Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Beautiful and ancient Dewsbury Minster

It is sad to think there are many people in Dewsbury who have never been inside Dewsbury Minster Church, one of the oldest centres of Christian worship in Yorkshire.

By Jane Chippindale
Tuesday, 19th July 2022, 9:43 am
Updated Tuesday, 19th July 2022, 9:43 am
DEWSBURY minster: A place of worship in the area since AD 627 when St Paulinus preached at the crossing point of the River Calder at Dewsbury
DEWSBURY minster: A place of worship in the area since AD 627 when St Paulinus preached at the crossing point of the River Calder at Dewsbury

Margaret Watson writes: This sacred place, once second only to York itself as the cradle of Christianity in this part of England, is something we should never forget.

Founded in 627, it was here where the Roman missionary of St Paulinus came to preach and to baptise the early Christians in the River Calder.

How fascinating to look back at the history of this ancient church and to step inside and see the ancient stones and relics those early Christians left behind.

Once inside this hallowed place it is easy to let your imagination wander and to visualise what might have happened when Paulinus first came here.In 1927 when the Archbishop of York, Dr Lang, visited Dewsbury to preach at a special service to mark the church’s 1,300th anniversary, he did exactly that.

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    He asked the congregation to try and imagine the scene in Dewsbury when St Paulinus first came here to preach.

    “Try to imagine what he may have looked like,” he asked the congregation.

    “Imagine a figure by the riverside, tall and bent, with dark hair, sallow face and the black piercing eyes of his Italian race.”

    Dr Lang went on: “Imagine him confronting the blue-eyed and fair-haired Yorkshire Anglos and see him in imagination with his faithful and courageous deacon, James, who taught our northern people their first lesson in church music.

    “Imagine Paulinus with the cross in his hand, which was not only the sign of his authority but also the symbol of that great gospel he came to preach.”

    Dr Lang also described how different Dewsbury would have been in those days when the country was a great sea of forest glades, rising up on hill slopes above the swamps of the valley.

    Writing about the Minster church this week has given me an opportunity to look back on its history and learn more about what Dewsbury was like all those centuries ago.

    It was an important religious centre long before the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the parish covered 400 sq miles.

    For centuries those early Christians had to travel from areas as far away as Halifax to baptise their children and bury their dead, because there were no other churches other than the one at Dewsbury.

    Parishes like Huddersfield, Bradford, Almondbury, Hartshead, Kirkheaton, Ossett and Thornhill had to make yearly payments and tithes to the rectors and vicars of Dewsbury.

    Interestingly, the register books from the Minster Church are among the oldest in the country, the first volume being from 1535.

    It was very difficult in those days for parishioners from outlying areas to get to the parish church in Dewsbury because of the vast distances and the poor roads. In bad weather it was treacherous.

    Gradually these districts obtained permission to build their own chapels where they could celebrate divine services, and eventually were given the rights of baptism and burial.

    There is good documentary evidence that Mirfield was perhaps the first to break away from Dewsbury and have its own church.

    It happened in 1261 after the wife of Sir John de Heton had travelled from Mirfield to attend midnight mass at the Dewsbury Church.

    On the way home she was set upon by highwaymen and one of her servants was murdered.

    After this tragedy, Sir John sought permission from the Pope for Mirfield to have its own church and eventually permission was granted.

    The rectors and vicars of Dewsbury for many years had a good living thanks to the many tithes and pensions they could claim from surrounding parishes, like Mirfield.

    In the 14th century a new vicarage was built at the Dewsbury church and it was agreed it would be built with a hall, two chambers and private rooms, as well as a garden and a close.

    Later, a much bigger vicarage was built.

    The wonderful thing about studying local history is that you can always find something new.

    Looking through the history of this ancient church I discovered that in 1337 the parishioners of Dewsbury obtained leave to pull down a chapel which had been dedicated to St Peter.

    This church, which appeared to be separate from the parish church, nobody seemed to know anything of its origin.

    It seems it could have been founded upon the actual site where Paulinus preached, but there is no direct evidence of this.

    However, by 1337, this small building, dating back long before the Norman Conquest, had fallen into decay and was pulled down.

    An inquest was held on its future.

    The jurors returned that it was a “deformis stucture” in ugly style.

    Consequently this historic chapel of St Peter was demolished and its material appropriated for other purposes.

    Over the years many celebrated men and women have worshipped in the Minster Church.

    Perhaps the most famous of them being The Reverend Patrick Bronte, who was curate at the church from 1807 to 1809.

    He was the father of the famous Bronte sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Ann – who would learn much about the church from their father as they were growing up.

    Charlotte and Ann would also attend services at their father’s former church when they came to study and teach at Healds House in Dewsbury Moor, and also at St John’s Church, Dewsbury Moor.

    At the moment many of our local churches are suffering financially because of dropping attendances which have been made worse during Covid.

    I urge you all – no matter what your spiritual convictions, and even if you have none - to try and help them.

    Call in for a coffee or lunch in their lovely refectory and spend time looking round this beautiful church that we are lucky to have in our midst and which opens seven days a week.