The History of Worship on the St Mary's Site

This is a history which is being gradually discovered.  Members of the community are actively researching various aspects and our knowledge of our past is growing.


The story so far:-

In the local news section of the Craven Herald and Monthly Advertiser for May 1853 was an announcement:

"We understand the Bishop of Ripon will consecrate St Mary's Church, Embsay on Tuesday 17th May."


In 1120 the church in Embsay first came into prominence when Reynald was appointed as the first Prior of a new monastery.  This was dedicated to St Mary and St Cuthbert. The priory later moved to Bolton Abbey although a small group of canons maintained Embsay Priory until after the dissolution of the monasteries, when it fell into a state of total disrepair.  The current church is built on the site of the original monastery, and is now the home of a growing Christian family.

The recent history of the parish of Embsay begins in 1853 when the present parish was carved out of the ancient parish of Skipton, but the history of the church in Embsay goes back to 867 when it is thought that there was a Celtic Monastery of Monks and Nuns in the charge of an Abbess.  This was probably destroyed by Vikings in 867AD.

Little else is recorded of Embsay until after the Norman Conquest and the recording of the Doomsday Book where it is written, under the heading of Craven
 In Bolton [Abbey]  6 carucates.
 In Halton [East],  6 carucates.
 In Embsay (spelt Embesie) 6 carucates
 In Draughton,  3 carucates

In 1120 the church in Embsay came into prominence when Reynauld was appointed as the first Prior of a Monastery which was to be built at Embsay. The foundation charter reads:

"To Turstin, by the grace of God Archbishop of York, and to all the son’s of Holy mother church, William Meschin and Cecily my wife, greeting. Know ye that we give and grant to Reynald the prior, the church of the Holy Trinity Skipton, with its chapel of Carlton, with all the appurtenances, and the whole will of Embsay, with all its appurtenances and its right boundaries, to make therefrom a church of canons regular, in pure alms, for the health of our souls and of those of our ancestors and successors. These being the witnesses:- H. the Chaplain, Reynald Revel, R. the mason, Everard the mason."

The masons (caementarii) mentioned here may have been the builders of the church mentioned in the charter, and were possibly members of one family.

In another document a few years later confirming the above grant we are told that:

"We grant the same, and have received them by Episcopal authority as perpetual parsons of the same church (Holy Trinity Skipton)."

Sadly no engraving or picture has ever been found to give us an idea of how the priory at Embsay would have looked in its heyday.

The dedication of the new priory at Embsay to St Mary and St Cuthbert has been the cause of much speculation. The secondary dedication to St Cuthbert is said to be unusual in that there is no apparent connection with the saint or his church in Durham. Be that as it may it seems appropriate at this time to include a brief biography of St Cuthbert:


In the year of his death, King Egfrid, appointed the Holy & Venerable Cuthbert to be Bishop of Lindis-farne. Cuthbert had, for many years, lived a solitary life in great self-mastery of mind and body on the tiny island known as Farne.

He went to the Monastery of Melrose where he eventually became Prior. He was a skilful speaker, very strong in his faith. He was then transferred to Lindisfarne. After his work at Lindisfarne he became a hermit for many years. Later he became the Bishop of the church at Lindisfarne. He was diligent in his teaching, prayer and self discipline. He died on Farne Island asking that he should be buried there, but before he died he yielded to their entreaties and consented that his body should be taken back to Lindisfarne and buried within the church.

After 11 years in the grave Cuthbert’s body was exhumed and they found his body whole and incorrupt, as though still living, and the limbs flexible, so that he looked as if he were sleeping, rather than dead. Furthermore all his vestments in which he was clothed, appeared not only spotless but wonderfully fresh and fair, and many miracles of healing were reported about him.

Embsay Priory grew in prominence and many other grants were made to the canons there. They were:-

2. William de Meschines and Cecilia, his wife, granted the parish of Skipton, including the chapel of Carlton, then dependant upon Skipton, to the canons of Emmesay.

3. The church of Broctune was amongst the earliest donations to the canons of Embsay given by Adam Fitz Duncan and Alice de Rumelli.

