St Michael le Belfrey

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Things to do


Date of travel

January, 2016

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Dwarfed by York Minster next to it, this is a small church with a tiny lantern tower above the west door. Simon Jenkin’s in “England’s Thousand Best Churches” describes the building as pompous … squat and rather flat.”

It is an accurate description, but does rather under sell the church which is the only church to have been built in York in the C16th, replacing an earlier church that was falling down. It was built after Henry VIII’s break with Rome in what is described as Tudor Gothic style. It was, and still is, the largest parish church in the city. It’s other main claim to fame is that Guy Fawkes was baptised here.

When it was built, the church served a wealthy community of merchant’s and Craftsmen. Congregations were so large in the mid C18th, when William Richardson was vicar, that a gallery had to be built. Story has it that his sermons were so popular, the glass was removed from some of the windows so those outside could listen to him preach. In the 1960s, congregations had dwindled and there was talk of closing the church, like many others in the city, and turning it into a museum. It was saved when the gifted preacher Revd. David Watson, from nearby St Cuthbert’s Church moved to St Michael le Belfrey. His congregation followed him. The church is now a thriving modern community. I visited between services on a Sunday morning and the church had been packed out.

It is a very elegant church with tall slender pillars separating the nave from the side aisles. There are quatrefoil flowers at the angles of the shallow pillars. Below them are carved figures of angels holding shields, either with the crown of Henry VIII on them or the crossed swords or keys of St Paul and St Peter.

The lathe and plaster ceilings are painted blue in the nave and red in the side aisles. The clerestory windows above are plain glass and flood the church with light.

Across the back of the church is the gallery with the Royal Coat of Arms on the front. The two boards with the Ten Commandments on the back wall of the gallery were originally in the centre of the reredos.

The stained glass windows in the side aisles are one of the largest collections of C16th stained glass in England. There are images of saints, bishops and angels as well as benefactors of the church. The stained glass east window contains C14th glass and may have come from the earlier church on this site. The Baroque reredos has fluted gilded pillars. In the centre is a copy of Zurbaran’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” which was placed here in the 1920s. On either side are the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

At the end of the south aisle is a splendid memorial to Robert Squire who died in 1709 and Priscilla his wife

The altar and reredos are partially obscured by a large AV screen and there are smaller screens on the pillars. This is a church that adopts a modern approach to worship as can be seen by the small group of young musicians who play in the south aisle.

And what about the font where Guy Fawkes was christened? This has disappeared and no-one knows what happened to it. There was a Victorian font but the church now uses a small moveable font for infant baptism and a large pool for adult baptism. In the summer months, this takes place outside the church.

The “website”: states the church is normally open 11-4, Tuesday-Saturday but advise visitors to check in advance. This is advisable as it was shut on a Saturday in late January. The nearest post code is YO1 7EN and the grid reference is SE 603521.

There are more pictures “here.”:


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