St Mary's Church, Masham
St Mary's Church, Masham

The first written record of a church in the historic Yorkshire market town of Masham comes from the Domesday Book of 1086. There was almost certainly a church here long before that time, however. There are Anglo-Saxon quoins (corner stones) built into three sides of the tower and the west end of the chancel also shows Anglo-Saxon stonework.


In the middle of the 12th century Roger de Mowbray, the lord of the manor, granted St Mary's to York Minster to become a prebend and canonry. St Mary's was the most richly endowed canonry in the Minster's possession and as a result, it was known as The Golden Prebend of York.

Among the medieval prebendaries to hold the post were three future cardinals, one future Archbishop of Canterbury, and seven future bishops. It was an enormously prestigious post, to say the least.

The 9th-century cross shaft
The 9th-century cross shaft

Most of those who held the prebend of Masham never saw the town. They were not required to reside in Masham. The Prebendary of Masham presented the Vicar of St Mary's from 1278 until Henry VIII dissolved the prebend in 1545.

Henry gave the endowments to the newly founded Trinity College in Cambridge. The College is still the official patron of the living, though the lay rector of Masham is responsible for maintaining the chancel.

At the west end of the north aisle is a decorative string course with Pre-Norman carving. Near the Wyvill monument are a fragment of a carved cross head and a rectangular cross shaft.

The Angel in Contemplation, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
The Angel in Contemplation, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Anglo-Saxon Cross

The most impressive Anglo-Saxon feature, however, is a churchyard cross opposite the south porch. The beautifully-carved circular shaft we see today is just the lower section of a much large cross carved from sandstone.

The cross was probably carved in the early 9th century. The column is decorated in bands with panels depicting animals and Biblical scenes. The highest complete band depicts several Old Testament scenes.

Aside from the Anglo-Saxon stonework, the bulk of St Mary's Church is from a much later period. The base of the tower is from the middle of the 12th century and the upper stage dates to the early 13th century. An octagonal lantern was added in the 15th century along with a spire. that spire had to be rebuilt in 1855 after it was hit by lightning.

The church interior, looking east
The church interior, looking east

The body of the church dates to the 14th century, with a clerestory added in the following century. The chancel arch was rebuilt at the same time and you can see stones from the original arch, decorated with Norman dogtooth carvings, built into the nave wall below the clerestory.

The south porch was built in the Tudor period, and the entire building was restored in the late Victorian period.

Above the north aisle arcade hang three funeral hatchments in memory of the Danby and Vernon Harcourt families, owners of Swinton Park. The oldest is that of Caroline Danby (d 1821), the first wife of William Danby (d 1833), whose hatchment hangs beside hers. The final hatchment is that of Vice-Admiral Octavius Vernon Harcourt (d 1863), who married William Danby's second wife Anne.

Anglo-Saxon cross fragment
Anglo-Saxon cross fragment

Over the chancel arch is a painting of 'The Angel in Contemplation', thought to have been painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds for at least by his school). It was a gift to St Mary's Church of William Danby of Swinton Park.

Reynolds painted duplicate versions of the scene for the chapel of New College, Oxford. He gave one to the 3rd Duke of Portland, and this now hangs at Welbeck Abbey. The other he gave to his niece the Countess of Thomond. When she died in 1821 the painting was sold with other items from her estate and was snapped up by William Danby.

Lady Magdalen Wyvill effigy
Lady Magdalen Wyvill effigy

The Wyvill Monument

In the south aisle are memorials to the Danby and Cunliffe-Lister families, owners of the Swinton Estate. In the north aisle is the best monument in the church, to the memory of Sir Marmaduke Wyvill of Low Burton Hall. The monument, erected in 1613, shows effigies of Sir Marmaduke and Lady Magdalen Wyvill, while below them kneel their six sons and two daughters.

In the west wall of the nave is a memorial brass to Christopher Kay (d 1690). Kay's epitaph is in the form of an acrostic; the first letters of each line spell his name. There are two more brasses to members of the Beckwith family on the wall of the north aisle.

Over the doorway is a royal coat of arms to George III, painted in 1812 by a local artist who was paid 15 guineas for his work.

Getting There

St Mary's is a delightful historic building, full of interest. It was rightly included in Simon Jenkin's popular book, 'England's Thousand Best Churches'.

The church is just of the market place in Masham, where you can usually find parking. The church is open daylight hours to visitors and is well worth a visit.

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About Masham, St Mary's Church
Address: Market Place, Masham, Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire, England, HG4 4EQ
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: Off the east side of the Market Place where you should be able to find parking.
Website: Masham, St Mary's Church
Location map
OS: SE226806
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


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