The Church of St Margaret
St Margaret's Church is a great survivor. For 1000 years or so, this church and churchyard have been holy ground. Now, phoenix-like, St Margaret's rises again from the ashes to offer herself in service to the community.
The first mention of the church is in a document of 1165-75, in which Walter, son of Fragenulf, granted the two churches of St Margaret and St Mary to St Peter's, later St Leonard's Hospital. The dedication is probably to St Margaret of Antioch. According to a 5th-century legend, she was a priest's daughter, a shepherdess, who resisted the blandishments of the local pagan governor and refused to become his wife, for which obstinacy she was finally beheaded. Her popularity revived considerably at the time of the crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, perhaps by association or confusion with Queen Margaret of Scotland who died in 1093 and was canonised in 1250.
Of the original 12th-century building, all that remains is the piece of wall between the west wall and the first pillar of the arcade, which formed the north-west corner of a rectangular church that was probably the size of the present nave.
In 1308 the parish of St Mary's was united to St Margaret's, after which the church was rebuilt and enlarged, adding the tower at the centre of the west wall and the north arcade, which provided a narrow aisle. The east windows of the nave (one of which had a stained-glass window with the name of the 1399 rector) and that of the north aisle are decorated in style. The north and south windows are perpendicular, 15th-century.
The sanctuary was at the east, enclosed by a wooden screen; the parishioners worshipping in the western part. The high altar, with two latten candlesticks bequeathed in 1515, stood beside the existing piscina, where the sacred vessels were washed after the mass. Members of the parish formed themselves into a group or guild, to honour Our Lady, setting up an altar and statue, probably at the west end. There was also an altar to St Bridget of Sweden and 'lights' - candles - kept burning in front of statues of St Nicholas and St Loy (Eligius), the patron saints of sailors and blacksmiths.
Unlike its neighbour St Denys, St Margaret's was poor in endowments and has no rich stained glass. Nonetheless, in the first half of the 15th century it could afford accommodation successively to two anchoresses in the churchyard - perhaps the vestry on the south side was built for that purpose. Adjacent to its doorway is a fragment of a gravestone with a Latin inscription that translates: 'Pray for the Soul of Agnes . who died September MCCCCCII '.
The Reformation began a series of changes in church life. The side altars, 'lights' and sanctuary screen were removed and a wooden table replaced the stone altar. In the parochial reorganisation, the church of St Peter-le-Willows was sold and the parish united with St Margaret's.
Between 1670 and 1675 the steeple collapsed on the nave. The tower was not rebuilt until 1684, when extensive brickwork was used in the repair. In 1700 two bells cast by the York bellfounder Samuel Seller were installed in the belfry; a third by Dalton was added in 1788. About this time the parish also acquired a silver chalice and paten made by Marmaduke Best, a local silversmith. But the greatest acquisition was the south doorway that came from the church of St Nicholas, which had suffered severe damage in 1644, during the Civil War.
This remarkably fine but now much decayed Romanesque doorway dates from the end of the 12th century. The outer band of the arch (the 'label') depicts the astrological signs of the zodiac in 12 oval medallions, and the Labours of the Month in 12 circular ones. The heads of the capitals include stories from Aesop's Fables. It is hard to recognise many details, but the sign of Pisces (the fishes) and Scorpio (the crab) can just be identified, with the help of 18th-century engravings. The doorway would have been all the more striking in its original bright colouring.
There were still fields beneath the city walls and along the river Foss at the start of the 18th century. That gentle way of life is reflected in several elegant memorial tablets, the style of the Lord's Prayer beside the East window, and the charities recorded on the Benefaction Boards near the door.
However, the 19th century brought a large increase in the size of the population, with many Irish labourer immigrants, for whom St George's Roman Catholic Church was built. In 1851 as St Margaret's various alterations were made: a western gallery was set up and a window pierced in the south wall. At the same time, the north aisle was increased in size and a new font placed at its west end. The congregation was given pitch-pine pews, a new pulpit and choir stalls (facing north and south) were built, and an organ installed. The architect was Thomas Pickersgill, who became City Architect, Engineer and Surveyor in 1865 and who also restored St Denys' Church. He designed the churchyard gates for St Margaret's, which were cast at the nearby renowned foundry of John Walker.
As the 19th century proceeded, Walmgate as an area deteriorated. At the start of the 20th century plans for rehousing and rebuilding were initiated. But progress was slow. The number of service men commemorated on the War Memorial indicates the size of the population. It was to take many decades before the rebuilding work was completed and the area redeveloped. Throughout this period the church continued its work: its very survival depending on the generosity and zeal of a decreasing number. One aspect of its ministry was the development of 'uniformed organisations', epitomised by the stained-glass window on the north side, which depicts St Margaret commissioning a boy in scout uniform. But perhaps the spirit of the time is best instanced by the small tablet on the westernmost pillar, which records the death of a sidesman after a Sunday evening service.
