The Reformation comes to Ecclesfield
Medieval churches were all Roman Catholic. It was the practice to have more than one altar
making chantry chapels where prayers were offered for the souls of the benefactors and land
was given to support a priest to fulfil these duties. In Ecclesfield's oldest surviving will, dated
1391, Henry of Birley left money for prayers to be said at four stone altars and the rood, or
'holy cross'. The altars were dedicated to St Mary, St Nicholas, St Catherine and St John the
Baptist. St Mary and St John were also the patron saints of chantry chapels which stood at
either end of the transepts.
During the Reformation of the 1540's all the priories and chantry chapels of the country were
dissolved. The land belonging to St Mary's chantry was passed to charity and is still
administered on behalf of the church and the poor by the Feoffees. The stone altars were also
In 1569, after the Reformation, the great crucifix above the Rood screen and the carved
figures of St Mary and St John the Baptist were taken down and destroyed. At this time there
were no seats in the church and the elderly and infirm would stand near the walls to lean on
them (hence the saying, "weak to the wall"). In 1569 the first stall was placed in the nave by
Alexander Hatfield. It was only to be used by the clergy, himself, or "old men and strangers".
Others followed his example and it became the practice to have family pews that passed
from one generation to the next as part of one's estate.
When the Puritans came to power in the 1640's the effects of national policy were felt in
Ecclesfield. The High Altar was replaced by an oak communion table in 1642. The original
stone altar slab is now set in the floor underneath. Another altar slab remains against the wall
in the north transept, and a further slab is in the floor of St Catherine's chapel, having long
been converted into a tombstone.
All the stained glass windows, many dating back to 14th century, were smashed. The
fragments of glass that survived have been pieced together in the westernmost window of the
north aisle and in a small window in the vestry. The churchwarden's accounts of 1642 record
that the "passion clothes" were sold and a new Bible and communion book were bought. In
the same year, a clock was placed in the tower.
In 1643 the Vicar, Thomas Wright was ejected and the Puritan preacher Immanuel Knutton
was installed in his place. These times were uncertain and Thomas Wright was restored to his
living in 1660.
|Church History - The Reformation