4. The Church of Preston: By Amundeville it was bestowed upon the church & canons of Embsay, and confirmed to them with the consent of Richard, the cleric of Preston by Henry Murdac, Archbishop of York…

5. The village and Manor of Kildwick were amongst the first donations to the Priory of EMBSAY, by Cecilia de Romille, the foundress.  The church of St Andrew in this place was given by Cecilia de Romille to God and to the church of St Mary & St Cuthbert of Embsay and to the canons there serving God.

6. The corn mill at Silsden (The corn-mill was the property of the Lord of the Manor and the servile tenants were obliged to grind their corn at the mill specified by the landlord to whom they owed allegiance. This made the mill one of the most profitable features of the manor because of the landlord’s monopoly.) This is very much in evidence in Cecily de Rumilly’s grant of her mill in Silsden to Embsay Priory during this period as it contains most of the rights, restrictions and penalties concerning the tenants who used both manorial and monastic corn-mills, including one of the earliest specific references to the illegal use of handmills; the grant concludes with “nor may they [the tenants] have handmills."

7. Mills of Harewood: Somewhere between 1135 & 1145, during her widowhood, Cecily granted to the canons of Embsay the Mills of Harewood with the whole multure of the place, excepting Brandon & Wigton.

Be it known to all the sons of Holy Church, both of the present time and of time to come, that I, Alice de Rumelli, with the consent and assent of William my son and heir, and of my daughter, have given, granted and by this present charter have confirmed to God and to the canons regular of St Mary and St Cuthbert of Embsay, the whole manor of Bolton with all its appurtenances, in wood and plain, in waters and meadows and grazings, by these boundaries; to wit, from Lumgill beneath the game enclosure which is called Lobwith, even as it comes down from the moor which is called lob with slec along the same Lumgile even to the water of Wharfe, and so up along the same water as far as Barden Beck; and so by Barden Beck as far as Crossekelde, and to the road which goes by Merbeck, which is the boundary between Bolton and Halton; and so westward to Hameldune, by the boundaries of Berewick until one comes again to Lumgill Head on the moor with Lobwith; with all the liberties and free customs that I or any one of my ancestors may have had or might have in the same manor, without any exception, in free, pure and perpetual alms; in exchange for two manors which belonged to the canons, to wit Stretone and Skibdune. Wherefore I will and command that the aforesaid canons have and hold the aforesaid manor of Bolton, with all its appurtenances, by the aforenamed boundaries, with all the liberties and immunities that man can give, well and in peace, freely, and quit and freed from all worldly service, custom and exaction appertaining to any mortal whomsoever, as free, pure and perpetual alms, for the salvation of my soul and those of my predecessors and successors. And this exchange I and my heirs will warrant for ever to the aforenamed canons. These being my witnesses….

It would not be far from the mark to suggest that with the exchange of Bolton for Stretone and Skibdune the canons of Embsay saw the great advantage of moving from cold and windy Embsay to a sheltered, watered and in every way more desirable spot at Bolton and somehow talked Alice de Rumilly into financing the building of a new Abbey at Bolton.

Or would it? Maybe there is some truth in the legend of Egremond! Briefly it runs:- The boy, son of Alice de Romille, tried to leap over the Strid but was checked by a greyhound which he held on the leash.  He fell into the eddying current and was drowned. His body being washed down to somewhere near the present day site of Bolton Abbey. In her bereavement, says the legend, his mother ordered the removal of the Priory at Embsay to Bolton.

Embsay Priory was still maintained by a small group of canons and continued up to the dissolution of the monasteries. There is evidence within the records of Bolton that the priory was even extended during that period.

Sadly after the dissolution it was left to fall into a state of total disrepair until in the 1800s when most of the stone was used to build the present Embsay Kirk, during which operation the foundations of the cloisters were uncovered in the grounds.


From the records of Bolton Priory:

Evidence of the continued existence of a church at Embsay can be found in the Account of Moneys of the Monastery of Blessed Mary of Bolton in Craven by Robert of Hoton and Thomas Passelew, receivers, from the feast of St Michael the Archangel in the year of the Lord 1377 until the same feast the following year. It is recorded that a sum of 20 shillings from rent of the church there, whilst the rent of Embsay was £9 14s 2.5d. From Skipton it was 6 shillings and from Eastby a rent of £4 11s 1.5d.

It is interesting to note that the rent from Embsay was the highest out of a total of 25 recorded.

The community of Embsay with Eastby grew with the development of the textile industry in the nineteenth century. In 1848 a new church school was built, followed by the present church of St Mary the Virgin in 1853. Initially it was part of the parish of Holy Trinity, Skipton, then in 1855 Embsay with Eastby became a separate parish. Following the creation of the Diocese of Bradford in 1919, Embsay with Eastby was transferred to Bradford from the Ripon Diocese.

The June 1853 edition of the Craven Herald and Monthly Advertiser gave a brief account of the consecration of St Mary’s Church:

"On Whit-Tuesday, the Lord Bishop of Ripon consecrated St Mary's Church. The site was given by Mr. James Sidgwick and is part of the field where the old Priory stood. The principal contributors are, W.N. Alcock, Esq., Duke of Devonshire, Thomas Hitchen. Esq., Vicar of Skipton, Revd. C. Spackman. At half past ten o'clock the clergy who had robed at Mr. Dewhurst's, Primrose Cottage, met the Bishop at the north door… The offertory amounted to £54. In the evening a collection was made amounting to £9 5s. 7d. We hope to find room in our next number for a full account of the interesting proceedings of the day of Consecration."

Sadly, space for a full account of the consecration was filled by news of a thunderstorm on Sunday 19th June. At about noon, Skipton Parish Church was "greatly injured" as lightning struck the weathercock on top of the tower, but the church was ready to be used for divine service the following Sunday.

The first vicar of St Mary's was Revd Henry Cooper who was called a perpetual curate.

Externally, St Mary's Church appears almost the same as when it was built, a Victorian version of the Early English style of Gothic architecture. Internally, changes have been made. The removal of some pews enabled the creation of a kitchen and multi-purpose area in the north aisle, and could anyone imagine life without modern heating and lighting? These are all signs of a church continuing to develop with its community.

In 2003, St Mary's Church celebrated its 150th anniversary with a series of events, including an art exhibition, cheese and wine reception, buffet lunch and a service of thanksgiving with the Archbishop of York.

Grateful thanks to Revd Alan Kitchen (deceased) and Mr Marcus Catling for compiling the above history of St Mary's

The last 12 years has seen the celebration of St Mary’s 160th anniversary.  The return of the Rector of Holy Trinity being Priest in Charge from 2005 until 2013 with a resident priest in Embsay with Eastby and working as part of a cluster with Draughton. The appointment of our first female priest, Rev’d Louise Taylor-Kenyon in 2010, who subsequently became our incumbent in 2014. In 2014 there was a major restructuring of 3 local dioceses (Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield) to create the large Diocese of Leeds (initially known as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales). 

A new inside toilet has been built by altering the kitchen to accommodate this. The church applied and has been granted Heritage Lottery Funding to repair part of the roof, the majority of which is still the original roof now over 160 years old.  Hand rails have been added to the steps either side of the Nave alter leading to the High altar.

Currently the PCC are looking into the possibility of improving the Crossley Room to allow space for a meeting room and possibly a Sunday school. There is a monthly All Age Worship service with a band made up of members of the congregation and attracts many parents and children.

The church has very close links with Embsay Church School and a ‘Smiley Faces” group for mums, dads, babies and toddlers is held weekly during term time.

The church is open every Tuesday between 2- 4pm for anyone who wishes to come in for tea and cake. Regular services with Holy Communion take place every Tuesday at 10.30am, and Sunday at 9.30am (except 1st Sunday of the month at 11.15am, Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion). 

We are currently in the process of updating our Church yard records and researching St Mary’s history.

Sue Stearn, (February, 2015)