The church was declared redundant in 1974 and the parish united with that of St Denys. For a number of years the building was used a store for props from the Theatre Royal. Now it begins a new life as the National Centre for Early Music.
So music returns to St Margaret's. In the beauty of music many are made conscious of, and experience, the Divine. Perhaps prophecy of St Margaret's future can be seen in the stained glass window in the south side, which depicts King David the Psalmist, holding his harp, alongside St Gregory, the 'originator' of church music. Whatever, the future as the home for the National Centre for Early Music seems an excellent and very happy choice for the Church of St Margaret.
In its decayed state it is hard to imagine that from the mid 18th-century onwards the South Doorway of St Margaret was, perhaps, the most frequently drawn and engraved architectural feature in the city. Yet even in its decline it adds some distinction and interest that this building would otherwise not have.
This is a very remarkable Romanesque doorway of the mid twelfth century originally part of the fabric of the church of St Nicholas' Hospital which stood outside the walls on the south side of what is now called Lawrence Street. The origin of the hospital is obscure but it appears to have been a royal donation in the reign of King Stephen. The style of the carving is French in feeling and this king had contacts with that country and its craftsmen. Unusually, it seems that the chancel of this building may have been used as the chapel for the inmates and the nave for the people of the parish.
The civil war in 1644 caused much damage to the fabric; and the parish was subsequently united to St Lawrence's. It is probable that, in 1684 when St Margaret's was being repaired after the fall of the spire, the doorway was dismantled and reassembled here. At the same time the similar fine but smaller doorway at St Denys' may have been removed there from St Nicholas'. The bells from St Nicholas' were rehung in St John's, Ouse Bridge End in 1653 and building stone reused to repair Dunnington Church in 1717.
In 1885 St Margaret's again under went considerable repair. The porch stones were taken down one by one and rebuilt. In the process a number were displaced; hence the order is not the same as in many early engravings. The polluted air of the last two hundred years, in particular the last fifty, has taken its toll on the carving and even the 19th' century yellowish stones are disintegrating. However, the engravings, particularly those by John N. Carter (1791), Joseph Halfpenny (1807), and John Browne (1826) and early photographs have recorded this doorway in considerable detail and much can be reconstructed from them. Perhaps the wonders of digital photography may one day be able to reproduce an impression of what the original carving may have been like.
The doorway consists of four orders and a label. Each one has a distinctive pattern. The columns on either side have a zigzag chevron pattern. The capitals are restorations. An unusual feature is the two niches on either side. These might originally have contained statues but are more likely to have been a fashionable detail inserted when the doorway was moved here in the 17th century.
At a purely practical level, the purpose of a doorway is to enable a person to go from one space to another. But the significance of the place entered affects the understanding of the doorway. In theological terms, to pass from the churchyard to the church is to pass from this world to another world, from earth to heaven. Mortal man may enter into the I-Jails of Paradise. For this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.
Sometimes, therefore, such doorways have the figure of the Lord in Judgement to reveal how God welcomes the good into Paradise but sends the wicked to Hell. But at St Margaret's the signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Month, which could once be seen on the label, seem to teach that the Lord is the Lord both of the months of the year and the Lord of all that the farmer does every month of the year in his field and his farm. Within the other orders there are different patterns. The vine can be seen scrolling next to the calendar symbols, proclaiming the Lordship of Christ, the True Vine. Perhaps the grotesque heads represent the evil spirits which prey on Christian souls. There are many small carvings on the innermost arches that seem to be derived from illustrations from bestiaries of the period and some even, in their original appearance, related to stories from Aesop's Fables. For example, one of the capitals on the eastern side had a carving of the fable of the Fox and the Stork, which could well have inspired the woodcut on page 215 of The Fables o/Aesop by Thomas Bewick, 1818.
The following is a brief description of what the carvings on the label were:
Janus with two heads (January)
Man warming himself (February)
Man with a spade or pruning (march)
Man weeding ? (April)
Woman holding branches
Man with scythe (June)
Man filling sacks (August)
Man among foliage (September)
Man and pig in trees (October)
Man and pig and axe (November)
The best that can be discerned to-day are:
on the inmost arch, stone 3, two birds in a tree.
on the second arch, stone 6, a centaur holding up a rabbit or hare
stone 9, a mythical creature playing a stringed instrument
and stone 14 an animal playing a wind instrument
I am indebted to Professor George Zarnecki and Rita Wood for their invaluable help.
Henry Stapleton 24 July 2000