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Ledsham (Yorkshire)


Dedication : All Saints         Simon Jenkins: **                                          Principal Features : Anglo-Saxon Core; Impressive Monuments

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As I am apt to repeat ad nauseam, the term "Anglo-Saxon" within the context of church architecture, is desperately unhelpful. It covers a period of at least 450 years. If we were to count back 450 years from 2017 when I am writing this piece we would be going back to 1567 when Elizabeth I was queen! Yet, in some ways, the vague term Anglo-Saxon reflects the difficulty we have with the churches of that half-millennium: England was not one kingdom but several; stone churches were few and far between and fewer still have survived; and the architectural style did not develop in a chronologically linear or even in regional fashion. This means we have big problems with dating. There may be little obvious difference between a church of AD700 and one of AD 1050.

Ledsham Church, however, belongs to the select group that was very early indeed. AD700 is the putative date for the initial building and it was possibly referenced by Bede in AD731 as "the monastery that lies in Elmet Wood". This makes it the oldest extant building in West Yorkshire. It also means that it was around for over 350 years before the Norman Conquest and unsurprisingly the remaining Anglo-Saxon parts tell of more than one stage of development.

As with many Anglo-Saxon foundations, however, only a practised eye would look at Ledsham Church today and detect its ancient origins. The most

obvious sign is the famous south door into the west tower, about which more later. The Anglo-Saxon part is, in effect, a church within a church. Much of its nave survives as today's nave but its original chancel has been replaced by a much longer thirteenth century one and the entire length of nave and chancel is paralleled on the north side by a fifteenth century north aisle and a fourteenth century lady chapel. In essence, if one were to bisect the floor plan (less the west tower) vertically and horizontally to form four smaller rectangles, the remaining Anglo-Saxon part occupies roughly the bottom left hand rectangle plus the lower part of the west tower.

The original church comprised the nave that we see now, with a shallow chancel. A little later a two-floored gabled porch was added at the west end and this is the base of what is now the west tower. At about the same time a south porticus was added and possibly another on the north side, of which no sign remains. A porticus is a side chapel, generally much shallower than a later transept and designed for access from within through a doorway. The Church Guide states that the south porticus was of two storeys and its “artist’s impression” of the original church shows windows at the upper level to the east and south. Above the present south door on the inside is the filled-in top of either a doorway or a window. H.M.Taylor, the all-time expert on Anglo-Saxon churches speculated the that this is in fact the top of a single doorway that would have reached a height of fourteen feet from the ground with a width of only two feet. A doorway of such bizarre proportions would, in his view, have simply have been an extreme example of the Anglo-Saxon love of height in a church and that it might have been designed to allow the carrying of a tall processional cross. He also pointed to a lack of evidence that any upper storey windows ever existed. I don’t find that very conclusive, and Pevsner found the single storey theory unlikely, but I would add that I cannot see any evidence on the inside of the south wall that a floor to an upper room existed either. One might also wonder how such an upper chamber would have been accessed? That’s an unanswerable mystery for us but I prefer Taylor’s version, if only because it is more interesting!

That was about it until the Norman Conquest. The Normans turned the west porch into a tower, adding a bell stage. There must originally have been a doorway from the porch to the nave such as we can still at Monkwearmouth Church where entry is still from the base of the tower. At Ledsham the Normans turned the doorway into the more familiar tower arch. It is unusually plain for a Norman arch but you can tell it is a later insertion because the impost blocks do not bond into the surrounding masonry. Above this arch is a small Anglo-Saxon window. It is tempting to think this is a sliced-off doorway but it is splayed towards the inside of the tower indicating it was certainly built as a window. The porticus was turned into a south porch.

The chancel arch is original Anglo-Saxon. This is easily ascertained by the characteristically crude stonework to either side. The impost blocks have some ornamentation but these were a subsequent (and dubious) addition. The voussoirs to the arch above are to my eyes unusually regular and hint at possible restoration at some point in history.

