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St Peter's Church (Conisbrough)

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Dating from 750AD, St Peter's Church is one of the oldest buildings in South Yorkshire

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      08.01.2012 18:26
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      St Peter's church has a history that dates back to around 750 AD

      St Peter's Church in Conisbrough has a history that dates back to at least 750AD and is the oldest surviving buildings in South Yorkshire. It has been a continuous place of worship since it is was first constructed and today it is still a very active part of the local community.

      Conisbrough lies almost half way between Rotherham and Doncaster and is most famous for its Norman Castle, but many visitors to the castle don't realise that its church is at least four centuries older. It might be worth pointing out at this stage that despite its missing "o" from the end of the name Conisbrough is pronounced like borough rather that bruff.

      Following the Norman Conquest of 1066 the history of the church is linked to the Earls of Warenne. Hamelin Plantagenet, the 5th Earl and half brother of King Henry II built Conisbrough's Castle and there is a stained glass window inside the church that depicts the first Earl of Warenne at his priory in Lewes in Sussex.

      Unlike many historic churches St Peter's is kept open to the public as frequently as possible. A dedicated team of volunteers strive to open the church daily for at least a few hours and until around 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Since it is still used as the Parish Church services are also held here regularly.

      I've known of St Peter's most of life but despite it being relatively local to me I only visited it for the first time in September 2010 during the Heritage Open Days Weekend. I recall trying to visit here a couple of years earlier but I found it all locked up and assumed that it had only limited opening hours. I learned during my visit that it was actually closed then because it had suffered from vandalism during which several of the ancient stained glass windows were smashed and as a result the church was closed for around six months for the only time in its history.

      The vandalism of 2008 shocked the local community who quickly rallied round to raise funds for its repair. One local business man donated £100,000 which was a huge chunk of the fund required but the windows required immense skill to rebuild them and that's what took so long. The locals had found every single shard of broken glass and it was all carefully pieced back together like a jigsaw. Looking carefully at one of the windows today it is possible to see a single hairline crack in one of the panels, but had this not been pointed out to me than I would have never noticed. Following the restoration work there was actually some surplus money left in the fund which was used to install CCTV (a sad fact of our times) and also to have one of the plain glass windows replaced with a brand new stained glass window, which was designed by the locals as part of a competition and made by the same man (yes it was just one individual) who had painstakingly rebuilt the other windows. This new window is quite different to the rest but manages to mix the old with the modern. Many visitors that do not realise that this is a brand new window tell the staff that this is their favourite window and I must admit that it is quite breathtaking.

      Immediately outside the church there is a large car park and from here a short flight of steps takes the visitor to the main entrance. I'm sure there would be an alternative route for wheelchair users but I didn't enquire. Inside the entrance I was greeted by a woman who passed me a leaflet and plan of the church and asked me if this was my first visit. Her enthusiasm about the place was obvious and throughout my visit she kept re-appearing and pointing out tiny little details, which I would have otherwise missed.

      These not only included the tiny crack in one of the windows but also some marks on the stonework. On one wall there are several scratches and I was informed that this was once the outer wall before the church was extended and these marks are thought to be from where the locals had sharpened their tools (farming implements) on the stones. It was a sobering thought to realise these marks were over 1,000 years old. Elsewhere there was a letter "M" inscribed onto one of the stones. This wall was built around 1070 when the church was extended. Apparently there is an identical mark on one of the stones at the castle suggesting that both structures were built by the same people and this is thought to be the mark of one of the stone masons although the castle wasn't built until around 1160 so that doesn't quite add up. A more recent theory is that some of the stones from the church might have been used to construct the castle.

      Stepping inside the church the first thing that I noticed was how big it was. From the outside it looks pretty big but the high ceiling made it seem even more spacious inside than I imagined. The church has undergone two major reconstructions during its lifetime. The first of these around 1070 resulted in the building of a new wing and the second modification in 1450 saw the addition of a second wing. Standing just inside the entrance it is possible to see that the central part of the building is the original old building and that the two wings at each side are later additions but it all blends in quite nicely.

      Although it is a known fact that the bulk of the present church was constructed between 740 and 750AD there are elements that have led historians to believe that its origins may date back even further and even right back to the very beginning of Christianity in England. Conisbrough was an important Roman settlement and was regularly visited by the Roman Commander Gaius Flavius Constantinius who resided in York with his wife Helen. Helen was an early convert to Christianity (although her husband was not) but when their son Flavius became Emperor Constantine Helen convinced him that Christianity should be the faith of the Roman Empire. The signing of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicea, which enforced this rule was commemorated with the erecting of a preaching cross which still stands in the churchyard. This is believed to date from 325AD the same year of the creed. Another connection between the church and the Romans is a Roman carving in the porch that is believed to be an image of St Peter holding the keys to the gates of Heaven. This is probably from where the church derives it name.

      Recent research by the University of Sheffield has proved without doubt that this is indeed the oldest building in South Yorkshire but they now believe that there was an even earlier church built between 670 and 680AD which is the time that the Bishop Biscups Church in Northumberland was built (674AD) and around the time that the church at Ledsham in North Yorkshire was also built. There are some features of both of these other ancient churches, which can be found here. In particular the way that the stonework is arranged in the south west corner where the tower joins the Saxon nave. This arrangement of stones is unique in all three churches and has not been found elsewhere in England.

      As you can imagine a church of this age has been altered many times over the centuries but unlike some other historic churches I have visited this still feels very old and authentic. This is largely due to the fact that it was almost untouched by the Victorians who modernised and rebuilt many of our old churches.

      St Peter's is a fascinating place to visit and tells the history of the local people and their early links to Christianity. Inside the church there are two huge tombs (plus lots of smaller ones) and one of these in engraved with the coat of arms of the Warenne family and is thought the contain the remains of the 3rd Earl Warenne who died in 1148. The remains in the other tomb are unidentified but it is equally grand and dates from around the around the same period. This other tomb is engraved with the symbol of a raven, which probably connects it to the castle and the ravens that once guarded it.

      I'd highly recommend a visit to St Peter's Church in Conisbrough to anyone with an interest in history. It is free to visit but donations are always welcome.

      St Peter's Church
      Church Street
      South Yorkshire
      DN12 3HL


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