St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale, Yorkshire, has the earliest know antiquity connected to the Ormerod family.

The following details, from the Guides to the Minster, published by the Parochial Church Council, tell the story.

St Gregory's Minster, Kirkdale, 1990

One would look far before finding a place which surpasses Kirkdale for the combination of beauty of setting with historic and architectural interest. Situated in that belt of limestone which separates Ryedale from the North Yorkshire Moors, through which the streams have scoured narrow valleys, Kirkdale can scarcely be seen from any direction until one is close at hand. The Hodge Beck, rising above Bransdale, flows southward through a wooded gorge and then, just below the old mill at Hold Caldron, it enters a subterranean channel, leaving a surface bed to carry the flood water after heavy rain. The Beck rises again at the spring at Howkeld and eventually rejoins the surface bed near Welburn Hall. At Kirkdale a ford crosses the bed of the stream; normally dry, in time of flood it can be covered by up to three feet of water.

Close to the ford there is an old quarry, in the face of which may be seen the two openings of a cave. In 1821 some quarrymen came upon enormous quantities of bones scattered inside the cave. The find was brought to the attention of William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford, the most distinguished authority of his day in this field. He hastened to Yorkshire at once to investigate. Buckland identified the bones of several species which included lion, bear, tiger, elephant, bison, deer, reindeer, rhinoceros, boar, horse, wolf and other smaller animals: there were also the remains of nearly three hundred hyenas. As the mouth of the cave does not exceed three feet in height the larger animals could not have entered it, so Buckland concluded that the cave had been a den of hyenas which had dragged their prey either whole or piecemeal into the cave to consume it. The discoveries in Kirkdale cave caused a sensation at the time. Buckland, a man of indefatigable energy, went on to explore twenty further caves in the next two years, and even imported a hyena to Oxford to observe - habits of killing and dismembering its prey in order to test his hypotheses. In 1823 he published his findings to great critical acclaim in his work Reliquiae Diluvianae; or Observations on the Organic Remains con rained in Caves, Fissures and Diluvial Gravel, and on other Geological Phenomena, Attesting the Action of an Universal Deluge. In short, Buckland argued that these remains proved that the Biblical narrative of the Flood was true. Although we may smile at such conclusions today we should remember that many of the best minds of the day accepted Buckland's reasoning. Furthermore, the minute and painstaking accuracy of his observation and description of the bones regardless of the conclusions he drew from them - set new standards of scientific method. The Kirkdale cave discoveries helped to inspire a landmark in the development of geological study.

On the other side of the Hodge Beck lies St. Gregory's Minster, alone in its valley. It stands surrounded by its quiet churchyard, with a background of thick woods. The dedication of the church recalls St. Gregory I, pope from 590 to 604, who initiated the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to Christianity by sending Augustine to king Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It was one of Augustine's companions, Paulinus, who brought Christianity to northern England a generation later and baptised Edwin, king of Northumbria, in 627.

The church is so obviously ancient that the visitor naturally asks, 'How old is it. For an answer he may turn to Kirkdale's most famous monument, the Anglo-Saxon sundial which is set into the outer wall of the nave just above the south doorway under cover of the porch. This is one of a number of late Anglo-Saxon sundials in this region: thers exist at Appleton-le-Street, Great Edstone, Leake, Old Byland, Sinnington and Skelton. However, the Kirkdale sundial is the most ambitious of the group in conception and design. It is also by far the best preserved, which is owing to its having been coveted by a coating of plaster for several centuries prior to 1771 and the protection subsequently afforded by the porch.

The sundial consists of a stone slab nearly eight feet long (236 cm) by about twenty inches wide (51 cm), divided into three panels. The central panel contains the dial, and the Old English inscription above it may be translated as "This is the day's sun-marker at every hour." The panels to left and tight contain a further inscription in Old English which furnishes precious information about the early history of the church, It may be translated as follows:

(Left-hand panel)

"Orm the son of Gamel acquired St. Gregory's church when it was completely ruined

(Right-hand panel)

and collapsed, and he had it built anew from the ground to Christ and to St. Gregory, in the days of king Edward and in the days of earl Tostig."

At the foot of the central panel a further inscription reads:

"Hawarth made me: and Brand (was) the priest."

Short though it is, this inscription provides us with a surprising amount of information. Most important of all, it enables us to date the earliest phase of the existing fabric with some precision. Tostig, the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the brother of Harold II the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was earl of Northumbria from 1055 to 1065. It was therefore during that decade that Orm the son of Gamel rebuilt St. Gregory's church, It is very rarely that we can date the construction of an early medieval church so precisely.

