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English Church Architecture.


WENSLEY, St. Michael  (SE 092 898),

North Yorkshire. 

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Dinantian Subsystem, Liddesdale Group.)


One of the most significant churches in the Yorkshire Dales,

with many interesting features.

This building (shown above from the northeast), notwithstanding its premier position in Wensleydale, is today in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.  The Trustís notes within, assign its construction to 1245, a curiously precise date for which no evidence is given.  Architecturally, the chancel would fit this date, but the aisled nave is certainly later, c. 1300, the two-storey N. vestry is Perpendicular, and the early Georgian tower bears the date '1719' above the W. windowThe church contains a lot of important woodwork, attributable to the sixteenth century onwards.














First, then, the chancel, whose interest lies principally to the south.  The three lancets in the S. wall are decorated internally with an order of side-shafts and a large frieze of dog-tooth running all the way round.  The westernmost lancet continues down as a lowside window beneath a transom, and the central window (illustrated above left) is set above a rectangular priestís doorway, enabling both the window and the top of the door to be framed as one by the dogtooth either side.  Of a piece with these lancets is the fine sedilia further east (though not the piscina beyond), formed of three equal bays, again with dogtooth (as seen above right), but the E. window is a later insertion, quite possibly contemporary with the nave and aisles, with its five stepped, trefoil-cusped lights and absence of tracery except for little trefoils above the outermost lights.  The only N. window in the chancel is a single, plain lancet, east of the vestry.


The aisled nave can be dated by its trefoil-cusped Y-traceried windows (two each to the north and south), which are characteristic of the close of c. 1300.  The buttresses between and to either side of these windows, rise up above the nave parapet and are decorated at the top with broad ogee-pointed recesses containing shields, a conceit that must surely be later again.  The aisle E. windows are each composed of three trefoil-cusped lancets set in an encompassing arch.  The N. and S. porches both lack side windows and are impossible to date with certainty, though the S. porch bears a sun-dial over the doorway, bearing the legend, 'As a shadow, such is life', and the date '1818'.


The N. porch inner doorway carries a couple of rolls with fillets on the outer order and a flat chamfer on the inner order, above a pair of side-shafts with large circular capitals.  A little hanging tracery at the top of the arch forms a trefoil-cusp in the head, and a more acute gable line above the doorway, points to the former existence of a more steeply-pitched porch.  The three-bay nave arcades are composed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from tall octagonal piers with octagonal capitals.  The chancel arch is similar.   


The Perpendicular, two-storey N. vestry, poses questions about its original function.  Could it once have been the dwelling of an acolyte priest or similar, like the vestries at Romaldkirk (County Durham), Ripley (North Yorkshire) and Hitcham (Suffolk), among many other geographically widely separated places?  However, other explanations are obviously possible, including the one suggested by Pevsner, who noticing that the upper window is barred, wondered if the upper storey once formed a relic chamber (The Buildings of England: the North Riding of Yorkshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, p. 382).  The only windows in the vestry are found in the E. wall, where a two-light square-headed one pierces each level.      



















The tower (seen above from the northwest) rises in three stages to a parapet, supported by clasping buttresses to the first stage only.  The bell-openings and W. window are two-light and round-headed, with keystones in the heads, and the W. windows in the aisles are similar and were clearly replaced at the same time.  As mentioned above, the tower W. window bears the date, '1719 (see the photograph above right);  the lights are round-headed and there is a plain circle in the head.   At the west end of the S. wall, a column of four rectangular slits, betrays the position of the tower stair.














Woodwork in the church includes, most importantly, the Bolton family pew, which is an elaborate construction in the east end of the N. aisle , formed of two sections, separately enclosed by a late seventeenth century screen roughly twelve feet in height (4 m.).  It opens southwards in each section through two round-headed arches divided by a hanging pendant (as seen above left, seen from the nave), and is provided with benches east and west, while a narrow division providing access behind (i.e. along the N. side) is partitioned off by a fine, re-used Perpendicular parclose screen (illustrated in the photograph above right, taken from the N. aisle), believed to have been brought here from Easby Abbey (Richmond) after the Dissolution.  The latter has been attributed to William Bronfleet or Brownfleet (fl. 1482 - 1523), who also worked at Ripon Cathedral (John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary to 1550, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, p. 37).    

















Other notable carpentry in the church includes:

  1. the mediaeval alms box (if that is what it is), inside the N. door to the left, of no clear date;

  2. the reconstructed choir stalls in the chancel, which preserve their mediaeval bench ends, with poppyheads and animal 'arm rests' that appear to include a bear, a lion, an eagle, a dragon, a rabbit and a dog (as illustrated in the two photographs above and the photograph below left, all showing stalls on the north side of the chancel);

  3. the communion rail, described by Pevsner as 'post Jacobean and pre-classical' (opus cit.), consisting of two sections supported on turned balusters, now minus the gate between;

  4. the tall pulpit, which according to the notes in the church was once part of a three-decker, dating from c. 1760;

  5. and the box pews in the nave of c. 1820 (ibid).

'Finally, the font (illustrated below right) bears the date '1662' together with the initials 'I.P.' and 'C.L.',  on an octagonal bowl supported on a concave-sided octagonal stem.  The circular wooden cover above, with large acorn boss, is probably contemporary.