The Parish of Sandal Magna

History of St. Helen's

The Church of Sandal Magna is dedicated to St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, and is one of the six churches in Yorkshire so dedicated. The festival of St. Helen is celebrated on 18th August.

THE FIRST CHURCH The first known patron of the church was Edward to Confessor. Among the crown possessions of the Conqueror, on the death of Harold, was the patronage of Sandal Magna Church; a little later, when the Domesday Book was compiled, it was stated that in the manor of Wakefield there were three priests and two churches, of which one of the two may with certainty be assigned to Sandal Magna.

THE SECOND CHURCH There is, however, nothing now visible of this Saxon church. About the year 1150 a new church in the shape of a Latin cross was built by Earl Warenne, Lord of the manor of Wakefield and of Sandal Castle.This church consisted of a central crossing surmounted by a tower, a short sanctuary, north and south transepts and an aisleless nave. Of this church the lower half of the tower piers with their triple-clustered shafts and moulded bases remain, showing that the tower occupied exactly the same position and was of the same area as the present one. The nave extended as far west as the present fourth pier from the east, with north and south doorways; the sanctuary was about half the length of the present chancel; north and south of the tower projected the transepts, which were of the same dimensions as at present.

THE THIRD CHURCH About the year 1180 a narrow north aisle was built and an arcade broken through the north wall. The evidence for this is afforded by the base of the most easterly pier of the north arcade, with its foliated spur ornament; the capital of the second pier in the same arcade which has conventional foliage carved at each corner of the octagon; and probably the base of the third pier.

THE FOURTH CHURCH For about a century and a half this church sufficed for the needs of the people, but a few years before the pestilence, known as the Black Death (1349), the church was almost wholly rebuilt; a new chancel nearly double the length of the previous sanctuary was erected of local sandstone, with a high-pitched roof but no aisles. A new tower was raised on the old Norman piers, which were doubled in height; access to the belfry, which was two stages in height above the nave roof, was by a flight of stairs at the north-west corner of the north transept. The transepts were rebuilt, north and south aisles to the nave were built of unequal width. Towards the end of the fourteenth century a chantry chapel was added to the east end of the south transept, the east wall of which was pierced by a low arch; the western half of the south chancel wall was taken down and replaced by an arcade of two bays. Following on these rebuildings the tower was raised one stage, and a battlemented parapet with crocketed pinnacles was added. Four bells were placed in the belfry. The roof of the nave was raised giving it a very high pitch, as can be seen by the weather moulding on the west face of the tower, and high lean-to roofs were substituted for the flat ones of the aisles.

EXTENSIONS AND ALTERATIONS Early in the sixteenth century (c.1505) the small chapel, south of the transept, was taken down, and a new one erected by Sir Robert Waterton of Walton. This chapel extended the whole length of the south side of the chancel, the south wall of which was removed and replaced by an arcade of four bays; the two eastern bays were screened off by parclose screens, the lower panels of which bear the linen-patterned design, the upper part arcaded with traceried heads surmounted by a frieze carved with pomegranates. St. Mary's altar was removed to the east end of this chapel. In the seventeenth century the roof of the nave was taken down and replaced by one of the lower pitch, supported by stout tie-beams and king posts. The aisles were stripped of their roofs and lean-to ones substituted, continuing the slope of the nave roof as at present. The nave arcades were taken down, the piers lengthened, new lofty arches were built, the old material being used as far as possible.

In 1872 the church was lengthened, two bays to the west, the whole of the west end being new; the old south porch was taken down and a new one built further west; the north door was replaced by a three-light window; the north transept chapel was refurbished, its floor being raised to allow vaults to be fashioned underneath. This work was undertaken by the Pilkington family, by now owners of Sandal Castle, and therefore enjoying rights of the chapel.

It was this restoration of 1872 which irredeemably damaged the church from the historical and architectural point of view. The rood screen, of which mullions, tracery and cornice remained; considerable portions of the traceried fronts of the choir desks of sixteenth century work, were ruthlessly destroyed; the original high wooden cover of the font was swept out, also the oak pulpit, which was part of the three-decker; several fragments of fourteenth and fifteenth century glass in the heads of the windows disappeared, some of it finding its way to the museum in St. Mary's Abbey, York.