What survives of Orm's church in the existing visible fabric appears to be the south, west, and what remains of the east walls of the nave; the archway in the west wall of the nave (now opening into the much later west tower) which probably formed the original entrance to Orm's church; and the jambs, angle-shafts, bases and capitals of the arch which leads from the nave into the chancel, The latter archway is some four centuries later than Orm's church, but it appears that the masons who were responsible for it re-used what they could of an earlier chancel arch. It is therefore reasonable to infer that Orm's church had a chancel - not all Anglo-Saxon parish churches did - though it was probably a great deal smaller than the existing one.

Characteristically Anglo-Saxon architectural features are the size and manner of laying of the qunins of the south-west and north-west outside corners of the nave; the height and narrowness of the western arch; and the simplicity of the bases and capitals of the angle-shafts of the western and chancel arches.

The inscription on the sundial makes it clear that the church built by Orm replaced an earlier one on the site which was, 'completely ruined and collapsed' when Orm acquired it. Close scrutiny of the surviving fabric of Orm's church reveals three large stone crosses, much weathered, built into it, two in the outside of the south wall of the nave and one in the outside of the west wall to the north of the tower. These are gravestones of Anglo-Scandinavian design introduced to northern and eastern England by the Danes and Norwegians who settled here in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. They are most probably to be dated to the tenth century or early eleventh, and presumably were gravestones in the cemetery of the church which preceded Orm's rebuilding. It may seem a little odd to us that builders should use among their materials gravestones which had been erected in the fairly recent past, especially at a place where good building stone lies ready to hand: but the practice was not uncommon in buildings of this period; there is a nearby parallel, for example, in the church at Middleton between Kirkbymoorside and Pickering.

Very little indeed may be inferred about the earlier church on the site which Orm found in ruins. The only clues as to its character are furnished by the two tomb-slabs which are to be seen inside the church, under the arcade which separates the nave from the north aisle, (These too were incorporated into the fabric at Orm's rebuilding: they were moved to their present position at the time of the restoration of 1907-09). Expert scholarly opinion would date these to the Anglian or pre-Scandinavian period (i.e. before c.870): one of them appears to be of the eighth century and the other of the ninth. On the strength of this dating the history of the church on this site may be caned back to c.750, conceivably even earlier. For their day they are very handsome pieces which display craftsmanship of a high order. Furthermore, certain features of their design strongly suggest that they originally stood inside a church, These indications show that the persons once buried beneath them were of great status and prestige. The church, which originally housed these tombs, may well have been an imposing one.

One of these, upon which is a fine cross, was said, a century ago, to bear the inscription in runic characters, 'Cyning Æthilwald,' but no writing is now decipherable. This inscription was one of the foundations of the theory that Kirkdale was the true site of the monastery founded by S. Cedd in the 7th century.

Thus far legitimate inference: beyond lies guesswork. One reasonable guess is that the earlier church was a monastic one. If this were the case, it is tempting to associate it with the celebrated early Anglo-Saxon monastery of Lastingham, a mere seven miles (as the crow flies) to the north-east of Kirkdale. Lastingham was founded by St. Cedd in about 655. He was a native of Northumbria, a monk and missionary who became the first bishop of the East Saxons (i.e. Essex) in about 654 and died in 664. He kept up his links with his native region, and it was in the course of one of his sojourns in Northumbria after he had become a bishop that he founded Lastingham. (The sort of architecture favoured by Cedd may still be seen at the imposing, barn-like chutch of Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex). The monastery at Isastingham was an important one, and it is by no means impossible that it had daughter-houses. For a nearby and contemporary parallel we could point to Hackness, founded in 680 as the daughter-house of the monastery of Whitby. Did Kirkdale perhaps originate as a satellite of Lastingham? It may have been so.

Since very early times Kirkdale Church has been known as St. Gregory's Minster, which implies the existence of a religious house. It is strange to think that this monastery had ceased to be, centuries before the great Yorkshire Abbeys of Rievaulx, Byland and Fountains were begun.

S. Cedd, an Angle of Northumbria, was one of a family of missionary priests, of whom the most famous was Chad, first Bishop of Lichfield. They were all educated at Lindisfarne under S. Aidan, and Cedd preached first to the Middle Angles and then to the East Saxons. About 654 he became their Bishop.

The Venerable Bede writes of him:

The same man of God, whilst he was bishop among the East Saxons, was also wont several times to visit his own country, Northumberland, to make exhortations. Ethelwald, the son of King Oswald, who reigned among the Deiri, finding him a holy, wise and good man, desired him to accept some land to build a monastery, to which the king himself might frequently resort, to offer his prayers and hear the word, and be buried in it when he died; for he believed that he should receive much benefit by the prayers of those who were to serve God in that place.

That prelate, therefore, complying with the king's desires, chose himself a place to build a monastery among craggy and distant mountains, which looked more like lurking places for robbers and retreats for wild beasts, than habitations for men.

