valvas on College Green, are long gone – demolished in the time of King Henry VIII or even earlier. Others survive, but are no longer used as churches: the former St John’s on Micklegate, for example, which became first an arts centre and more recently a bar.

Then there are those still in use as churches to this day: St Michael le Belfrey, St Helen’s in Stonegate, All Saints North Street and All Saints Pavement, Holy Trinity Micklegate, St Denys’, St Olave’s and St Mary Bishophill Junior.

The oldest date to before the Norman conquest, and so have been places of worship for more than 1,000 years: a sobering thought to bear in mind next time you step inside the doors.

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St Olave's, York

Our ancestors were a devout bunch, clearly. Except that medieval church-building had as much to do with wealth and power (and securing a place in heaven) as it did with religion, says Paul, in his book York’s Churches and Places of Worship.

“Church building was all the rage in the 10th and 11th centuries, financed... often... by secular patrons anxious for the power of having a church of (their) own,” he writes. “Many were founded on private land and were subject to the vicissitudes of landlords: as a consequence, churches came and churches went.”

This actually became a problem for church leaders. By the 12th century they were increasingly anxious about the fact that so many churches were privately owned, Paul writes, and exerted pressure on powerful families to hand them over.

Some did. But others, like Ralph Nuvel, owner of All Saints in Peasholme Green, refused, and clung on to what they considered their own property.

The wealthy magnates who wanted their own churches weren’t always very particular about where they got the stone, either, treating York itself – and especially the city’s Roman ruins – as a quarry.

“Sacrilegious as it sounds today, the obvious thing for a builder to do was recycle all that Roman stone that was lying around,” Paul writes. “A number of churches were constructed using second hand Roman stone.”

Still, the explosion of church building in the early Middle Ages brought churches closer to the communities they served – and led to the system of parishes we still have today, Paul says.

In York’s Churches and Places of Worship, Paul embarks on the ambitious job of documenting the history of every one of the city centre’s churches – both those still in existence (including York Minster) and those long since vanished.

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But he doesn’t stop there. He also tackles abbeys and convents, nonconformist chapels, other places of worship such as the Bull Lane mosque, and secular buildings with a religious connection, such as almshouses, St William’s College and even Clifford’s Tower.

And, because none of these buildings would even have existed without the people who built them or worked in them, he includes a chapter entitled York’s saints and sinners: heroes, heretics and villains. “This includes arsonists, architects and archbishops amongst many other mover and shakers in York’s rich ecclesiastical history,” he writes.

Here are a few highlights...


St Benet’s. Built some time before 1154, this once stood on the corner of Swinegate and Back Swinegate. It was named after St Benet’s Abbey in Norfolk, which was part of the Order of St Benedict. It fell into ruin, however, and was demolished in about 1300. A description of the site in 1337 has it as “a vacant place called Patrikpole, lying in length 114 feet towards Thoresdaymarket and 80 feet towards Steyngate... but now lying waste and covered in rubbish”. In 1361 the vicars Chiral of York Minster took over the site and built a row of small houses at what became called Benetplace.

St John the Baptist, Hungate (also known as St John-in-the-Marsh because it was near the Foss).

The church was built some time before 1154, and wasn’t without problems because of its location. “In 1409 the parishioners complained that the priest was having problems getting through the service due to the noise and smell created by the dogs and birds running and flying riot,” Paul writes.

“The stench from nearby Hungate was an additional chronic problem.” The church was demolished in the 1550s, but in 2013 archaeologists excavating on the site of the new Hungate development uncovered the remnants of the church which had been lost for centuries.

York Press: Long-lost York church discovered by archaeologists

Archaeologists excavating at the site of former St John-in-the-Marsh, Hungate, in 2013

St Crux, Pavement

The 1887 dynamiting of St Crux, with its Italianate cupola (top), was “one of the most depressing acts of Victorian civic vandalism to be visited on any city,” Paul writes. Few today would probably disagree. Surviving photographs show a church of real grace and elegance – one very different from any others in the city.

The church was originally built before the Norman Conquest – it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The distinctive brick tower with its Italianate cupola clearly dated from much later, however. It was added in 1697, Paul writes, and was supposedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren. By 1881, however, the church had closed on health and safety grounds and there were insufficient funds to save it. It was demolished six years later, in a manner that was described as having been done “barbarously... without rhyme or reason”. The only clue now to the church’s existence is the small church hall at the bottom of Shambles which was, Paul says, built from the rubble.


St Olave’s, Marygate, was built some time before 1055, Paul writes – firmly in York’s “Viking age”. It was dedicated to St Olaf, King of Norway and was clear evidence that Christianity was by this time the religion of choice even for many of York’s Viking residents. It was actually built by Earl Siward, who governed much of what is today Yorkshire on behalf of King Cnut. Paul recounts a story from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum which describes Siward’s death. He was suffering from dysentry – but was determined not to “die like a cow”, Paul writes. Wanting to die instead like a soldier, he “donned a suit of armour, took up an axe and shield and, suitably attired, passed away”. Quite a man.


All Saints, North Street. A church existed on this site before the Norman conquest, although the striking 120-foot spire wasn’t built until the late 1300s, Paul writes. In the 1420s and 1430s a hermit – the Benedictine nun Dame Emma Raughton – lived locked in a small house attached to the church, where she reputedly experienced seven visions of the Virgin Mary.

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An early photo of All Saints, North Street

Today, the church is perhaps best known for its stunning medieval stained glass – some of the finest in Europe outside York Minster. it includes the famous 1410 “Pricke of Conscience” window which depicts the end of the world – the last 15 days on earth before the Day of Judgments. Panels include the seas rising and falling, monsters roaring, buildings being destroyed by an earthquake, and the cowering figures of terrified people.

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Flames consuming the world from one of the window panels at All Saints, North Street

All Saints, Pavement

Another distinctive surviving church, also dating from before the Norman conquest. It’s most striking feature is the octagonal lantern tower, which dates from about 1400. For many years, Paul writes, this “beamed out a burning light to guide travellers into York from the surrounding depths of the dangerous Forest of Galtres”.

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The tower of All Saints, Pavement in the light of a winter evening


St William – William Fitzherbert. A nephew of William the Conqueror and cousin of King Stephen, William became Archbishop of York in 1141 – largely because of his birth and connections, Paul Chrystal writes. He was vilified by Yorkshire’s Cistercian monks, and St Bernard of Clairvaux even complained to the Pope about him, claiming that he was “rotten from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head”.

He was deposed by Pope Eugenius III in 1147. But somebody was clearly on William’s side. Both Pope Eugenius and St Bernard, who had denounced William, died within a few years – as did his replacement as Archbishop of York, Henry Murdac.

William was reinstated by Pope Anastasius IV. He entered York in triumph in 1154, and was greeted by a massive crowd. So massive, in fact, that the Ouse Bridge collapsed under the combined weight.

Miraculously, no one was killed. But within a few days, Paul writes, William fell ill under suspicious circumstances while taking Mass in the Minster, and died.

Was it literally a poisoned chalice, Paul asks? Whatever, William’s embalmed head is preserved in the Minster.

In 1227, he was canonised by Pope Honorius III. But his sainthood probably owed as much to the fact the dean of York at the time had one eye on the lucrative pilgrim industry, Paul writes, and wanted a saint to compete with Canterbury’s Thomas Becket.

  • York’s Churches and Places of Worship by Paul Chrystal is published by Stenlake Publishing, priced £18.