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History of Wakefield Cathedral - 15th Century

The Fifteenth Century.

The Fifteenth century which saw the Wars of the Roses, seemed once again to prove the rule that the more unsettled the kingdom was, the more the citizens of Wakefield wanted to improve their church. It was decided to build a new tower and spire, taller than any in Yorkshire. At first they were reluctant. Perhaps because of John Bolteby's mis- management, or perhaps because he had bitten of more than he could chew, funds to build a new tower he had started were slow in coming in. In 1409 another Archbishop of York, Henry Bowet, was once again staying at Nostell. He gave a helping hand by promising 40 day Indulgences to all who contributed. Luckily Martin Luther had not yet appeared on the scene to condemn the sale of Indulgences. After the Reformation the trick would not have worked. (In the Middle Ages, the Church sold Indulgences, which were said to excuses a person from a certain amount of time in Purgatory.) As it was the tower was completed in 1420. The same technique was used as at the first expansion of the Norman church nearly 300 years earlier. So that worship could continue with as little disturbance as possible, the tower was built ten feet West of the Nave. When it was complete the Nave was lengthened by a final bay to join the tower. The graceful spire, standing 247 feet high, symbolises the faith of Wakefield's citizens. Started during the reign of Henry IV, when England was again in trouble, and surmounting the financial problems, it was completed shortly after the Battle of Agincourt when England's pride was at her greatest. In 1429 Joan of Arc once again humbled England. As the Clerestory had not yet been added, the Nave roof was not much higher that the side aisles are now. The tower and spire must have looked even more needle like and dominant than they do today - especially as none of the neighbouring buildings come anywhere near it in height.
The spire has given continuous trouble through the centuries. it was entirely rebuilt in the 1860's, but the main structure of the tower remains as it was built 550 years ago, even though it was recased in the 1860's over the medieval masonry. In 1455, only two years after the end of the 100 years war, the Wars of the Roses broke out. York fought Lancaster for the Crown. The citizens of Wakefield once again set about the most ambitious development of their church yet. In 1460 the Battle of Wakefield was fought the other side of the River Calder, towards Sandal Castle, even as the masons were raising the roof of the Nave, and adding the Clerestory to let in more light - though not enough as we shall see. The Lancastrians won at Wakefield, to the delight of the Vicar John Preston, but three months later at the battle of Towton fortunes were reversed. The Vicar of Wakefield had, not for the last time, backed the wrong horse. He was attained (accused of treason) and fled the into exile. Meanwhile the citizens liberally sprinkled their new Nave ceiling with roof bosses bearing the emblems of the successful Yorkist King, Edward IV. So they distanced themselves from their traitorous Vicar and showed their loyalty to the Crown. The Flacon, Falcon in a Fetterlock, and White Rose in a Fetterlock are there to this day. John Preston was succeeded by Thomas Rogers who was one of those rare Vicars to spend almost the whole of his forty year incumbency in Wakefield. As a result those years from 1462-1502 were the richest in the whole life of the Church. As soon as the Nave Clerestory was complete, he set about rebuilding the Chancel from the top to bottom in the Perpendicular style. Still today the five bays on each side of the Choir, and the windows above, are the only part of the medieval church to be really consistent architecturally. The line of the Choir is at a slight angle to that of the Nave. This is not because laid it out wrong at Thomas Roger's rebuilding, but because they followed the line of the original Norman Church. Many Cruciform Norman Churches have Chancels that bend either to the North or to the South. This is thought to symbolise the hanging head of the crucified Jesus on the Cross. It was almost an accident that this fifteenth century extension is as complete as it is. Originally it was only intended to build the new Chancel aisles (today's Lady Chapel and North Choir Aisle) as far as the third bay of the Chancel itself - but in 1458 a wealthy wool merchant, Thomas Haukyn left money for the rebuilding and doubled the amount if the Lady Chapel was to be made the same length as the Chancel. Not for the last time, the whims of one generous benefactor were to have a decisive effect on the overall design. After the Chancel and its side aisles had been completed, it only remained to widen the Nave side aisles, and to build porches for the North and South doors. Before Edward IV died in 1483 the Church's outer shell had reached very much the same shape that is has today. Inside of course it was very different. There was little furniture.