The level of the Sanctuary was raised so that the altar rails were approached by three steps, but this proved so inconvenient that the original level of one rise above the chancel floor was restored later. The original pews were turned out; two of the stall-ends were fortunately preserved, but cut up to support the wall benches in the south porch.

The two most interesting pieces of woodwork in the church were allowed to remain. Originally included in the refurbishing of the Pilkington Chapel, they are now affixed to the wall of the north aisle at the entrance to the chapel. An inscription runs along the top ornate pro bono statu joselymy pyrcy armegery, being prefaced by the crescent and fetterlock of the House of Percy with a martlet for difference. Beneath are the arms of Percy quartering the families into which they intermarried. Josceline Percy, the youngest son of Henry, fourth Earl of Northumberland, married Margaret, daughter and sole heiress of Walter Frost of Featherstone. Margaret died in 1530 and Josceline in 1532, leaving an only child Edward, who married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Thomas Waterton of Walton Hall.

In 1895 the small vestry on the north side of the church was taken down, and a chapel and vestries erected on the site, which were consecrated by William Walsham How, the first Bishop of Wakefield.

By 1953 the Waterton Chapel had become derelict and the current owners of Walton Hall who enjoyed the rights of the Chapel willingly surrendered those rights
to the Vicar and Churchwardens who then engaged the parish in the restoration of this remote corner of the church under the direction of Mr. George Pace, architect. The restoration was undertaken as a memorial chapel and parishioners gave various furnishings in memory of loved ones.

By 1967, by which time Mr. Peter Marshall had become the architect, attention was directed to the under tower area. The Victorian pulpit which was situated on the north side of the tower and the organ console which by now occupied the south transept arch of the tower were removed and the whole area re-designed to provide the present nave altar, pulpit and other furnishings. Again, the money for this work was raised by subscription, the main elements in it being given as memorials to the late Mr. Eric Stonehouse, J.P.

By 1970 the architect was reporting that the Victorian windows were to a greater or lesser extent in need of repair, and an appropriate schedule was drawn up. By 1975 those windows in most urgent need of attention had all been re-leaded and
re-designed as appropriate by the architect in conjunction with Mr. Allen of York.
Opportunity was taken to simplify the great west window, removing most of the decoration and leaving the essential pictures. Meanwhile, fragments of the former medieval glass had been discovered and rescued by the Vicar and the architect and these were incorporated into one window in the north aisle and into a new south transept window. The Victorian south transept window was adjudged by more than one independent expert and felt by many worshippers to be an unfortunate piece of work and was abandoned. Attempts were made by the Reverend Canon Robert David Strapps (Vicar of the Parish 1960- 1994) to persuade the Yorkshire Museum of York to return the rest of our medieval glass but the Museum declined to do this.

At some point during the Victorian restoration of the Church the number of bells was increased from four to six.

In 1936 a letter was received by the then Captain of Bellringers, Mr. E. Cutt, from Messrs. Mears & Stainbank, Church Bell Foundry, London, giving information from their records concerning six bells which were cast in 1812 by Thomas Mears.

They were delivered on 5th June 1812, with a probable keynote of f# (old concert pitch). This delivery would have been by horses and carts. The brute strength required to erect them in the belfry requires the full extent of our imaginations to visualise the event. One of the older bells had to be re-cast in 1950 and opportunity was taken at this time to re-hang the bell. In 1964 all six bells were quarter turned.

Nothing is known of the early history of the organ, but in 1876, much needed work was done on our sweetly toned organ, at a cost of £200. A new organ chamber was erected between the north transept and the vestry, and the instrument which had apparently been in the south chancel aisle was moved to this new chamber.

Further work was done on the organ in 1902, and in 1953 the sum of £4000 was raised to put in hand a rebuild. Messrs. Rushworth & Draper were commissioned to do this work. A new detached console was built to stand, as stated, in the south transept arch, and the entire swell organ was rebuilt. In 1967 the console was moved to the east end of the south choir stalls, and under the direction of Wordsworth Limited of Leeds, the instrument was thoroughly cleaned and overhauled.

In the Spring of 1989, after recurring faults on the existing organ, and after major developments in the electronic field, it was decided to invest in a new organ.