Bede goes on to say that to cleanse the place from former crimes, S. Cedd planned to spend all Lent there in prayer, but being called away on the king's affairs, his place was

taken by his brother Cynebil, who readily complied, and when the time of fasting and prayer was over, he there built the monastery, which is now called Lestingau, and established therein the religious customs of Lindisfarne, where they had been educated.

Bede also tells us that S. Cedd was visiting his monastery, when he died of a pestilence.

He was first buried in the open air; but in the process of time a church was built of stone in the monastery, in honour of the Mother of God, and his body interred in the same, on the right hand of the altar. The bishop left the monastery to be governed after him by his brother Chad.

It has generally been held that the monastery referred to was Lastingham, where the church is dedicated to S. Mary. but in 1846 D. H. Haigh claimed that it was Kirkdale. He identified the coffin lid with the cross as that of King Ethelwald of Deira, on the strength of the runic inscription. The other coffin lid with an interlace design, and the tassels of a pall on the edges, was said to be that of S. Cedd. This theory has had few supporters.

The dedication is interesting as S. Gregory was the Pope who sent Augustine's mission in 597. There was for a time a certain amount of disagreement between the Roman and Lindisfarne missions, which was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664. 5. Cedd was at Whitby and agreed to the adoption of Roman customs. It may well be that the dedication of a foundation, established by a Lindisfarne missionary, to S. Gregory, was a deliberate attempt to foster unity.


It is possible to discover a little bit about Orm from the slender documentation which survives from the eleventh century. Both Orm and Gamel are Scandinavian names. This renders it likely that the family was descended from the Scandinavian settlers of North Yorkshire. A plausible context could have been the handing out of English estates by king Canute (1016-35) to the aristocratic warriors who had conquered England for him in the years 1014-16. (The sundial at Old Byland church was commissioned by 'Sumerled the housecarl', another Scandinavian name, and the housecarls were the crack troops who formed the backbone of Canute's armies). Orm was a prominent person in Northumbria in the middle years of the eleventh century. He married into the leading aristocratic clan of the region. His wife Aethelthryth was the daughter of Ealdred, earl of Northumbria from 1016 to 1038; among his brothers-in-law was Siward, earl of Northumbria from about 1042 to 1055, famous for his exploits against the king of Scots, Macbeth, and as the founder of St. Olave's (i.e. Olaf's) church in York. Orm was a considerable landowner in Yorkshire before 1066, as we may learn from the witness of Domesday Book. Among his landholdings in Ryedale was the big and valuable estate based on Kirkbymoorside.

Earl Tosti. Tosti or Tostig, who became Earl of Northumberland in 1055, was banished for a variety of crimes, including the murder of Orm's father, Gamal, in 1065, but returned with Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, in the following year. The Norwegian army fought against Tostig's brother, Harold Godwinson, King of England, at Stamford Bridge, and there both Tostig and his Norwegian ally were killed. After the battle Harold Godwinson carried out his famous forced march to Hastings, where he was killed in battle by the Norman army of William the Conqueror.

It seems likely that the parish of Kirkdale (as opposed to the church itself) originated in a process of fragmentation of a once much larger unit of ecclesiastical administration, which had its hub in Kirkbymoorside. We touch here upon one of the most mysterious processes in early English history: the formation of our parishes.

The pastoral organisation of the Anglo-Saxon church within each diocese was focused upon the institution of the minster. Something must be said about this word before we go any further. Our modern word Minster is derived from the Old English mynster, itself a derivation from the latin term monasterium, which is also of course the ancestor of our word 'monastery' By ‘monastery’ we usually understand something like 'a community of monks vowed to living according to a monastic rule, Cut off from the world the better to devote themselves to prayer and worship.' The Anglo-Saxons sometimes used mynster in this sense, but more often they understood something rather different by it; something akin to what today is called in the Church of England a 'team ministry'. One should think of the typical Anglo-Saxon minster as a community of clergy (not necessarily celibate) who discharged pastoral functions over a wide area round about which could embrace many square miles and several villages or hamlets. It was an institution ideally adapted to the early days of Christianity in England when there were few priests, few churches and much work to be done: these early minsters had something of the character of mission stations. Much later on - and in northern England the key period seems to have been between about 1000 and 1150 - these early units came to fragment into smaller ones.

