The History of Saint Peter’s Church, Heversham

It is impossible for a visitor to enter the beautiful Parish Church of Heversham without experiencing feelings of awe and reverence when he remembers that ever since the dim age of the seventh century, with a possible break of continuity during the Norse invasion of our district, the site on which the church stands has been devoted to the purposes of divine worship. Though during the course of the eventful thirteen hundred years which lie between our own day and the foundation of the early religious settlement upon this spot times ravages and the destructive hands of men have brought to ruin more than one preceding building, and though the fabric of the existing church had largely to be reconstructed after the disastrous fire of 1601, this sacred edifice still can show many relics of more than ordinary interest to the antiquary and historian.

The first religious buildings upon the site were probably those of an early Anglian monastery—a group of huts surrounded by a wall to keep off wild beasts or other unwelcome intruders. We seem to have an allusion to this monastery in the 11th century History of St Cuthbert, where we are told that in some years between 901 and 925 Tilred, abbot of Heversham, bought the lands in Co. Durham, half of which he dedicated to St Cuthbert in order that he might be admitted as a monk to that Saint’s monastery at Lindisfarne; while the other half he granted to Norham so that he might be made abbot there. Tilred was probably anxious to quit Heversham on account of his fear of the Norse Vikings who were in his day settling in the surrounding district. It is not improbable that this early monastery at Heversham fell prey to their ravages.

The Anglian Cross

No vestige of the buildings of this religious establishment remain unless certain foundations which were found some years ago during the digging of a grave to the north of the east end of the church belonged to this early period. Unfortunately, no detailed report exists of what was then found. Heversham Church, however, possesses a priceless relic of its monastery in the 7th century cross-shaft, still preserved in the church porch. A careful search in the external south wall of the church close to the westernmost window of the nave will reveal a fragment of the head of the cross built into the masonry. The general form of this beautiful cross, when intact, can be realised from the war memorial erected in the churchyard from the design of the late Mr J. F. Curwen. The ornamentation of the shaft fragment of the cross, with its design of vine tendrils and quaint beasts, follows the best tradition of Anglian work and reminds the students of that of the Bewcastle Cross. Comparisons with smaller cross fragments at Lancaster, Kendal and Burton would perhaps justify the supposition that there was a local school of stone carving in the eighth century, with its centre perhaps at Lancaster, which produced the sculptors who executed this admirable work.

The Developments of the Church

After a long period of silence Heversham Church appears again in history at the close of the 11th century, when between the years of 1050 and 1097, Ivo de Taillebois, the Norman lord of Kendal, granted the rectory and advowson of that church to the great Benedictine Abbey of St Mary at York. This church was probably much shorter than the existing building, and consisted of an aisle-less nave and chancel with a south doorway and a simple bell-cote over the west end. The vestry was in its present position at the north side of the east end of the chancel, but was almost entirely rebuilt in the 15th century. In the 13th century the church was enlarged by almost doubling the length of the chancel to make room for the more elaborate ritual of the period, and by building a narrow south aisle. A careful examination of the southern arcade of the nave will show that, despite alterations after the fire, traces of 13th century work are still to be distinguished. At this time, too, the original bell-cote was replaced by a square tower, built on to the western end of the church.

The next enlargement of the building took place in the 14th and 15th centuries, when various sums were bequeathed to Heversham Church to found chantries in which the masses could be celebrated of behalf of the respective benefactors. Thus we find what is now the Levens Hall chapel built to the north of the chancel beside the vestry and the western portion of the Dallam chapel built opposite to it on the south. The church thus assumed a cruciform shape. These alterations were carried out under difficulties, as in the 14th century the county had been impoverished by the ravages of the Scots. Thus Heversham Church, which in Pope Nicholas’s valuation of 1291 had been valued at a hundred marks per annum, was in the re-valuation of 1318 assessed at only 30 marks.

Finally, in the 16th century, in the reign of Henry VIII, after the dissolution of St Mary’s Abbey, the church was further enlarged to provide for the requirements of a new ritual. A north aisle was added to the nave by piercing the existing north wall for an arcade, a clerestory was added and the south aisle widened. The chantries were abolished and the chapels were appropriated to the chief families of the district—that on the north the lords of the manor of Levens, and that on the south to the lords of the manor of Dallam. An extra chapel which was built to the east of the Dallam chapel for the Prestons of Nether Levens was, later on after the manors of Dallam and Nether Levens were united, joined in to the original Dallam chapel.

The Great Fire

On July 1st 1601 a terrible disaster almost destroyed the church. According to A Booke of Accompts Made for the Church of Heversham from the yeare of our Lord 1601 :-

“Whereas illfortuned through negligence of a careless workman, being a plumber, anno Christi1601, on Wednesday being the first day of July, the Parish Church of Heversham in the county of Westmorland, was utterly consumed by fire, and all implements, ornaments, books, monuments, chests, organs, bells and all other things were perished”.

The parishioners, however, rose to the occasion. A “Culliet” ,or assessment, was made and money was raised.

By the 15th of April 1610, Sir Thomas Strickland and Sir Thomas Bellingham were able to report on a survey of the church and to testify “upon their sight and view, they found the same church to be very sufficient, and in as good estate as the same before the ruinous decay to their knowledge”.

