The earliest part of the present building dates from around 1150 but an earlier building seems almost certain. Churches were often built on sites of previous religious significance, not necessarily Christian. It is likely that there was an earlier building from the evidence of occupation and existence of a settlement in the 10th century.
The site chosen for the church, although so close to the river, is the highest point in the village. This would have been a good vantage point and safe place in the fenland. The highest point in the area was the usual position for a church as testimony to its importance. The benchmark on the south wall of the tower is 29ft 3in above sea level. (1)
Pillaging Danes sailing up the river and ravaging Normans on their way to York no doubt carried out their destructive work in the area. Consequently there was nothing to record and so no mention of Cawood or Wistow is to be found in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book of 1086. The Danes anchored in the river before the battles of Gate Fulford and Stamford Bridge. The Normans may well have “laid the area bare” during the harrying of the North, in punishment for the York/Northern rebellion of 1069/70.
It is not until 1294 that there is definite reference to this church despite the fact that Cawood was one of the homes of the Archbishops of York for seven centuries from 937 AD. It is likely that the church was used as a chapel by the Castle up to 1271 when a chapel at the Castle is mentioned. Cawood came into favour at this time; prior to this Sherburn was used as the main residence of the Archbishops.
Stone and lime from the Huddlestone quarries at Sherburn in Elmet were brought to Cawood, possibly along the Bishop Dyke, for the Castle and the church. Stone was taken to York for the Minster up the River Ouse after transhipment at the riverside staith, remains of which it is said can be seen at very low water.
The probable date for the beginning of this church would be about 1150 AD. It then consisted of a nave (2) and chancel (3). All that remains of that early church is the part of the gable-ended western wall, to the right of the door (5), and its doorway, consisting of a plain order forming a square opening and two shafts on each side, with semi-circular arch moulding (late Norman). This is in marked contrast to St Helen’s, Stillingfleet which is of similar date (1147).
During the next hundred years, up to about 1250 AD, the church was enlarged by extending the chancel, rebuilding the chancel arch (6), removing the south wall of the nave, erecting the pillars and so adding the south aisle (7). The piers are quatrefoil monoliths only 11in in diameter. Of this phase, the eastern part of the chancel, the chancel arch and the south arcade of the nave remain.
Before 1350 AD the north wall of the nave was removed and octagonal piers erected to form the north aisle (8). Traces of red ochre decoration are to be found on the aisle pillars and most clearly on the chancel arch. This is a 14th century interlacing pattern. The side arches were added and Chapels (9 & 10) were built. A detached piscina and shaft of Early English style suggest the chapels were part of the original plan. The South chapel was the Cawood family chapel. The Cawood and Acclom coats of arms can be seen on the outside, as can the line of attachment to the chapel.
During the next century, from about 1450 to 1525 AD, extensive alterations took place. The large traceried East window (11) was inserted, the chapel south of the chancel was demolished (10), the north chapel (now the vestry and organ chamber) rebuilt and enlarged, the outer walls of the north and south aisles rebuilt and the tower (12), at the south-west corner, was constructed. Unusually, this is set at the south-west corner, leaving the west door intact. The tower is of three stages, the lower with octagonal buttresses at the angles with carved cornices from which rise diagonal buttresses of the second stage. The upper stage has an embattled parapet with pinnacles. So almost four-fifths of the outer walls date from this period, giving a late perpendicular character to the church.
Very little work on the fabric was then carried out until Victorian times. In 1880 the Rev B Day requested the famous architect Gilbert Scott to make a report on the church with a view to restoring it in a “becoming manner”. During the restoration in 1887 much of the glass was replaced, the two windows in the south aisle belonging to this phase. A statue of the Virgin and Child was removed for safe keeping from its niche (14) high up on the west wall of the tower. Unfortunately it became lost and it was not until 1961 that a replica was specially sculpted (by Alan Durst) and installed in the recess. The south porch (13) was rebuilt in 1935.
Two fragments of medieval tomb slabs can be seen in the north wall above the oil tank and one piece to the left of the west door, together forming one motif.
In the churchyard on the left, just through the west gate, is a stone with deep depressions; its function is thought to be the same as that of the Burtonstone in York, that is, for depositing money in vinegar for collection by lepers. Other pieces of carved masonry can be seen in the churchyard near the west door.
Inside Cawood Church
The ALTAR was lifted from the floor of the Vestry in 1930 and restored by the Rev S F Sykes. It is a stone slab with five crosses for the wounds of Christ. It is thought to have been hidden in the floor to prevent its destruction by Cromwellian troops in 1646.
The BELLS. The Tenor bell has no date but is pre-reformation. It bears the legend “Sanctiararee ora nobis”. Tradition has it that it was brought from the Castle chapel when the latter was destroyed in 1646. It is the one bell remaining after the 1569 Rising of the North, when an order stated that wherever the followers of the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland had been countenanced, all parish bells should be destroyed but one. It could have been one of the spoils of Edward I, brought from Scotland and presented to Cawood as a memento of the long stay here by his wife and court. The Castle chapel was dedicated to St Andrew, reflecting the fact that Scottish affairs were ruled from Cawood at the time it was built, and the bell is similarly dedicated. The first bell is inscribed “Gloria in altissimis Deo” 1674. The third bell reads “Gloria Deo Pax hominibus” 1674.
