Monday, 19 October 2009

St. Martin-Le-Grand Church, York

St Martin's is one of York's most notable landmarks, best-known for its impressive clock which hangs over Coney Street. But it has also had a tumultuous history, and contains one of York's most impressive mediaeval stained glass windows.

The church was one of one of York's largest and finest, prior to a fateful night in 1942, when an air raid reduced the church to a smouldering ruin. Before then, it boasted a large nave and chancel with full length aisles and chapels. The fabric dated from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

The well-known and large double-sided clock on Coney Street was fitted in 1668, and which was topped by a statue of the 'Little Admiral' in the 18th century.

The clock and statue survived the bombing, but little else did. The church was eventually rebuilt between 1961 and 1968, with the 15th century tower and south aisle becoming the church, and the remainder (most of the former nave and north aisle) becoming an enclosed garden of remembrance. Substantial parts of the north walls survive, however, including elements from the 11th century.

Although much smaller, the restored church is an attractive space, combining modern works with a 17th century memorial to Sir William Sheffield (d. 1633) and - above all - its mediaeval stained glass. This had fortunately been removed for safe keeping in 1940, and includes one gem: the window depicting the life and works of St Martin of Tours, dating from around 1440.

Formerly the west window, this is now in the new north wall and faces visitors as they enter. It is huge for a parish church (and is the largest in the city outside the Minster): 9m high and 4m wide, it is one of the best preserved of its type and contains no Victorian additions or repairs.

The church is normally open during weekdays for private prayer and visitors.

Coney Street, York, YO1 9QL

All Saints, North Street, York

If you visit just one church in York (aside from the Minster, I suppose), make it this one. This fascinating little church, tucked away on the rather less touristy west bank of the Ouse, has much to interest visitors and contains one of Britain's most impressive collections of mediaeval stained glass.


There has been a church here since at least the 11th century, probably predating the Norman invasion. In the 12th century, the single-cell church was expanded with aisles, some of which incorporated Roman columns from the original Roman settlement of Eboracum.

The chancel was reconstructed in the 13th century in the Early English style, but a major rebuilding in the 14th century saw the East End rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style, with the aisles extended to form a rectangular plan. Later in the same century, the tower and 120ft spire were built, and the fine chancel and aisle ceilings were added in the 15th century.

The church

On entering, the church has a slightly rustic and homely feel to it. With no crossing, the nave is divided from the chancel only by the rood screen, and the aisles run uninterrupted from east to west. The arcades are in the simplest Early Gothic style, with simple capitals. One of the original Roman columns can clearly be seen between the north aisle and chancel.

But the main event is unquestionably the stained glass: almost all of it is mediaeval, and of very high quality. There is simply too much to describe here in great detail, but there is more information available on the church's website. But essentially, the north and south aisles and east end contain windows which are complete or almost entirely complete in their original form, and date mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries.

The most famous are in the north aisle: first, the 'Corporal Acts of Mercy Window' shows a bearded man (who may be the donor, Nicholas Blackburn, a merchant and mayor of York), carrying out six of the seven bodily acts of mercy, ie feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, offering hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and relieving those in prison. The final act (burying the dead) is omitted.

Next along in the aisle is the unique 'Pricke of Conscience' window, so named after a Middle English poem, written in the Northumbrian dialect, describing the last 15 days of the world. The panels depict the destruction of the world and the fate of humankind, each panel underscored with the relevant passage of the poem, and all intended to call people to repent. As you might expect, the images include some wonderful beasts, demons and devils, along with people in varying states of terror or torment. The families of the donors sit watching all this at the bottom of the window.

Finally, in the south aisle, look out for the bright and colourful 'Orders of Angels' window in the south aisle: in one of the lower panels is a man wearing a pair of very uncomfortable looking 15th century spectacles.

Other fittings of note include a fine 15th century memorial slab on the floor of the south aisle near the chancel arcade, and the imposing late 17th cetury pulpit. Don't forget to look up, either, to the chancel and aisle ceilings with their beautifully carved 15th century hammerbeams depicting angels and men of the church.

The church is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and Mass is said on Thursday at 12.45, and on Sundays at 12 noon and 17.30. The church is normally open for visitors in the middle of the day.

North Street, York, YO1 6JD