In medieval churches you did not expect to be able to sit unless you were old and infirm - when you 'went to the wall' - to use the stone that was built into the walls under the great Perpendicular windows. All trace of that bench is lost now, for the South Nave wall was entirely remodelled in 1724; the North in 1789. By then there were so many pews that there was no need to retain the stone bench.
In 1483 there were at least five altars. It was the custom of the wealthy to endow 'Chantry Chapels' either in the Parish Church or elsewhere in the Parish itself, where priests were to pray regularly. We have already seen how John de Wakefield founded the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin in 1322. Its altar was in what was dedicated by Archbishops Melton, together with the altar in the North Transept to St High Altar to All Saints. In the Reverend Thomas Roger's great rebuilding programme in the fifteenth century, first Sir John Pilkington reformed the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin, moving its altar East in the newly built South Chancel Aisle; then in 1480 Messrs Thurstone Banaster and Roger Nowell founded the Chantry of St Peter. Its altar, taking the place of the old Nave altar, was at the Eastern end of the North aisle - and the Cross Keys of St Peter are still be found on one of the roof bosses above it. (The story of its founding makes intriguing reading for Thurstone was an outlaw who used Roger Nowell as his legal 'front' man.) In 1495 Henry Soothill of Soothill Hall. Batley whose father had recently acquired the Manors of Wrenthorpe and Ardsley, endowed the Chantry of St Katherine - with no fewer that four priests, to say Mass at the East end of the South aisle of the Nave. Finally in 1498 William Graystoke, a prosperous Wakefield Mercer, endowed the Trinity Chantry using the altar dedicated to St Nicholas in the North Transept. William was a supporter of Henry VII, and also helped pay for the new-fangled pews when they were installed in 1508. One of the pew ends has survived and can be seen in the Lady Chapel today. In addition there was a sort of poor man's Chantry, dedicated to Corpus Christ, known as the 'Service of the Morrow Mass'. Its priest had to say Mass daily at 5.00am for the benefit of the servants and labourers in the parish. There were four other Chantry Chapels in the town, and their priests also joined in the daily offices of the Parish Church. As a result, although it was not a Cathedral with its Chapter, or a Monastic Foundation with its Monks, there were a total of twenty-five priests attached to the Church. They needed stalls in the Choir and in the reign of Richard III these were provided when in 1482 Thomas Savile married Margaret Bosworth. To celebrate the wedding, he gave the necessary 25 stalls. His coat of arms entwined with hers is carved on the end of the prayer desk by the Bishop's throne. His crest of an owl is carved there too.
The stalls were mainly on the South side of the Chancel, and each had a folding seat or 'misericord' - the underside was beautifully carved. In the nineteenth century another 14 were added and they too were carved. Although it is easy to tell which of the prayer desks are new, it is not always easy to tell which seats are. Of the thirty nine that exist today, twelve have a simple Yorkshire Rose; eight have vine leaves and grapes; but the others have a rich collection of designs both sacred and secular, serious and funny. There is a ram caught in a thicket, an ox, an eagle in flight, an angel with the Book of Life, and a pelican with her young; but also the chain and sceptre, the crest of the Duke of York; there are one or two human portraits, two of the wild man in the woods, and two of the man with a huge tongue who both appear frequently on the roof bosses; there is a dragon, a satyr and a lovely juggler peering at you through his legs.
Those anonymous fifteenth century woodcarvers who adorned so many of our churches often instruct us, entertain us and tell us much about the society of their day at the same time. We have seen how the roof bosses of the Nave had been witnesses to the politics of the 1460's. The roof bosses of the Chancel tell us something about the theology of the age - and very contemporary it is too! For apart from one boss depicting an arm holding aloft a laurel wreath, there are only three that have any design other than a general pattern of leaves. Immediately over the place where the High Altar then stood (it is marked by an inscription in front of the Altar rails), is the head of God the Father, bearded and long-haired looking benignly down on His people celebrating at His Altar. Just to the West, on the central beam is a very feminine looking Angel, with a band round her hair, holding the Sacred Heart of Jesus, symbolising the Holy Spirits; then, not next, but three sections further West, a very human and very contemporary Jesus wearing the leather jerkin and leather cap of a fifteenth century Wakefield artisan with whom, by his position, almost over the nave, he so clearly identifies.


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This page (cath15.html) was last modified on Sunday 27/01/2013