York’s hidden history: a tour of the city’s lost churches

TOURISTS who come to York are sometimes told that the city has 52 churches, one for every Sunday of the year. But this is an urban myth. The city had 40 medieval parish churches in the early 16th century, but today only 19 of these are still standing, in addition to the tower of the medieval St Lawrence.

So, what happened to the others? Dr Kate Giles, co-director of The University of York’s Center for the Study of Christianity and Culture, answered my question by saying it was due to a combination of factors such as economic decline and a review of parishes, changes resulting from the Reformation, 18th and 19th century reconfigurations and road widening. But as in much of York’s story, the history is not totally hidden. Traces of it still survive. So, I’d like to take you on a journey round some of the lost churches of York, the second most important ecclesiastical city of England.

Walk up towards Bishophill from the city center and opposite The Golden Ball pub you will find a community garden which was once the site of one of York’s oldest churches, St Mary Bishophill Senior. The building was restored in 1859-60 and joined to its sister church St Mary Bishophill Junior just along the road. St Mary Bishophill Senior was demolished in 1963 in the interests of public safety, having stood empty since 1930. But you can still see gravestones from the churchyard in this peaceful community garden.

St Mary Bishophill Senior churchyard – now a community garden

Moving back down into the city centre, tourists and residents alike can enjoy a few moments’ respite from frenetic shopping in Coney Street or Parliament Street by taking refreshments in St Crux Church Hall, now a cafĂ©. Worship at the church ceased in 1884, and the parish was united with nearby All Saints Pavement the following year. St Crux Church itself was demolished in 1887.

Cross the city center and walk under Monk Bar until you see a stretch of grass near the Bile Beans mural in Lord Mayor’s Walk. Scattered under the trees at the far end you will notice several gravestones. This was the site of another iconic York church, St Maurice’s, Monkgate. The original medieval church had been replaced by another one on the same site in 1876. Hit by an incendiary bomb in the surprise air raid of January 1941, this church was demolished in 1967. Parts of the building still survive. The late Norman doorway and a medieval coffin lid can be found at the church of St James the Deacon, Acomb. And the stonework of a church window can be seen in the Yorkshire Museum.

During the recent ‘lockdown’ I discovered one of the most beautiful walks in this city through the nature reserve of St Nicholas Fields just off Hull Road. Historically, the land was used as a brickworks and rubbish-dump. But in the Middle Ages, this site was open fields where cattle grazed. The cows belonged to the monks of St Nicholas Hospital, which was next to the church of St Nicholas, built in 1142 about one third of a mile from Walmgate Bar. Where the church and hospital once stood, there is now a row of terraced houses in present-day Lawrence Street. The hospital was designed to accommodate 40 patients suffering from leprosy. Hospital, monastery, and church have long-since disappeared, but the porch of St Nicholas church can still be seen today at St Margaret’s, Walmgate (now The National Center for Early Music), to where it was moved in the early 17th century.

Kate Giles had mentioned urban development as a factor in church demolition. This was certainly the case with Holy Trinity, King’s Square which was pulled down in 1937 when the square was enlarged. And St Michael Spurriergate was reduced in size in 1821 for the purpose of street widening in Spurriergate and Low Ousegate.

Late medieval York churches concentrated in the city center were supported by prosperous tradesmen and merchants. The poorer churches in areas such as Walmgate were demolished because there were insufficient funds to support their maintenance, especially in the wake of serious storms and fires which severely damaged the fabric. Continuous outbreaks of plague and other fatal diseases, especially the Black Death accounted for the depopulation of parishes in the city. The churches they had attended were left empty or the few worshipers remaining were unable to finance their upkeep and this could make the buildings unsafe, both internally and externally. York’s economic and population decline worsened from the 15th century onwards. The income derived from tithes and bequests was spread too thinly and the livings were often too poor to support a vicar or rector. Lack of finance led to the York Corporation uniting parishes and demolishing churches.

Some churches were damaged during the Civil War Siege (1644). This caused irreparable damage to the towers and steeples. The ruins of St George and St Nicholas in Walmgate-Bar-Without, for example, were not rebuilt.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many well-off citizens moved out of York city center into the more fashionable suburbs of Bootham or Heworth and had new Methodist rather than Anglican churches built. The 20th century saw further blows to church attendance figures in the city centre, particularly for the Established Church of England. Growing secularisation and two major world wars led to a decline in churchgoing.

York Press: St Crux Church Hall St Crux Church Hall

Church Commissioners and dioceses together with several other organizations nowadays do all they can to avoid demolishing church buildings, seen as precious elements of national heritage. Many churches can serve local communities in other ways. But the burden of maintaining them is still heavy. And as you will have seen from this article, it’s a burden that’s familiar not only to us, but one that our forebears were well acquainted with too.

David Wilson is a Community Writer for The Press

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