The ARCHBISHOP MOUNTAIN MONUMENT. George Mountain, a native of the district, became Dean of Westminster, later Bishop of Lincoln, then Bishop of London. He was reputed to have said “Lincoln was, London is and York shall be”. When the Archbishop of York, Toby Matthew, died, the King was perplexed as to a successor and spoke to Bishop Mountain, who is alleged to have said, “hads’t thou faith as a grain of mustard seed, thou would say to this mountain (laying his hand on his breast) be removed to that see”. He accordingly became Archbishop of York in June 1628, was enthroned in October, and died only two weeks later. It is said, “He was scarcely warm in his seat than he was cold in his coffin”. In his will he left £100 for the poor of Cawood, and money for placing poor children as apprentices. His coat of arms is at the top of the monument.
WINDOWS. The two lancet windows in the south wall of the chancel are the only remaining windows of the older church. On one of these sills a visitor found five pieces of glass held together by a lead frame. They were sent to the York Glaziers Trust, who identified them as being made between 1150 and 1250. There are the remains of a corresponding pair of lancet windows in the north wall of the chancel, partly destroyed when the north chapel was enlarged. In the south aisle near the door is a window designed by the Victorian C E Kempe in 1898. He is believed to be a descendant of Archbishop Kemp (early 15th century), who was responsible for the building of Cawood Castle Gatehouse, and the family coat of arms (the wheatsheaf) can be seen in the corner.
The War Memorial Window was designed by Thomas Curtis of London. In the robes are depicted badges of the regiments in which the Cawood men served, regiments now obsolete. Beneath is a tablet inscribed by Mr H E Simpson showing the eighteen names. There is also the memorial to the dead of World War II with eight names, which was designed by Mr Pace of York and dedicated 11th November 1974.
At the rear of the north aisle, immediately adjacent to the Archbishop Mountain Monument, is a much newer window. This was installed and dedicated in 2013 in memory of Dorothy (‘Dot’) Hunt, who served as a much-loved lay reader in the parish from 1986 until her death in 2009. See our separate page here for more information on the window and its symbolism.
The PIPE ORGAN was originally built by Forster & Andrews of Hull, in 1872, at which point it was situated at the west end of the church. In 1886, it was relocated to its present position, in the north side of the chancel. Rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison in 1910, it has two manuals (Swell & Great) and a radiating concave pedalboard, with a total of 11 stops, plus couplers. More information on the organ and its history can be found here.
The CHURCH PLATE goes back to 1667, but only the Communion Cup is of this date. There is also a pewter flagon dated 1742. A pewter alms dish was stolen in 1975.
PLAQUES. On the small choir stalls (south side) is a memorial plaque to James Megginson, a former choir boy, who became galley boy on His Majesty’s Airship R101, which crashed in October 1930.
The REGISTERS of the church date back to 1591 and are now at the Borthwick Institute in York for safe keeping. There is a gap in them between 1642 and 1649, owing to the Civil War.
Also inside the church are a sun (communion) dial on the south aisle wall near the font, and part of a medieval tomb slab on the south aisle wall near the tower door.
The church and its contents have been recorded by NADFAS (The National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies), and a copy of the record is normally displayed on the lectern near the font.
One of the few prehistoric trade routes from Scandinavia to Ireland passed over the ford at Cawood, taking advantage of the glacial moraine to the East and struggling through the waterlogged forest to the West. Cawood has been “a place” since 1,000 BC at least. A Bronze Age ring was found in Cawood in the 1890s, which might indicate occupation, but which may equally have been lost by a traveller on the trade route. There is evidence of a Roman house of 3rd/4th century AD at nearby Cawood Park.
For over 700 years Cawood was dominated by “the Castle”, originally the Manor house built around 920 AD. It was later fortified to become a castle. It was given to the See of York in 937 AD as a thank offering by King Athelstan after a victory over the Danes at Brunanburgh. It became the home of the Archbishops of York.
Every aspect of life in the village was determined by the Castle; the layout of the roads, the siting of the houses, the trade and local prosperity. The Castle became the seasonal base for the court of several kings during the summer campaigns against the Scots.
It was here, in 1466, that the greatest feast in England was held. At his enthronement, Archbishop George Neville held a banquet for 2,000 guests which lasted for 4 days. In the Ferry Inn can be seen a board stating the variety and quantity of food and drink consumed.
Cardinal Wolsey arrived in Cawood to prepare for his enthronement at York, but was soon arrested by order of King Henry VIII on a charge of high treason in 1530. The Castle had been in decline for some time and Wolsey’s grand ideas for its restoration never came to fruition. The Castle had run down further by the time Cromwell’s troops arrived. It was held by Royalists and Parliamentarians at varying times and was used to house prisoners.
Cawood was probably at its most prosperous between the late 1600s and mid 1700s from the evidence of the buildings, e.g. Goole Bank, The Grange, Yew Tree House. The quality and preservation of the housing of this period is notable.
The village benefitted from the general improvement of trade throughout the 1800s, and had its own railway line, a landing stage and even its own gas works. In 1872 the iron swing bridge was built to replace the ferry.
The village is sited in the Selby coalfield and the mining work previously carried out underneath it is extensive. However, to prevent flooding, a column of coal has been left under Cawood and a preservation order helps to protect the village. The Castle Garth is now owned by the Parish and is a protected archaeological site.