The most significant spur to fragmentation was the tendency for the landed classes to build village churches for their tenants staffed by individual priests whose pastoral responsibilities were restricted to the territory of the particular village itself. These smaller units became the parishes which in most rural areas of England retain today the shape and boundaries which they acquired in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

This evolution - greatly simplified for the sake of clarity in the sketch just offered - was complicated in much of the north and east of the country by the disruption occasioned by the Viking attacks and subsequent Scandinavian settlements of the ninth and tenth centuries. Whatever status Kirkdale might have enjoyed as a pastoral centre in the pre-Viking period, it appears that by the eleventh century the main ecclesiastical centre in this area was at Kirkbymoorside. Orm's great estate with its nucleus at Kirkbymoorside had a number of outliers attached to it. Some of these settlements evolved into separate parishes, for example Kirby Misperton. Kirkdale seems to have shared this evolution, with the difference from Kirby Misperton that its church was not built at a nucleated village because none existed in the dale. The parish consisted of a scatter of small hamlets and isolated farmsteads - Welburn, Skiplam, Nawton, Muscoates, Sunley Hill, Wombleton, and others, some of them now lost such as Walton and Hoveton. but its new church as rebuilt by Orm, embellished with its sundial by Hawarth, and served by the priest Brand, was where the old, ruined, minster church had stood in days gone by, the ruined church whose cemetery was still used by the local people for the burial of their dead.

This development cannot be proved: it can only be suggested. As a hypothesis about the evolution of the parish of Kirkdale all that is claimed for it is a certain plausibility. From these obscure matters we may return to the relatively straightforward story of the architectural development of the church.

At some point in the twelfth century the south doorway was built to replace or supplement the western entry. Otherwise, Orm's church appears to have remained unchanged until some point in the thirteenth century. To this period belongs the building of the north aisle and the arcade of three arches which cuts through the north wall of the nave to link nave and aisle. The survival of the thirteenth-century doorway and window in the south wall of the nineteenth-century chancel, and of the three lancer windows in its east wall, suggests that there were associated building works in the chancel too. The enlargement of the church by the addition of the north aisle - a very common feature of English parish churches in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - was presumably a response to a growing population in the parish. The population of England was steadily growing during this period and was at its most dense in the years around 1300, before the demographic disasters of the fourteenth century - the dreadful years of harvest failure and famine in 1315-18, and then the appalling visitation of the Black Death in 1348-50-administered a sharp check.

Further architectural changes took place in the fifteenth century. The most important of them was the enlargement of the chancel arch - re-using, as we have seen, parts of the Anglo-Saxon archway - which was perhaps associated with a rebuilding, possibly an enlargement, of the chancel. Fifteenth-century windows are to be found in the south wall of the nave and the east wall of the north aisle (now the vestry). The north wall of the north aisle seems to have been raised in the course of the fifteenth century. At some point in time unknown the south porch was added. Structurally, there matters rested until the nineteenth century.

The earliest surviving picture of the church is a sketch by J.C. Brooke printed in the journal Archaeologia in 1779 to accompany his article on the recently rediscovered sundial. It may be compared with a water-colour executed by an unknown artist in 1821: if this has survived, its whereabouts are unknown, but it was reproduced in C.L.R. Tudor's account of Kirkdale published in 1876. The two pictures show that the roof of the chancel was somewhat lower than the roof of the nave and of so gentle a pitch as to be almost flat. They also show a small, apparently wooden, belfry surmounting the roof of the nave towards its western end.

The chancel was re-roofed in 1633 - a date whose significance will appear later - and part of a beam bearing this date may be seen today hanging on the south wall of the chancel. Box pews and a western gallery were installed in the eighteenth century and remained in the church until the restoration of 1907-09.

Major structural changes occurred in the nineteenth century at Kirkdale as at so many other English parish churches. In 1827 the tower at the west end was built, and the earlier belfry dismantled. In 1881 the entire chancel was rebuilt by the patrons of the living, incorporating portions of the earlier structure as we have already seen: in addition to the thirteenth-century doorway and windows, already mentioned, the visitor should notice another piece of Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture, a panel of interlace which presumably formed part of a cross-shaft, set into the east wall. The decision was taken to give the new chancel a high, steep-pitched roof, and the result is out of proportion with the nave and the modest west tower. Finally in 1907-09 a general restoration of the interior of the nave took place: this included the removal of the gallery and box pews and their replacement with the present oak benches; the removal of a plastered ceiling and its replacement with oak beams; and the removal of the two tomb-slabs from the fabric of the west wall to their present places beneath the north arcade.

According to local legend, it was originally intended to rebuild the church nearer to the villages of Nawton and Wombleton. The stone, it is said, was taken to the chosen spot, but next morning it was found at the site of the old minster. It was taken back again, but once more returned by night to the dale, so at last the church was erected on the old site. A quaint version of this story is found in the diary of F. C. Dawson, schoolmaster of Appleton-le-Moors, who visited Kirkdale on 14th June, 1843:

We fell into conversation with an old lady who had come hither to muse over the grave of her lately departed husband. On remarking that the church was in a strangely out-of-the-way place, she gravely assured us that it was originally intended to stand on one of the neighbouring acclivities, but that every portion which the builders erected on the intended spot in the day time was miraculously brought down to the dale in the night, till at length the whole stood complete in its present position by supernatural agency.