There are many interesting details with regard to the 17th and 18th century improvements to be found in the “Booke of Accompts” mentioned above. During the Commonwealth the lead roofing of the church was renewed, but the first organ perished. With the restoration new bells were procured from Wigan, the church was redecorated, and a silver-plate bowl and chalice were procured. Texts and the Ten Commandments were painted on the walls. In 1723 a new three-decker pulpit with sounding board was built for £14 10s, by one Thomas Hardy. In 1739 a new freestone font and christening pew were set up. In 1744 the writing masters who taught their scholars in the church were moved out ,the parish agreeing to pay for repairs to the loft of the Old School on Heversham Head, to fit it for teaching. In 1745, during the panic caused by Prince Charlie’s invasion, 1s was spent for hiding the Communion plate and 5s paid for ringing a peal of bells to celebrate his defeat. In 1761, a gallery was erected at the west end of the church containing ten rows of seats. These and many more interesting items of information are to be gleaned from the “Accompts”.

In 1814 the church was re-pewed according to a plan prepared by John Burrow, joiner of Sandside. Previously to this date the three-decker pulpit had stood almost in the middle of the nave, the members of the congregation to the west of it facing eastwards and those to the east westwards. The old three-decker was replaced by the present pulpit in 1849. A thorough restoration of the church in accordance with a plan prepared by Mr Austin took place in 1868, and in the following year Mr F Argles defrayed the cost of pulling down the old tower and building the present tower. During the next 100 years the church was kept in good condition by carrying out repair and redecoration work from time to time. In 1928 electricity replaced gas for lighting purposes, in 1963 the old coal fired boiler for heating was replaced by an electric installation and in 1977 by the oil fired system in use today. In 1973, it became obvious that major repairs were required, and some £10,000 would be needed for this purpose. This was raised in less than 12 months. The greater part of the money was used to replace much of the leaded roof, some of which had been in place for three centuries. Stonework was repointed in several places, guttering replaced and the church rewired.

Reordering of the Church –
from 7th January and ready for Palm Sunday 2002

Extensive work was carried out during this time to enhance this beautiful Church - including: re-siting the font; adding a forward Communion table and rails; removing some pews in the chancel and at the front of the nave; the removing of the back choir stalls; and the lowering and wider spacing of the remaining front ones. The area was newly carpeted. Also, a creche area for pre-school children was created.

Extensive works were also carried out at the Old School (our Church Hall), by re-roofing the building, moving the front door to create a steps-free entrance, redesigning the toilet block completely to include disabled access. A paved path was also laid to link the Church with the Old School. The Old School was also completely repainted and completed with new curtains and carpet.

Objects of Interest:

Chancel-East window of five trefoiled lights is of the 15th Century. In the north wall is an early C16th arcade of two arches. North of Levens Hall Chapel– In the north-east window fragments of 17th century glass. Piscina of early 16th century in round-headed recess. Holy water stoup of 14th century (broken). Screen of beautifully turned balluster work carved with the initials I. and A.B., date 1605. Monuments to Dorothy , wife of Sir Henry Bellingham 1626-27; to Sir Grunth Bownton, 1765. The Chapel was restored in 1980.
South or Dallam Chapel- In the south-east window, arms of Buskell quartering, Bindloss, and other fragments of painted glass dated 1601. In next window, arms of Preston and quarries with arms of Preston impaling Curwen (17th century). Monument to Mary Molineux, wife of Sir Thomas Preston, 1673. Piscina of 17th century.
South Aisle- In wall, range of sedilia with ogee heads; 14th century work, but restored.
Chest– East end of North Aisle, oak iron bound with four locks and staples, 1400.
Plate- Cup of 1655, paten of the same date, stand-paten of 1673, the gift of Sir James Bellingham; two flagons of the same date, and stand-paten of 1713.
Doors- the strap hinges of the south door will repay examination. Part of the ironwork of these appears to be of 15th century origin. The vestry door is perhaps of the 16th C.
Sundial- This is in the churchyard. It has a stone shaft, raised on steps, and a brass sundial, bearing the date 1690.
Register- The surviving part of the original register begins at the year 1607. It is not in good condition. A few earlier entries going back to 1601 are noted in a transcript made by Mr John Preston, of Hincaster, in 1778.
Dedication of the Church- the dedication, first referred to in a Carlisle will of 1360, is to St Peter. The fact that it is given in Ecton, and Nicolson and Burn as St Mary’s, is perhaps due to the early connection with St Mary’s Abbey. To the same influence perhaps , is due the name of St Mary’s Well, on the roadside near to The Old School.
Extent of the Parish- Until the 17th century Heversham Parish included the Parish of Crosthwaite (Kendal) and the Lyth Valley, and until the 19th century the Parishes of Milnthorpe, Crosscrake, Levens and Preston Patrick, all of which became separate parishes over time. In the Middle Ages Heversham formed part of the Diocese of York (Archdeaconry of Richmond, Rural Deanery of Catterick). In the reign of Henry VIII it was transferred to the newly formed diocese of Chester, and in 1856 it was included in the diocese of Carlisle, its vicar R.W. Evans, becoming the first Archdeacon of Westmorland.
Pulpit- In 1849 the old three-decker pulpit was replaced by the present pulpit, the gift of Archdeacon Evans and his three sisters.
Lectern- The present eagle lectern was given in 1885, the gift of Lieut.-Colonel and Mrs Gandy of Heaves. The Living of Heversham- This living, formerly the gift of St Mary’s Abbey, York is now in the hands of the impropriators, Trinity College Cambridge. There is a list of Rectors and Vicars from 1180.

Further Reading

The Church at Heversham
A history of Westmorland’s Oldest Recorded Church (1984)
by Roger K. Bingham

A Century of Heversham and Leasgill (2000)
A walk in time through these old Westmorland villages
by Malcolm Sisson

by Roger K. Bingham

Authored by

Original Notes by the late W. T. McIntyre Esq
   added to by the Revd. Canon John Hancock         02/05