The Church of St. Saviour at Stydd
Those who visit St Saviour's Church at Stydd are often moved by the age of the building and its atmosphere of tranquillity, serenity and simplicity. It is one of the few early medieval churches in Lancashire that is still in use as a place of worship.
The church lies half a mile northeast of Ribchester, standing picturesquely in a field at the end of the unmade Stydd Lane. The lane also gives access to the interesting Catholic Church of St Peter and St Paul and the singular Almshouses.
Please note: Travelling to the chapel by car is not recommended unless you are of limited mobility, due to the potential for damage to both local vegetation and your car! Visitors are instead advised to park in Ribchester village and make the half-mile journey on foot.
History of the Site
Origins and the Knights Hospitallers
The earliest documentary records of a religious foundation at Stydd are found in undated deeds from the middle of the 12th Century, which refer to "the hospital of St Saviour, under [the] Long Ridge and the Master and brethren also serving God there". The context of the document makes clear that the community had been established there for some decades already. Other deeds from the same period variously describe the principal of the hospital as being the master, the prior, the chaplain and the rector. The surviving documentary evidence, therefore, establishes that there was a small religious foundation on the site dating from that time but these sources provide no evidence as to the nature, extent or date of the foundation, nor of the Order - if any - to which it was then attached.
The position after 1292 is clearer. In that year an Inquisition found that the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, had acquired the site from "Adam, the Chaplain-Warden of the house of St Saviour at Dutton", together with the surrounding plough-lands, wood and moor and with rent from land in Dutton, Ribchester and elsewhere. On the basis of other references in the document, it is likely that the actual transfer took place some years earlier - perhaps about 1265. This document gave no description or account of the pre-existing community.
Some clue as to the age and extent of the original foundation may be found in the existing building. The earliest surviving fragments are the windows and doorway in the north wall (both now blocked up), these are in the late Norman style of architecture, characteristic of the late 12th Century, perhaps about 1190.
Attempts have been made to discover the origins of the settlement here by archaeological excavation. During the Great War, there was an extensive dig undertaken by staff and pupils from the nearby Stonyhust College. They found the footings of a small building, with rounded bays, like an apse. They were unable to determine whether this building was Roman or medieval; whether its purpose was secular or religious. Guesses as to its function include a Roman Temple to Mithras or an early Christian basilica. Further excavations, using modern techniques, were undertaken in the 1970s but none of these outstanding questions was answered.
The Stonyhurst excavations found extensive charring among the footings which they unearthed; plainly the buildings had at some time been extensively damaged by fire. Accidental fire was, of course, an ever-present threat in both Roman and medieval times but some scholars have suggested that part of the site could have been destroyed by one of the periodic Scottish raids into central Lancashire; Robert the Bruce is known to have pillaged and laid waste to the area in the 1320s.
It is on such slender evidence that historians must base their speculations as to the origins of the foundation at Stydd. In medieval times, Ribchester was an important road junction. It was here that the main north/south road - crossing the Ribble at Ribchester - met the east/west traffic crossing the Pennines. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that a small religious foundation on this site would have been convenient to give rest and shelter to travellers, particularly to pilgrims on these routes. 'Hospitals' in medieval England combined the functions of the modern hospital, hostel, hospice, clinic, refuge and sheltered accommodation.
The particular scourge of the times was leprosy, which had been brought back from the Holy Land by crusaders and pilgrims. The disease was greatly feared since there was no cure then known and the only treatment was seclusion from the outside world. One might reasonably surmise that this was one - perhaps the main - purpose of the hospital at Stydd. By the middle of the 13th Century, the battle for the Holy Land was lost. Soldiers and pilgrims no longer travelled to places where they might come into contact with the disease and the demand for long-term leprosy hospitals fell. This, then, might explain the decline of the community at Stydd and the resulting need to transfer the holding on to the Knights Hospitallers.
There is no archival, architectural or archaeological evidence to support the theory propounded by Dr Whittaker in his History of Whalley that the foundation at Stydd was once controlled by the Knights Templars.