We don't know what the Normans did with the chancel because in about 1240 a new one was built. The east window was a typical Early English triple lancet arrangement but it was replaced by the present gothic style window in the restoration work in the nineteenth century. In the fourteenth century a lady chapel was built adjacent to the chancel with a two arch arcade between the two. This would have given the church a rather incongruous ground plan but a north aisle was added in the fifteenth century in the Perpendicular style of the day. Taken altogether, there is a spacious and open feel to the church that belies its ancient origins.
So to the south west door that is the iconic feature of this church. It was the original entrance to the church and yet is stands only 5'7" which gives you some idea of the physical stature of people of the day. Its jamb stones are massive as are its voussoirs (arch stones) and it is worth comparing the latter with the chancel arch which is its contemporary but which has much smaller and neater voussoirs. There are impost blocks that are - unusually - chamfered and which have crude interlaced decoration. Around the whole piece a course of decorated stonework.

This decorated strip and the imposts are bones of contention. There is general agreement that the decorative strip is from the Victorian restoration of 1871 but what is less clear is whether such a strip existed before ans what it looked like. An account of the church in 1862 says that there was and that it was crudely decorated, but sadly the there was no sketch of this. The decoration on the imposts is extraordinarily crude - ugly in fact. We can only surmise that it was a bodged copy by a mason with skills grossly inadequate for the work. Is this really all the work of a Victorian restorer? Did he just repair what was already there. I struggle to believe that although the chamfering is unusual. The decorative strip is hardly a masterpiece but is far better-executed than the imposts.  It is odd, perhaps, that this doorway is seen as so iconic, given the amount of restoration it has seen but it is undoubtedly exciting for the student of Anglo-Saxon architecture. Either way, to visit Ledsham Church is to visit one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in England.

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Left: Looking east towards the chancel. Interestingly, when you enter the church it is not immediately obvious whether this is the chancel or a south aisle since the north aisle itself stretches as far as the east end and its gothic arch is somewhat more imposing. The south west quarter of this church, however, is the original Anglo-Saxon part of the church and still forms the chancel of the modern church. The simple chancel arch is itself Anglo-Saxon. Centre: The west wall is Anglo-Saxon and as far as the stone course that is level with the tops of the south wall and the aisle arcade. The window space is Anglo-Saxon but the tower doorway is Norman, although with its plainness we could all be forgiven fro thinking it to be Anglo-Saxon. Within this space there would have originally been a west door that would have given access from what was then a porch into the nave itself. Nowadays, of course, entry is from the south side. The window reflects the fact that the porch was of two storeys, the floor bring at a level just above the imposts of the tower arch. Right: Looking from the north aisle into the north chapel. This was originally the Lady Chapel before the Reformation proscribed such things. This was fourteenth century and in the Decorated style, although the east window has clearly been replaced. Prior to the building of the aisle this north chapel must have been a rather inelegant addition to the floor plan.

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Left: Looking towards the west through the chancel arch. The jambs are clearly Anglo-Saxon although the stonework has clearly been altered on the north side to accommodate the large squint. The imposts have what is very obviously Victorian decoration. The voussoirs of the arch are beautifully cut and laid. HM Taylor was of the view that these are original Anglo-Saxon but, reluctant as I am to gainsay such a great authority on Anglo-Saxon churches, I do wonder if they have not been, at least, relaid. Interestingly, the imposts have a curved profile on the inside matching the design of those on the south-west door (see below). It seems to be agreed that those pesky Victorians saw fit to add decoration to imposts on both the south west door and the chancel arch. One wonders why they would have gone to that trouble? One also wonders why the decoration on the chancel arch is, if nothing else, neat while that on the doorway is such a mess?  Centre: The hefty squint from the north aisle into the chancel looking towards the west. Right: The north west corner of the church.

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Left: The chancel of AD1240. The east window is a Victorian replacement of two Early English lancets.. The south windows to the right are original. Note the broad two-bay arcade into the north chapel which give such an open feel to this church. Right: The view to the west through the north aisle arcade. Above the south door you can see the reamins of filled-in the porticus doorway/window.

