A History and Guide to the Parish Church of St. Michael And All Angels, Skelbrooke

Compiled in 1992 by Canon Stanley K Reynolds, Former Rector of Skelbrooke*


Early History

In 1086, when William the Conqueror’s civil servants (if ‘civil’ is the right word) were collecting information for the Domesday Book, they wrote of Skelbrooke:

‘One manor. Godric and Alwin had three carucates of land to be taxed, where there may be four ploughs. Herveus now has it under Ilbert: Himself there are two ploughs and nine villanes and two borders having four ploughs and five acres of meadow. Value in King Edward’s time, four pounds – now three pounds.’

There is no mention of a church, but that does not mean that there wasn’t one, for of the just over a hundred places in the diocese mentioned, only nineteen churches appear.

The little we know of the ecclesiastical history of the village in medieval times, comes from the records in the Minster library at York, of which diocese, Skelbrooke was part, until the creation of the diocese of Sheffield in 1914. We know more about the history of the tiny chantry chapel of St. John the Evangelist on the North side of the channel, than we do about what is now the Parish church of St. Michael and All Angels. We are even uncertain of its dedication before its restoration after the fire of 1870 for it was a chapel within the parish of South Kirkby.

In 1230, a note regarding the allocation of tithes, mentions John the Clerk of Skelbrooke, and in 1431, the inhabitants complained to the Archbishop of York saying:

‘That whereas there is a church or parochial chapel there within the limits of the parish of South Kirkby and dependent upon the church thereof but possessing ‘plebum’ and people of both sexes, all parochial insignia and a close cemetery which has been dedicated and whereas from time immemorial a parish chaplain has been hired by the vicar of South Kirkby although during almost the whole of his incumbency has found and paid such a chaplain, now refuses to do so.’

In the same year, the Vicar General replied that the vicar of South Kirkby has such a duty and has been warned to fulfil it. (Archbishop’s Kempes’ Register)

It was not until 1707, that Skelbrooke was made a parish and at that time Hampole and the site of its ruined priory was included within its boundary.


Richard Rolle of Hampole

The priory of St. Mary at Hampole was a house of Benedictine nuns founded about 1170, and its one claim to fame was that Richard Rolle (1290-1349) lived there and became their spiritual director towards the end of his life. Born at Thornton-le-Dale, he studied at Oxford until he was nineteen and left without a degree. Back home in Yorkshire, after making a rough and ready hermit’s habit out of his father’s rain hood and two of his sisters’ frocks, he ran away and found a patron to give him food and anchorage in which to live.

He became a prolific writer of spiritual works in prose and verse both in Latin and English and is important as a pioneer of English vernacular writing. ‘The Fire of Love,’ his best known book was written in 1343, and after his death, a succession of mirac1es were reported at his tomb, and although he was never canonised, he became revered as St. Richard the Hermit. It is easy to imagine that he may sometimes have walked the half mile to Skelbrooke, to say his prayers in its church. In 1981, a pilgrimage to Hampole was led by the Bishop of Sheffield (David Lunn) who dedicated a memorial to Richard. He is now commemorated in the diocese of York on 7th October.


Skelbrooke and Robin Hood

The name, Barnsdale Bar, just a bit up the Great North Road, reminds us that Skelbrooke lay in Barnsdale Forest, the haunt of Robin Hood. By the side of the road, opposite where the lodge gate cottages of Skelbrooke Hall stood before the road was widened, is Robin Hood’s Well. Old maps too mark the site of ‘Robin Hood’s Oak,’ within the hall grounds of which, the following story appears in Camden’s Britannia:

‘In Skelbrooke Park stood an immense tree which has now disappeared, though the ground on which it stood is still called ‘Bishop’s Tree Root.’ Tradition says that the Bishop of Hereford with a numerous train of attendants, when travelling to York came upon some seeming peasants who were roasting venison on the King’s highway. In just indignation at this flagrant infringement of the forest laws, he asked them what they meant. They answered him that they meant to dine. He then gave orders to his attendants to seize and bind them and lead them captive to York. They prayed for mercy, but he swore by St. Charity that he would show them none. Robin Hood then drew his bugle horn from beneath his smock-frock and blew three blasts upon it, on which the Bishop and his train were instantly surrounded by sixty bowmen in Lincoln green. The Bishop was not only held up for a ransom of three hundred pounds, but was compelled to dance an undignified jig beneath this oak tree in Skelbrooke Park, before he was allowed to proceed on his journey.’