It is unlikely that the religious community at Stydd survived the transfer to the Knights Hospitallers for long. In 1338, the Order held a meticulous inquiry into the nature, extent and value of their entire estates in England. By then, the manor at Stydd had been let as an agricultural small-holding, with rent being paid to the regional headquarters ('the Preceptory') of the Knights Hospitallers at Newland, near Wakefield in Yorkshire.
It should be noted that there is no mention whatsoever of any hospital or any other kind of religious community then existing on the site; if there had been, it would have been fully described. The agreement did, however, require the tenant to maintain the chapel and to provide a chantry chaplain to say masses for the dead. The chapel itself, therefore, survived but the religious community had gone.
Almost nothing is known of Stydd in the later medieval period. There is no mention or trace of any religious community continuing on the site after this deed of 1338 and it is likely that the buildings on the site gradually fell into disrepair, or were quarried for stone. Services in the chapel continued; presided over by the chaplain endowed from the rent of the manor.
There had always been a burial ground surrounding the chapel. It seems that funerals also continued. In 1501, Nicholas Talbot endowed a priest to sing for twelve months at Stydd, where his mother and father were buried. Indeed, the parish registers at Ribchester record burials in the cemetery at Stydd right up into the late eighteenth century. The use as a burial ground was formally discontinued in 1879.
The Reformation and beyond
After the Reformation, Henry VIII suppressed monasteries and all monastic orders. The property held by the Knights Hospitallers was seized and their estates sold. In 1543 their holding at Stydd was sold into the private ownership of Sir Thomas Holt of Grizehurst - still with the condition that some small sum be paid annually towards the stipend of a chaplain at the site, who was charged with the duty of holding periodic services. In due course, by reason of obvious convenience, this small stipend became the perquisite of the Rector of Ribchester.
The Holts held the manor for a hundred years and more. In 1686, Stydd Manor - being the whole small-holding including the Church of St Saviour's - was bought by a group of Catholic gentlemen, including James Stanford, Richard and John Shireburne of Bailey Hall and their cousins Richard and John Walmsley of Showley Hall at Clayton-le-Dale. Their interest may have derived from the rights of burial in the churchyard at Stydd, which accrued to the owners of the estate.
James Stanford, one of the members of this Catholic consortium, died in 1695 leaving money to fund a local charity for the poor (the "Stanford Dole", which still exists) and to provide a stipend to support a Catholic priest at Stydd or at Bailey Hall. John Shireburne, another of the consortium, died in 1726, leaving money to fund the Stydd almshouses. The nearby farmhouse, which is still known by the ancient name Stydd Manor, bears an inscription: "Rebecca and John Sherburne, 1698".
During this period of Catholic ownership, the Anglican authorities regarded St Saviour's as an extra-parochial chapelry. In 1717, an investigation of church property throughout his diocese of Chester was ordered by Bishop Gastrell. The examiners found that the Rector of Ribchester acted as the Parson at Stydd. Services were held on New Year's Day, Good Friday and some other Sundays during the summer.
After the building of the nearby Catholic Church in 1789, interest in Stydd declined. By the mid-19th Century, the fabric of the church was considerably decayed; the roof was unsafe and the building was covered in ivy. A national census of church properties in 1851 claimed a Sunday congregation at Stydd of 54, with a further 35 children attending the Sunday School. This seems, frankly, to be extravagant! The position of chaplain at Stydd - and with it St Saviour's itself - was subsumed within the Anglican Parish of Ribchester in the 1870s, since which time the parish has been known as 'St Wilfrid, Ribchester with St Saviour, Stydd'.
In 1925 there was an extensive restoration under the leadership of the Rev. Samuel Sidebotham, the Rector of Ribchester.
The tradition of worship at Stydd continues to this day. Services are still held here at Easter, Christmas, sometimes at Harvest. There have also been baptisms, weddings and services of blessing held occasionally. In recent years, restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic closed the chapel to visitors for an extended period. However, we are now pleased to once again welcome visitors during daylight hours.
A description of the building
The building is a plain rectangle of thick random stone walls, with dressed stone corners on chamfered plinths, supported by simple buttresses. It has no tower, turret or belfry. Before entering the building, the north wall is worthy of inspection for its Norman features: note the two narrow round-headed windows and the single doorway, with the simple dog-tooth zig-zag ornamentation.