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Left: The chancel from the north chapel. Right: The monument to Sir John and Lady Lewis in the north west corner of the church dates from 1677. Sir John was a factor in the fabulously wealthy East India Company and became very wealthy himself (of course!).

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Left: The south doorway with the porticus opening above, There is no sign of a floor to an upper storey. Above Right: the chancel arch impost block with Victorian decoration. Lower Right: The impressive monument in the north aisle.

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Left and Right: Built into the inside wall of the north aisle are these two Anglo-Saxon stones that are assumed to be the arms of a churchyard cross.

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Left: The west wall has this re-used stone upon which a butcher’s cleaver was carved. It is believed to have been the side of a Roman altar. Right: The aisle arcade has remains of filled in Anglo-Saxon windows that would once have been on the north face of the church. 

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Left:  The churchwarden Audrey Taylor informs me that this font was found buried in a field nearby! Such was the fate of many a font. it seems. Is it Anglo-Saxon? Is it even Christian? I’m pretty sure it’s both, but we can’t rule out Norman origin. Notice the bulging projections on each corner which was a feature of many early fonts, often adorned by carved heads. Right: On the south west corner of the tower is this curious arrangement of masonry. Nobody else seems to have remarked on it and I am possibly “seeing things” that don’t exist but it looks like stonework recovered from an Anglo-Saxon window, especially the rounded section. Mind you, it’s located in the original Anglo-Saxon section of the tower so it doesn’t seem as if it could have been re-used in its construction. This part does look like it might have been repaired, however. Could it be stonework from a window of an upper floor in the original south porticus? Yes, maybe I am seeing things!

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Left: The south wall of the Anglo Saxon nave shows blocked windows either side of the perpendicular style replacement. Note the lintel of the western window which is carved from a single block of stone. Note the carving of a head inserted above the present window. Right: The southern exterior of the Early English - and heavily buttressed - chancel.

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Left: The controversial - but indisputably Anglo-Saxon - south west door into the tower. It is only 5’7” high. Compare those massive and crude voussoirs with thos of the chancel arch. Note the enormous jamb stones. The decorative strip around the outside is the main source of debate. Centre: The south side of the tower showing the position of the doorway. To its right are two small Anglo-Saxon windows with, like those of the chancel, lintel stones cut from single blocks. The two windows reflect the two floors in the original porch. Right: One of the tower windows with, of course, a modern sill.

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Left: The top section of the outer moulding of the door has rosette carvings that are obviously modern. Right: The impost blocks are another matter. The carving  is crudely executed  and it seems to me to be unlikely that it was produced in the Victorian era.

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Left: The upright parts of the south east door moulding are decorated with vine scroll. This is a decoration very much in keeping with the Anglo-Saxon era. It does seem likely that the Victorian restorers simply copied what was there before. Centre: The tower from the south. Right: The south door.

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Left: This is the carving placed over the perpendicular window on the the south wall. Second Left and Second Right: These two coats of arms are label stops on the west window. They are rather nice but I don’t know whose arms they are. The window itself is a Victorian replacement so presumably these arms are also from that era. Far Right: The top belfry stage of the tower (but not, of course, the battlements and spire) was added by the Normans in completely different stone that still stands out to this day.  They also added a hefty corbel table.

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Left: The church from the south. The porch stands where the porticus originally was. Right: The north side is, sadly, unloved and neglected. Shame.

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Left: The Norman stage of the tower on the south side showing the corbel table, Norman bell opening and later battlements, pinnacles and gargoyles. Right: The east end of the church. Looking at the lie of the land it is unsurprising that heavy buttressing is needed on the south side. It’s a common issue as churches grow over the centuries. This little church started life as a nave, a porticus, a two storey porch and a small chancel. Adding an aisle and a chapel on the “uphill” side was obviously pushing things literally and figuratively. 





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