It is suggested that the Bishop could have been Thomas Cherlton, who was Bishop of Hereford from 1327 to 1344.

James Brome, who was vicar of Newington, writes in his travels over England in 1700:

‘We went to visit the well and ancient chair of Robin Hood. Being placed in the chair, we had a cap, which they say was his, very formally put upon our heads and having performed the usual ceremonies befitting so great a solemnity, we received the freedom of the chair and were incorporated into the society of that renowned brotherhood.’

Before that, in 1654, the famous diarist, John Evelyn records a visit. He says:

‘We all alighted in the highway to drink a crystal spring which they call Robin Hood’s Well. Near it is a stone chair and an iron ladle to drink out of chained to the seat.’

It is at this place that the tiny river Skel, from which both Skelbrooke and Skellow derive their names, passes under the road. It seems to have been a place of reveling and a field near by was used for archery competitions. Perhaps Robin Hood or some other forest outlaws sometimes prayed in Skelbrooke church in Barnsdale Forest.


The Chantry Chapel

On the 4th June 1338, at Skelbrooke, was ordained in the chapel there by Agnes de Boteler, sometime wife of Edmund de Boteler, who granted in free alms two messuages, one oxgang, nine acres and four crofts with meadow and 31s 2d annual rent in Skelbrooke, Pollington, Doncaster and another place to Sir Richard de Friston, juxta acquam, chaplain and his successors celebrating divine service in the chapel of St. John the Evangelist situate on the north side of the chapel at Skelbrooke appointing the presentation to be to the said Agnes while she lives and after her decease in the priory and convent of Bretton, all of which was confirmed by the Archbishop of York, 13 July 1349.

So for the next two hundred years, we can picture the little church at Skelbrooke served by two priests, one who rode over from South Kirkby to say mass and minister to the people in the main body of the church and the resident chantry priest, who said the divine office and mass daily for the souls of Edmund le Boteler, his wife, Agnes, William de Langthwait, William le Boteler, their ancestors and the faithful departed.

Among the ancestors of the le Boteler (or Butler) family, was one Robert, who was arrested in 1293, accused of many ‘robberies, thief, larcenies, homicides and burglaries.’ He admitted that he was a naming many persons as being thieves and receivers, including William the man of William de Sayles living in Skelbrooke, and Geoffrey de Mouner, the miller of Skelbrooke. Later he retracted his accusation against Geoffrey and pleaded to be tried as a clerk. That however did not save him and when he was brought to trial, he refused to plead so as to avoid forfeiture of his property, which probably included a house on the site of the present Skelbrooke Hall. So he suffered the obscene and terrible penalty, the barbaric torture of the Peine forte de dure; dying slowly, spread-eagled naked on the dungeon floor with a heavy load of weights on his body which were increased each day, until the victim either pleaded or died. He would have needed many prayers!

We have a fairly complete list of the chantry priests, as Skelbrooke chantry was one of those known as ‘freeho1d,’ because the priest lived off the endowment as a rector would have done, and was instituted in the same way, and in consequence their names appear in the register of the Archbishop:

1383    Adam de Derwent

1403    William Attewelle

John Gests (no date given)

1413    John Holme (exchanged chantries with priest at Whitwell)

John Nores (no date given)

1443    Giles Claybrooke

John Staynroide (no date given)

1477    Adam Bakhous

1498    June – William Golowe (resigned)

1498    October- William Wodde

Thomas Scoley (no date given)

1526    Roger Clerke

John Morton (no date given)

1538    Percival Arthington

It was this Percy Arthington who was incumbent of the chantry of St. John, when Henry VIII, after despoiling the monasteries and sharing out the spoils with his friends, turned his greedy eyes upon the chantries. His commissioners duly arrived at Skelbrooke and questioned the priest about the goods and income provided for him by the founder. (Surtees Society – Certificates of chantries, guilds and hospitals etc.)