In the churchyard, there is the pedestal of an ancient cross that once stood here.
The porch is a crude and much later addition to the fine doorway, in the Early English style, dating from the early 13th Century. The arch has deep mouldings and floriated capitals, supported on columns (one of which is now damaged).
The roof is covered with stone flags on simple tie-beam trusses, one of which bears the sacred monogram; another beam has a floriated ornament (or sunburst?).
High up on the west wall there is the doorway (now blocked off), which probably led in former times from some other building on the site to a wooden gallery (which has long since disappeared) running across the western end of the chapel.
On the south wall, there are two straight-headed windows, each of three lights, dating from the 15th Century. Both are said to have been taken from St Wilfrid's Church and installed here in the 17th Century. Between them is a narrow round-headed lancet window - perhaps an adaptation of two earlier Norman windows, inserted later to light the pulpit.
The east window above the altar is of three lights, with lancet tracery, it dates from the 13th Century.
The font is worth special attention. It is roughly carved of dark gritstone by some country craftsman. Fonts in a similar naive style exist at St Helen's in Waddington and at St Bartholomew's in Chipping. The font is octagonal in shape; the carvings depict sacred and heraldic symbols and monograms:
- The sacred monogram: IHS (translated as 'Jesus, the Saviour of Men')
- The sacred heart, with the wounded hands and feet of Christ.
- The initials 'tP'(sic), perhaps for Thomas Pemberton, preceptor of the Knights Hospitallers at Newland, of which Stydd was a subsidiary, from 1535-1538; beneath the initials is a small quatrefoil.
- Although depicted more like a gambolling rabbit, there is what is intended to be a lion rampant - a common heraldic device belonging to a number of local families, including the Hothersalls, the Balderstones or the Talbots, any one of which might be featured here.
- The head of an animal (referred to in heraldry as a leopard), being the arms of the Clitheroe family of Salesbury.
- Another heraldic device: in chief (at the top of the shield) the Cross of St George, indicating the arms of a Knight Hospitaller, below the same quatrefoil device featured above, which might be the arms of Thomas Pemberton.
- A shield depicting three arrowheads between a chevron, charged with three stars, being the arms of Sir Thomas Newport of Shropshire, the preceptor of the Knights Hospitallers at Newland. He died in 1502 and was buried in the citadel of the Order at Rhodes, where his memorial bears the same arms as are depicted here.
- Another heraldic device, being five animals' heads (perhaps bulls); of unknown origin.
All these factors point to the font being carved in the very early years of the sixteenth century.
At the top of a short flight of stone steps is the nine-sided late 17th Century plain oak pulpit, with a framed canopy hanging overhead.
The chancel is separated by a late 17th or early 18th Century oak screen, now in a rather dilapidated condition. There are within the screen some unusual tomb-stones:
- In the floor beneath the altar lies the badly damaged double sepulchral stone tombs of Sir Adam and Lady Alicia Clitheroe, dating from 1350 or thereabouts (image right). The gravestone is carved with floriated crosses and a delicate Gothic canopy; one stone bears a sword and a spear, with a Latin inscription, now defaced by age.
- The white marble gravestone of Francis Petre, of Showley Hall in Clayton-le-Dale - a Roman Catholic Bishop. The Latin inscription may be translated thus: "Here lies the most Illustrious and Reverend Lord Francis Petre, Of Fithlars, of an illustrious and ancient family in the county of Essex, Bishop of Amoria and Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District; which he governed with discernment and care for 24 years, being its patron and ornament by his kind acts and apostolic virtues; then full of days and good deeds, after bestowing many alms, he died in the Lord on the 24th December of the year 1775, aged 84. May he rest in peace." His burial is recorded in the Parochial records of the St Wilfrid's in this matter of fact manner: "1775, December 27, Francis Petre, Esq, Sholey, a Romish Bis'p". It is surely remarkable - if not unique - for a Catholic bishop to be buried in an Anglican church; the explanation (already given in the text) is that the church and land at Stydd had been bought by a consortium of Catholic gentry specifically for the attendant burial rights. As the inscription attests, he lived and ministered from Showley Hall for many years.