A new organ manufactured by Ahlborn Ltd., in co-operation with Bradford University, and known as the Bradford Computing Organ, was installed in September 1989, at a cost of £20,700. The console was placed under the arch between the north transept and the Sanctuary. The twelve speakers were arranged in a frame and built into modern facia in the south transept at a cost of £3500. This new organ is far in advance of any organ being produced at the time of installation. The most interesting feature is that each note is produced by micro-chip, and is in itself a perfect note in all respects. The conventional pipes have been replaced by audio-speakers.

In September 1995 the Parochial Church Council decided that the organ would be better placed in the north aisle, thus giving the organist a clearer view of proceedings in the main body of the Church. At the same time three pews at the front of this aisle were turned through ninety degrees to make stalls for the choir.


Attention is often drawn to two handsomely-carved oak seventeenth century arm chairs, one of which was given by Captain William Hardcastle of Milnthorpe, who arrested Nevison, the highwayman, whom he found sitting in this chair at the original Three Houses Inn on 6th March 1684, and had him conveyed to York where he was executed on 4th May.

Affixed to the wall of the south aisle, now part of the Beaumont Room are two cast-iron tablets bearing the arms of the Beaumont family of Chapelthorpe Hall, 1695.

The church plate consists of two silver chalices, two patens, a flagon and a glass cruet with silver mounts. Of these vessels one cup alone is old, with bell shaped bowl, a baluster stem, and spreading circular foot; on the bowl are inscribed the letters CA RD 1670, the initials of Cyril Arthington and Richard Dickinson, the churchwardens of that year and bears the London hallmark of 1655. Robert Dickinson's initials also appear on the font with the date 1662.

The box containing these vessels bears a brass plate which records that the old plate was converted into one chalice, two patens, and one flagon by the piety of Frances, widow of John Forge of Woodthorpe, AD 1877.

The original vessels which had been the subject of this curious form of piety were a cup similar to the remaining old cup, and was made by Thomas Mangey, Goldsmith of York in 1669. The paten bore the arms of Allott of Crigglestone. The flagon was a fine tankard holding three quarts; it was inscribed: Huic Ecclesaie Sandalioe Magnoe Thomas Beaumont de Chapelthorpe Gen. Hoc vas argenteum in Usum Eucharistoein perpetuum 1731. The hallmark was of London 1731.

It does seem little short of sacrilege that such interesting old plate which had served several generations of parishioners should have been melted down to suit the passing whim of its temporary custodians.

The registers are in good condition and date back to 1st October 1652. In the seventh decade of this century all the ancient records and many ecclesiastical documents and homilies in both English and Latin were taken to the West Yorkshire Archivist for safe keeping.

There is a tablet on the south wall presented by thePrior of Lewes in 1154 containing a list of Vicars of Sandal Magna from Robert de Sandale, and having been completed to the present Vicar.

Like many churches, St. Helen's suffered at the time of the Civil War, and being adjacent to one of the battlefields, old Sandal is not without its legends on the subject. The grooves in the base of the tower pillars are said to have been made by the opposing armies in sharpening their swords for battle! What is certain is that the Royalist Vicar at the beginning of the War was arrested in his own churchyard and taken off to prison with his wife and family, and also that the medieval font was replaced by a 'decent bason'.

After the Commonwealth the ten churchwardens subscribed to the present font. Their initials appear on it as do those of the reigning monarch Charles ll (C.R.=Carolus Rex). The restoration Font was originally situated at the west end of the church and was moved to a position just west of the south door when the church was lengthened in 1872.

In 1992, after many, many years of debate as to the repositioning of the Font, it was relocated at the West End of the church in thankful remembrance for the life of Mae Kingswood., Three rows of pews were removed and the whole area carpeted.

In 1996 it was felt that it would be beneficial to the prayer life of the parish if the Parish Church was open for prayer each day as well as Sunday. In order that adequate supervision could be given the Parish Office was re-sited in the South West corner of the Church and is now contributing (as it should) to the mission of the parish. The Parish Office has now moved into the Edward room, with state of the art facilities in 2007.

(Note: Further historical information can be found in 'Wakefield, its history and people' .

Further photographs are available from
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© Sandal Magna PCC 2016.
Registered Charity Number 1131795.


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