A short history of Gisburn Church

A short history written by our resident historian Thomas Muir


Gisburn church’s origins are confused and obscure. The original East Window, for instance, apparently had an inscription dating it to 1123; but the surviving samples in the South Aisle are fifteenth century in style. Charters refer to a land grant by ‘Norman of Rimington’ in 1135, and mention a Fr Renulf between 1140-46. In 1147 a priest from Gisburn was present at the foundation of Sawley Abbey.

Placed in context these point to the following conclusions. First, a key role was played by the Percy family who, according to Doomsday Book, held the land in 1086. Percy arms appeared in the East Window, and they were founders of  Stainforth Nunnery (Lincolnshire) and Sawley Abbey, where two family members were buried. Indeed Stainforth held rights of presentation up till 1537, despite a fierce challenge by Sawley in 1226, triggered by their receipt of Gisburn Manor from the Percies.

It is also significant that both Stainforth and Gisburn were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Andrew. Indeed the latter has a more prominent place in a surviving sketch of the former East Window.  St Andrew was also the patron saint of Sawley and there was a ‘St Andrew’s Well’ in the vicinity. Undoubtedly this was caused by the political situation, for during the Civil Wars of Stephen and Matilda (1135-54) the Scots controlled the territory North of the Ribble. In 1138 they fought a battle  outside Clitheroe and in 1151 they stormed a castle in Cravendale – probably the site at Middop. Therefore the parish was developed in conditions when – according to the Peterborough Chronicle – ‘God and his angels slept’. This could only have been achieved by some sort of deal struck between the Percies, the Scots and Ranulf, the renegade earl of Chester.

Doomsday book shows that even before this the main outlines of the parish were in place: stretching from Rimington, through Gisburn up to Paythorne, Nappa, Horton and Swinden. To this must be added Tosside and Middop. Rimington and Midtop lie astride the Roman road from Ribchester to Ilkley; so the foundation of Gisburn church reflects an economic shift from that area to the line of the present A59. The size of parish suggests there may have been subsidiary chapels, one of which – Houghton Chapel in Tosside – became a separate parish in 1870.

Late Medieval Developments

These are mainly architectural.  The Tower is thought to have Norman foundations, but the huge cylindrical columns in the Nave are probably Twelfth Century. These, and the location of the priest’s entrance on the South Aisle, suggest that the Rood Screen was placed further West than at present.  The pointed Early Decorated arch at the main entrance would be Thirteenth Century; and the hexagonal pillars, together with the upper part of the Tower, the slope of the side aisle roofs and several window arches reflect substantial investment in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

There is one other detail. In 1462 and 1466 the vicars resigned. This may have been related to the major Lancastrian defeats at Towton (1461) and Hexham (1464) in The Wars of the Roses. Shortly afterwards Henry VI was trapped at Waddow Hall. The Percies had been staunch Lancastrian supporters and their clients – the Pudsays (at Bolton by Bowland), Tempests (at Bracewell) and Talbots (of Bashall Eaves) had sheltered (and betrayed) the fugitive king.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries and Pilgrimage of Grace

In 1535-6 Henry VIII dissolved all the smaller monasteries in England, including the foundations at  Sawley and Stainforth. This triggered the major uprising known as The Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-7), which spread like wildfire down the Craven and Ribble Valleys, with major pilgrim armies congregated around Sawley and Whalley abbeys (their abbots were later hanged).  Apart from the insult to the Percies, people recognised that if the king could seize monastic property, then the parish churches in which they had recently invested so heavily  (as at Gisburn) were at risk too.

The defeat of the uprising was therefore potentially disastrous. Percy protection disappeared for ever from the area; and it is significant that the priest – William Taylboys, the last appointee from Stainforth – resigned in 1537. Henceforth, up till 1822, all presentations were made by the Crown. One of these – John Robynson – was appointed in 1552, at the height of the Edwardian Reformation. Given that he survived in office till 1581, he must have played a decisive role steering Gisburn with its hitherto embittered and strongly Catholic population in a Protestant direction.  Significantly, as at Whalley, stone work from Sawley – notably the great arch framing the church porch –  was incorporated in the church structure, and probably sometime afterwards elements of the present rood screen were laid out.

The Early Modern Period

The collapse of the Percies and subsequent sales of land by an increasingly impoverished Crown left a power vacuum under Elizabeth I. It was eventually filled by the Assheton and Lister families. The earliest surviving memorial, dating from 1706 in the North Aisle, shows the family relationship between the two.  The former held land at Downham and Whalley, where they built a manor house from looted monastic stone. The Listers, in classic gentry fashion, began as successful lawyers (one was Lord Chief Justice under Henry VIII) and bought Gisburn manor in 1613.  The takeover was not without incident.  In 1612 Jennet Preston, one of the Lancashire Witches, was tried and hanged at York for poisoning Thomas Lister.  In 1613 the family bought the ‘She’ edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible, which they presented to the parish at the end of the century – a clear manifestation of their Protestant faith. From then onwards, until the death of the last Lord Ribblesdale in 1925, they were the dominant force in the parish. The clearest evidence for this can be seen with the magnificent series of family memorials and hatchments throughout the church.  These mainly date from the nineteenth century, and they include – a nice touch this – two memorials to trusted family servants: Thomas Chew and James Croasdale.

Originally their principal seat was at Arnoldsbiggin, but in 1725 they replaced their ‘Lower House’ with the fine mansion at Gisburn Park , which they had enclosed earlier. In 1648 they and the Asshetons entertained Oliver Cromwell at Gisburn Park on his way to the battle of Preston. His troopers – like good Independents –  quartered their horses in the church and are alleged to have damaged some of the medieval glass. Authentic contemporary portraits of Cromwell and General Lambert – his chief subordinate – were owned by the family. Shortly afterwards ‘Triers and Ejectors’ removed the ‘delinquent’ vicar – Thomas Bullingham – because as a Crown nominee he would have been appointed by Charles I. Nonetheless his replacement, a Richard Shaw, paid him one fifth of the stipend. Presumably he returned after the Restoration in 1660.

