St Leonards Church – Speeton Yorkshire

St Leonards Church – Speeton Yorkshire
St Church
Image by nick.garrod
Artizen HDR Lock05

The church of St. Leonard’s at Speeton, which is one of the smallest complete parish churches in Yorkshire, was erected in the early Norman period, not later than 1100. It was probably built on the site of an earlier Saxon church dating from the first days of Christianity in Yorkshire.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the lands of Speeton were bestowed, by various owners, on the Augustinian Priory at Bridlington. Eventually almost the whole of the present parish formed part of the Priories’ estates. Speeton church depended upon Bridlington churchmen for religious administration» In 1290, Edward I granted the prior and canons free warren over many manors including Speeton. A parochial chaplain is first mentioned in 1451. The gift of so much land is evidence of a great religious devotion on the part of many previous residents of the village. The church is dedicated to St. Leonard, who lived in the sixth century and became the patron saint of prisoners and captives. He ministered to slaves and prisoners in an age when the threat of such a fate hung over everyone. His feast day is November 6th.

Speeton church seems to have had a peaceful existence until the reign of Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the Reformation, the churches frescoe of the Crucifixion, stone altar, vestments, votive lights and probably a statue of St. Leonard himself were all removed. After the Reformation, Robert Denison became the proprietor of Speeton, his family remaining patrons until Lord Londesborough sold his lands earlier this century. The Chantry of St. Leonard in Speeton Chapel had owned land in other parishes, e.g. Harpham, before the Reformation. The ‘Chapel of Speeton’ was mentioned in the Parliamentary survey of 1650. It had tithes worth £50 p.a. which were the property of Sir Michael Wharton. The chaplain’s salary is recorded as £3. 12s. Od. (£3.60) per annum. At this time the preaching minister was one Richard Broderick, a puritan, who also preached at Bempton. This connection with Bempton church was to continue until 1919, when Speeton was merged with Reighton to form a "United Benefice."

In the eighteenth century big box pews and a three decker pulpit were provided, while the font was moved into the chancel. As with most small churches of the period, the curates were absentees. In the years 1743 to 1764 the curate lived at Hunmanby but this was much closer at hand than was the case with most absentee curates. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the incumbents at Flamborough and Bempton often conducted services at Speeton. The fact that the church was often empty at this time has led to the belief that it may have been used by smugglers to store their takings before distribution. Only one service was held every six weeks in 1743.

In the nineteenth century the church must have presented a somewhat run-down appearance. A visit by the local topographer Reverend Prickett, led him to report in 1831 that, "Speeton Chapel is only an oblong room." The east end of the church was being used as a school. The church was probably the one visited by Charlotte Bronte in 1852, when she tells that, "It was certainly not more than thrice the length of our passage, floored with brick, the walls green with mould, the pews painted white, but the paint almost worn off with time and decay." She also recorded the humourous situation of the choir facing away from the congregation.
Reverend George Alcock, who wrote the history of Speeton Parish and Church in 1936 spoke with many people who remembered the church in the latter half of Victoria’s reign. The box pews were occupied by farm labourers from the 1860’s until much later, while other pews came to be regarded as belonging to certain farmers and their tenants. Reverend Alcock records, however, that Speeton never indulged in the sin of charging pew rents.

During the period 1865-70 the chancel was used, once again, as a school. The average daily attendance in 1865 was twelve. In this year the Minister stated that "nearly all the inhabitants attented both church and chapel." Some attended on alternate Sundays which perhaps explains the co-operation between the religious houses concerning the harmonium, which was used at the church for one service and then moved to the chapel for the next. This seems to have become an established tradition by the early years of this century.

The lack of burial ground meant that coffins were often carried by the pall bearers to Bridlington Priory. It was customary for the bearers to refresh themselves at the Nags Head near the Priory, at the end of their arduous journey and if time allowed, to call there again before starting back to the village. This custom continued to almost within living memory and a well worn track once existed to mark the funeral route. When the railway was constructed, a new road was built and the old track gradually fell into disuse.

In the later years of the nineteenth century, continuing into Edwardian times, the farmers occupying the three neighbouring farms made themselves responsible for the churches upkeep. This system, which worked in rotation, was so successful that collections for church expenses were unknown before 1906.
The dilapidated condition of the church remained a problem, however with plaster falling from the roof, even during services. Reverend John Wilkinson Vicar of Bempton and Speeton in 1905-14 undertook to restore the building. A bazaar was held at Millholm Farm, a new organ was bought, the box pews, pulpit and plaster ceiling were removed. Smaller pine pews were built and erected on the spot. The new pulpit was part of a stall given to St. Mary’s Bridlington by Mrs. Greenwood Clayton. The tiles were replaced by a brick floor and two lancet windows were made in the west wall on either side of the tower. The font was moved from the chancel to the west end and an altar cross set up on the altar. Most of this occurred in 1911.