- The graves of Richard Walmsley and Charles Ingolby, both were Catholic priests.
- Father Sir Walter Vavasour was buried at Stydd too. His burial is recorded in the parish registers thus: "1740, April 12th, Walter Vaviser, a reputed Romish Priest, at Stid". His grave is marked by a long cross, just to the right of the altar.
Special mention should perhaps be made of the gravestone, standing by the foot of the stone coffin, which is roughly cut with a crude cross. Some believe this - albeit without any substantial evidence - to be the burial place of the Catholic martyr and Saint Margaret Clitherow, who was pressed to death at York in 1586 following her refusal to plead to an indictment charging her with harbouring Jesuits and allowing the Mass to be said.
On the south wall of the chancel, there is a piscina (or water bowl for washing the chalice after communion), which has a trefoil head but the bowl has long gone.
The Catholic Church of St Peter and St Paul
Despite persecution, the Catholic faith always remained strong in Lancashire. A number of local Catholic gentry and yeomanry maintained a resident chaplain.
By 1756 the Walmsleys had left Showley Hall but the lease there was taken by their kinsman, Bishop Petre, who presided over all the Catholics throughout the north of England. After his death, the Walmsleys leased 13 acres of land at Stydd to Father William Fisher, formerly Bishop Petre's chaplain.
Father Fisher built Stydd Lodge in 1789, to serve as the Presbytery when St Peter and St Paul's Church was built later the same year. It is a mark of local tolerance - and, indeed, the respect accorded to their Catholic neighbours - that this building was permitted two years before the passing of the Second Catholic Relief Act, which allowed once again the public worship of the Catholic faith.
The church was extended in 1877 and extensively renovated in 1989 on the occasion of its bi-centenary. It has a large and thriving congregation.
The Almshouses at Stydd
In 1726, John Sherburne, then owner of the Stydd Manor estate, endowed the construction of an almshouse for the teacher at the Catholic school and "five poor old single women, professing the Roman Catholic religion" in his will. The building is now maintained and let by a local Housing Association.
The building, which was finished in 1728, has a prominent central flight of steps, sweeping up to a striking - almost baroque - arcade on the first floor, with a curved stone parapet above.
- There are some fine architectural drawings in "The History of Stydd Chapel and Preceptory" by George Latham, London 1853.
- There is a chapter on 'The extra-parochial chapelry of Stydd' in 'The History of Ribchester' by Tom Smith and the Rev Jonathan Shortt, Vicar of Hoghton (1890), which has a detailed examination of the early manorial history.
- There is a detailed description of the fabric of the building in 'The Victoria County History of Lancashire, Volume VI', which has a summary of the manorial history.
- A 'Brief History of Stydd Church' (1986, with revisions 1987), a booklet privately printed and published by the authors CJ Ward, PG Dixon and JL Dixon provides an introduction to the topic, with an examination of the archaeological excavations.
- The excavations at Stydd in the 1970s are described in an unpublished draft pamphlet 'St Saviour, Stydd' by Mr Ben Edwards FSA, then the County Archaeologist, who supervised the dig.
- The standard guides "The Story of The Parish Church of St Wilfrid's, Ribchester" by The Rev Samuel Sidebotham (1925) and 'A Goodly Heritage' (revised 1984) by the Rev JH Finch (both Rectors of Ribchester) have passages on St Saviour, Stydd.
- An excellent guide, 'SS. Peter and Paul Church, Ribchester', was produced by Father S. Horgan to mark the bicentenary of that church in 1989.
- The life of Margaret Clitherow and the hypothesis that she is buried at Stydd are summarised in an article 'The lost body of St Margaret Clitherow', by Katherine Longley, in the records of the Northern Catholic History, Spring 1990 edition. Further detail is provided in her book: 'The Lost Body of St Margaret Clitherow: A Quest' (written under the pseudonym 'Mary Claridge') published by the Fordham University Press, New York, 1966.
Our thanks go to Peter Openshaw, who wrote this commentary in 2001.