‘Percival Ardington (sic) incumbent. Of the foundation of Agnes Butler as he saith, albeit he has no writing to show proving the same, for he saith that the said were remaining in the late surrendered house of Bretton Abbey and therefore he knoweth not what is become of them and her prayeth for the souls of the same Agnes and all Christian souls. There is no lands, tenements sold nor alienated since the statute.’

The goods, omaments and plate belonging to the chapel were valued at 7 shillings. There was in fact, no plate. The buildings and land from which the revenue to pay the priest came, were let to John Mylkellfelde, George Barone, William Adams, John Atkinson and Richard Curson, and the rent they paid came to 67 shillings and 4 pence.

In 1549, having confiscated Agnes Butler’s endowment and the goods of the chantry, the commissioners reported that the chapel at Skelbrooke in the parish of South Kirkby (wherein was a chantry), being a chapel-of-ease and distance from the parish church three miles, should be continued and that Percy Arthington, the incumbent (i.e. of the chantry) should serve the same.

So the chantry chapel was pulled down and the simple arches that, today give access from the chancel to the restored chapel were bricked up. So preserving them from destruction in the fire of 1870. When the church was rebuilt in 1872, the chapel was restored by the Neville family, who owned the estate at that time, and decorated with typical Victorian splendour, which alas has now faded and cries for another benefactor to enrich it once again.


More Vandalism

During the reign of Edward VI, a further attack was made upon the treasures of our churches. In 1549, the government ordered the bishops to make an inventory of all the goods in the parish churches of England, ‘to ensure that they were preserved for the use of the Church.’ (!) Because the bishops did not respond very well to this, the sheriffs and justices were ordered to visit every church and make their own list of the goods they found there, for ‘they must be safely kept and preserved.’ (!) The inventory made at Skelbrooke, though partly indecipherable, lists:

2 bells

2 vestments…and one cope of blue

1 surplice

1 chalice and pyx

1 cross, 1 sacring bell, a cruet, a pax

2 candlesticks of pewter

1 chest

Far from being preserved and kept safely, the following year all were seized and sold off, and the blue cope from Skelbrooke may well have ended up as curtains or cushion covers in some manor house. It would have been at this time too, that the rood screen was taken down, leaving only one of the stone plinths upon which it rested and the spiral staircase that led to the rood loft. The window that lights this stairway preserves the only remaining fragment of medieval stained glass left by the vandals. The parish register was begun in 1587 and is now preserved in Doncaster Archives Department.

The two bells mentioned in the inventory are still in the tower, one being inscribed + Jesu fi1i Dei miserere mei +, and the other, + Maria Mater Dei miserere mei +. A third bell was added later, and is inscribed, ‘Daniel cast me 1730.’ It. has a much more strident tone than the two medieval ones.

The canopied niche on the North wall of the nave, which now houses a modem statue of St. Michael, survives from the medieval building, as is the coat of arms carved in stone over the South West porch. It is a shield bearing three covered cups, which may be the arms of the Butler family or of the Monk Bretton Priory. It was originally over the West door. The tower, though most probably rebuilt in the 19th century appears to retain much of the original stone and traces of earlier belfry windows on the South, East and West. The alternate angle quoins appear original.

The medieval grave covers survive in the churchyard a few feet from the North East corner of the chancel. These are both tapered slabs having incised foliated crosses with round leaf heads, the cross heads having a central panel divided into eight segments.