After these excitements, the eighteenth century seemed more quiescent, and not without altruism. The church still possesses a ‘Bishop’s Chair’, dated  1703 and there is a huge list of generous benefactions for the poor on the South Aisle. Later, in 1818 six bells were cast for the tower. The inscription on one of them – ‘The King, the Church, Liberty’ – displays a nice political balance between Whig and Tory after the Napoleonic Wars.

Nonconformist Challenge and Response

Lister dominance was finally challenged by the rise of Methodism. In 1759 a chapel was established opposite the White Bull, where John Wesley preached in 1784. The chapel lasted until 1948. In connection with this the musical achievements of Francis Duckworth (1862-1941) should not pass unnoticed. He wrote the hymn tune ‘Rimington’ and is buried in the parish churchyard. Similarly the Salem Congregationalist chapel was built at Martin Top in 1816 and another Methodist chapel at Paythorne in 1830.

The significance of Methodism (and other varieties of Nonconformism) cannot be under-rated; because through the Anglican church landowners like the Listers had controlled their tenantry not just in their religious worship, but through the interpretation of news from the pulpit,  education, and the provision of other essential social services via the parish vestry and Elizabethan Poor Laws as administered by the Churchwardens.  So, if people did not attend church and went to the Methodist Sunday School, that ‘top down’ social control would be undermined.

Toleration Laws meant that Nonconformity could not be suppressed. Instead the Anglican Church had to compete. At Gisburn the response was substantial, and mainly the work of three outstanding vicars: Richard Jones (1822-67), F. Hart Davis (1867-73) and Richard Wright (1873-1912). Under their aegis a massive programme of renovation was carried out. In 1840 the village school was moved from the parish churchyard to new buildings by the present War Memorial.  At some point the painted altar screens depicting the Ten Commandments, Creed and Lord’s Prayer were set up.

These were evangelical touches; but in 1862 a single manual organ was purchased from T.C. Lewis of London. Extended and located in the North Aisle by the Chancel this was a decidedly High Church move, the more so as it marked the end of the West Gallery music performed from the back of the Nave. Next, using a grant of £3,000 from Queen Anne’s Bounty (not repaid till 1925), tiles (some made by Minton) were laid down, the Three Decker Pulpit replaced, new pews and choir stalls (over sound boxes) inserted; the latter clearly indicating the establishment of a surpliced choir. In 1872 the present stained glass window was installed, and in 1876 a new font was obtained. All these moves – except perhaps the insertion of central heating – are further evidence of High Churchmanship. In other words, after an initial attempt to ‘beat the Methodists at their own game’, the settled policy was to offer the opposite.  It is significant for instance that the High Altar obscures the Ten Commandments! This is all the more remarkable given the Listers’ earlier rather Puritan antecedents.

Modern Times

The Great War hit Gisburn hard.  54 dead are commemorated on the Roll of Honour; among them Thomas Lister, eldest son of his namesake, the Fourth Baron Ribblesdale. The latter died in 1925, leaving no heir; so Gisburn Park was sold to Gertrude and John Hindley, who are commemorated on stained glass windows in the North Aisle dating from 1949 and 1975 respectively. After that the house became a hospital.

Lord Ribblesdale’s death signalled the end of the seigneurial influence that had been exerted  since the church’s foundation, although elements of this survived under the HIndleys up till the 1940s. Yet in many respects this became irrelevant anyway, thanks to the development of universal education (1870, 1919 and 1945 education acts), the dismantling of the Poor Law (1929 Local Government Act), the Welfare State  (1908 Pensions Act and 1942 Beveridge Report) and the NHS (1947). So, as elsewhere in the Anglican Community, Gisburn  church focussed more exclusively on religion, especially liturgy. 

Here, there was little immediate change. Just as in the days of John Robynson the Book of Common Prayer reigned supreme; but its associations had changed. In 1552 its language was exactly contemporary; by the 1920s it was archaic. At Gisburn the reaction came late, but was profound. Under Eric Kyte (2001-12) and Alexander Baker (2016-18) new sets of service booklets were produced using the modern English of Common Worship. However the Book of Common Prayer is still in use today at some services.

This coincided with significant structural change. In 1922 electric light had been installed; but its effects were nullified by stripping the (no doubt decrepit) plaster from the walls, exposing the dark stonework. A sound system was installed after 1996, encouraging a more conversational and less declamatory utterance from the minster and readers. Then in 2006 the building was reordered. The front pews in the nave were removed, clearing a ‘worship space’ (with a removable ‘altar table’) at the crossing. In a sense this marked a recrudescence of Puritan-Evangelical ideals. Certainly it promoted more congregational participation; but the price was their wider separation from the choir and organ in the chancel area.  

Looking further afield, Gisburn’s relationship with the Anglican church organisation was redefined, as happened elsewhere. Originally it was part of the Archbishopric of York; but in 1836 it passed to the newly created diocese of Ripon. In 1873, for the first time, a vicar was chosen by its bishop, not the Crown. In 1996 the first woman priest – Gill Hall – was appointed.

From 1996 up till 2015 the incumbent served both Gisburn and Hellifield.[i]  Then in 2019 Gisburn was tied to Bolton By Bowland and Grindleton.  At about the same time (2015) it joined the diocese of Blackburn which geographically is much closer than Bradford, Ripon and York had ever been.

[i] This began unofficially in 1996 and was formalised in 2001.S

[i] Phased out under the 1836 Tithe Commutation Act.


%d bloggers like this: