From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 105-111.




Fortified Church Towers.


IN these peaceful days it is not easy to fully realise the terrible times when warfare cast a gloom over the land. Our forefathers had not only to fear foes from foreign shores, but had to protect themselves against the inroads of the Scotch and Welsh.

Strong castles were conspicuous in all parts of the country. These were often the strongholds of petty tyrants and disturbers of the public peace. The warlike owners of the castles with their armed retainers were often at strife with their neighbours, and even the king on the throne was defied.

Castles were not the only fortified places. Church towers, more especially in the border counties of Cumberland and Hereford, and the border districts of southern France, were strongly built, and offered a place of safety in the time of need. The best extant example in England is the tower of Great Salkeld Church, Cumberland. It has only one door, and that opens into the nave, 106 and this is iron-plated towards the church, and at the inside are strong iron bars, when fastened, rendering it almost impossible to break through. Here the ancient town armour was kept, and here the helmet, breast-plate, etc., belonging to other days and to old-fashioned warfare, appear to be in their proper place in this ancient stronghold. At Burgh-on-the-Sands, in the same county, is an old fortified church tower. It was here that Edward I. died, on July 7th, 1307. At the time of his death he was preparing to wage war in Scotland. The church of Annan, on the Scottish side of the Solway was as strongly fortified as Burgh. This was not the only fortified church on the borders of North Britain.

Some interesting notes on this theme were written by Mr. John A. Cory, Architect, County Surveyor of Cumberland, for a meeting of the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, held at Carlisle, in July, 1859. Respecting Newton and Arlosh church, on the coast of Cumberland, a few miles to the west of Burgh, and in the parish of Holme-Cultram, some important facts were given. “This curious example,” said Mr. Cory, “is of especial interest, because the date of the construction has been 107 ascertained. The Abbot of Holme had obtained, in 1301, a grant from the bishop, for building a church at Shenburness, at that period a place of consequence for supplies for the forces engaged against the Scots. Shortly afterwards, however, the town was destroyed by the inroads of the sea; and in 1309, John de Halaughton, bishop of Carlisle, granted licence to the abbot to build a church or chapel within the territory of Arlosh, which, subsequently to the removal of the town thither received the name of Newton, which it still bears. In consequence of the frequent hostile invasions and depredations of the Scots, to which special attention is made in the bishop’s charter, the church then built was so constructed as to appear more like a fortress than an ecclesiastical structure. The doorway is only two feet seven inches wide, all the windows are more than seven feet from the ground, and not one, even in the east end of the church, measures more than one foot in width, and three feet four inches in height.” The tower has in it a fire-place, and at this stronghold every precaution was made for safety in the event of protection being required. In the church tower of Burgh is a fire-place, and in other towers we have found traces of them.


According to popular tradition, the noble tower of Bedale church has proved a place of refuge when the Scotch were spreading misery with the sword in the district. It is clearly built for defence, having a portcullis at the foot of the staircase. Strange to state the portcullis was lost sight of, till it fell from the effects of a stroke of lightning. All communication with the clock bells were stopped until it was hacked away, and this was not done without considerable labour.

Another Yorkshire church tower built for defence was the one at Middleham. Richard III., Duke of Gloucester, took an interest in this church, and intended making it a collegiate church, and to endow it, but this was frustrated by his death at Bosworth. From the time of Richard III. down to 1856, the Incumbent was called a Dean, but since that year he is designated a Rector. We gather from the “History of the North Riding,” published 1859, that the tower is furnished with a fire-place, constructed in comparatively modern times of Early English tombstones, etc. The Rev. Luke Cotes, Dean from 1718 to 1741, is said to have lived in this tower for some time, to avoid arrest for debt. He was involved in pecuniary embarrassments, 109 caused by his repewing the church, the cost of which his parishioners refused to pay.

At Melsonby, Yorkshire, is another fortified church tower. It is described as “a Norman keep in miniature.” In this tower is a square aperture, said to be designed for passing in provisions to supply the garrison when located here, or perhaps for supplying a recluse, of whose habitation some traces remain.

The inhabitants of Newcastle-on-Tyne are justly proud of the elegant steeple of their Cathedral, formerly the parish church of St. Nicholas. “Other towns,” says Mr. R. J. Charlton in his “Newcastle Town,” “can show copies of our famous original, but all are far behind it. It is the surprise and admiration of strangers and the constant delight of the townsmen of Newcastle.” In 1804, the Rev. Joseph Dacre Carlyle, the then vicar of the town, in a letter to his churchwardens said of the steeple “It is a fabric, in my opinion, the most beautiful that exists in the world — which surpasses the cathedral of St. Sophia at Constantinople, the mosque of Sultan Saladin at Jerusalem, the church of St. Peter at Rome, even the temple of Minerva at 110 Athens.” Newcastle in the Civil Wars espoused the Royalist side, and in 1644 for ten weeks was besieged. Under the singular courage and ability of the Mayor, Sir John Marley, the town with 1500 fighting men held out against some 30,000 soldiers serving the Parliament. The Earl of Leven was enraged at being kept so long at bay by so small a force, and declared that if the town did not immediately surrender he would destroy the spire of St. Nicholas’ Church. Sir John Marley was equal to the occasion and filled the lantern of the tower with Scotch prisoners. According to Bourne the old historian of the town, Sir John made reply to Earl Leven’s threats by declaring “that they would upon no terms deliver up the town, but would to the last moment defend it. That the steeple of St. Nicholas was indeed a beautiful and magnificent piece of architecture, and one of the great ornaments of their town, but yet should it be blown into atoms before ransomed at such a rate. That, however, if it was to fall, it should not fall alone; but the same moment he destroyed the beautiful structure, he should bathe his hands in the blood of his countrymen, who were placed there on purpose either to preserve it from ruin or to die along with it.” The spire was 111 saved, but later, the town, after remarkable resistance was taken.

During the Civil War, Bradford, Yorkshire, was on the side of the Parliament, and when the King’s troops besieged the town, the church was improvised by the inhabitants as a sort of fortress, and to protect the fabric the tower was hung round with wool-packs.

Under the shadows of the old fortified towers many tales of terror have been told of bygone times. The towers are links in the chain of history joining the peaceful present to the perilsome past.