In a city as populated with churches as York, it is difficult to single any one of them out. The obvious choice for further exploration is York Minster, the grandiose early-gothic masterpiece recognisable around the world. The Minster brings more than a million visitors to the city each year, and is the most distinguishable image of York. It adorns fridge magnets, tea towels, bookmarks; well, almost anything it is possible to hold in your hand can get a Minster stamped on it.
Today’s Obscure York takes a look at a church which is actually older than the York Minster we know today, but no less interesting. Construction of the Minster that stands in the city in the twenty-first century was completed in 1250, whereas St. Mary Bishophill Junior was built in the late tenth and early eleventh century, and possesses a rich and varied history.
In a sleepy residential area just inside the city walls, is arguably the oldest church in York, which is a heady accolade in such a religious city. Finding its origins in pre-Norman conquest Saxon times, The West Tower of St. Mary itself offers an insight into the history of the city, incorporating three separate building styles, displaying, (from ground level up), re-used Roman masonry, course Saxon herring-bone, and Late-Saxon North Country. The tower also has original Saxon windows in the upper parts, and the lower section of the west tower contains the earliest example of ecclesiastical architecture in York. St Mary Bishophill Junior is a Grade I listed building, and was positioned on the original civilian settlement in Roman times.
The church is the only complete roofed standing pre-conquest Viking period church in the city. It survived William the Conqueror’s bloodlust in 1069, and was the only church not to be burnt down.
Restored interiorly in 1860, St. Mary Bishophill Junior is an incredibly well preserved example of an historic place of worship in the UK. The church still has a medieval font, eleventh century aisles, a thirteenth century chancel with medieval stained glass depicting St. Michael, the Virgin Mary and clergymen, and also the remains of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross shaft, which pre-dates the building. It also contains a huge re-used Roman stone arch, thought to be part of a Roman version of Micklegate Bar.
The parish plays host to the St. Constantine’s Greek Orthodox congregation, and arranges various events throughout the year, as well as normal Sunday and Wednesday worship. These include Orthodox services and performances of the local Rudgate Singers.
St. Mary Bishophill Junior’s status as the oldest surviving church in York is a little-advertised fact. It has an element of history missing from many other buildings in the city, stretching a little further back, and exploring the early-Saxon, Viking, and even Roman eras of York. Displaying a succinct history of York in one building, St. Mary Bishophill Junior is well worth a look.