Another fragment of incised stone is in the lawn not far away from the South West door. In the tower is a memorial to Henry Browne, who died a bachelor in 1770. This was previously on the wall in the chancel, where lie buried his father. Henry Browne and his grandmother, Frances Pate Lister: A silver chalice and paten, dated 1715, together with a silver flagon inscribed; ‘A Harvest Thanksgiving from the people of Skelbrooke, September 1889,’ are on loan and displayed in Doncaster museum.

We have only the most slender clues as to what the church looked like before the fire in 1870, one of which is the drawing displayed on the South wall near the door. Huner, the local historian in 1830, describes the village as, ‘maintaining its aristocratica1 character: there is a gentleman’s residence surrounded by a park and at a short distance is an ancient chapel, surrounded by a few houses of the tenantry and cottages of the poor.’

After the fire in 1870, the church was re-built by the Leicester architect, Joseph Goddard, using much of the original stone. It was at this time that the grave covers referred to earlier, were discovered bedded in the walls which were three feet thick. However, it was difficult to date any other than the South wall of the chancel, which appeared to be of the 13th century. There were traces of inscriptions on the nave walls, but these could not be positively read.

The Pontefract Advertiser, of 14th October 1871, reports the laying of the foundation stone of the new chancel arch by Master Nevile, on 7th October. An account of the opening service can be found in the Doncaster, Nottingham and Lincoln Gazette, of 5th December 1872. There it says that the tower was the only part not rebuilt, but that it was raised in height by six feet. The cost of the new building was said to be between £1500 and £1800 and the contractors were Shillito and Morgan of Campsall.


The Present Church

This very attractive Victorian interior has a good mosaic reredos, depicting the four living creatures and the Angus Dei, some good tiles forming the floor of the chancel and the chapel and communion benches from Comper’s workshop. A wooden door has been fitted over the aumbry cupboard in the North wall of the sanctuary and the windows of the South side of both the chancel and nave appear to be by Kempe. The West window, erected in 1885, is by Mary Lowndes of Lowndes and Drury. The East window and that in the North wall of the nave are by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The small windows in the chantry depict the opening verses of the book of Revelation. Most are in memory of members of the Nevile family.

The brass eagle lectern, from which the first part of the Eucharist is read, was given by Mary and James Barton in memory of John and Harriet Laing. The Revd. James Francis Barton, who became vicar of Skelbrooke in 1893, when still a boy of only 14 years old, lost both his parents and because he was so alone in the world, was invited to live with his Aunt Harriet and her husband John Laing in London. About the same time, the Laings also took into their home, Mary Isabella, the daughter of John’s brother, who was killed in a hunting accident. When they grew up, the orphaned boy and girl married and James took Holy Orders and ultimately came to Skelbrooke, by which time they had three children. It was when John and Harriet died that James and Mary gave the lectern as a memorial to the good couple who had taken them both into their home and given them a good start in life.

In 1851, the population of the village was 153, and the census of that year, records among the inhabitants. the Revd. Thomas Cator, Rector of Kirk Smeaton and incumbent of Womersley and his family: Charles Wilson Faber, who is described as ‘Magistrate and landed proprietor’ and family: some farmers, a retired ‘druggist’ and two nurses. The rest are farm labourers, domestic servants or estate workers (gamekeepers, gardeners etc.)

Some years later, the Nevile family came to live at the hall and one of the daughters of the Revd. Francis Peel (Rector of Burghwallis 1856 -1896 and having the care of Skelbrooke as well), has preserved for us some reminiscences of the Neviles, father, mother, five sons and two daughters. Writing in an ordinary exercise book, she tells of the mis-adventures of this rather accident prone family. She tells of carriages overturning in the ice and snow, of bicycle accidents, and the various scrapes and adventures of the children. A photostat copy of this book is preserved in the church safe, but many other documents are kept with the ancient register in the Doncaster Archives Department, from which some future historian of Skelbrooke could enlarge upon this brief account.

* Kindly supplied by the Revd. Ann Walton.