North Street, York YO1 6JD
Hidden away, across the River Ouse from the Guildhall and the city’s principal shopping streets, is what has been described as York’s finest medieval church, dating from 1089 but probably older, containing as it does a re-purposed Roman column. A visit to All Saints gives a glimpse of an earlier time when the city population – then much smaller – was served by as many as 39 churches, when the Church exercised power over all citizens and unbelief was effectively inconceivable. One of the city’s greatest medieval works of art can be seen here: the Prik of Conscience stained glass window.
Among the survivals at All Saints are the reconstructed hermit’s cell abutting the church, with a squint (a small window to permit mass to be followed from inside). In the early 15th century, the cell was occupied by the visionary anchorite (religious recluse) Emma Raughton. She is said to have foreseen the death of King Henry V and the birth of his son, giving instructions, before birth, for the latter’s coronation which took place at Notre-Dame in Paris in 1431.
Today, the cell (anchorhold) contains central heating controls but, following Ridsdale Tate’s restoration, was inhabited once again by anchorites. Brother Walter (‘no saint about me’), a First World War veteran was, in his monk’s habit, a well-known figure about the city; Alan Whicker interviewed him for a television documentary. Still more intriguing, perhaps, was Adeline Cashmore who lived a life of prayer in the anchorhold. Her sister trained as a midwife in London and brought a fellow student – an American, Mary Breckenridge – to meet her. Mary was so struck by Adeline’s saintliness that she stayed in York over Christmas in 1924. Though they hardly met again, Adeline became Mary’s spiritual guide. They corresponded, with Adeline supporting Mary’s pioneering work; she founded the horse-riding midwives – The Frontier Nursing Service – of Appalachian Kentucky. Before her initiative, rural deaths in childbirth were commonplace.
Early survivals in the church include the decorated chancel ceiling, an aisle with carved figures (including angels with musical instruments), a pulpit from 1675, a striking tower with octagonal spire, and a 15th-century oak stall carved with a pelican feeding her young with her own blood – a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. As this selective list suggests, the building has expanded and been restored over the years, making the survivals more remarkable still. Renovation work has been carried out, with York Civic Trust support in 1991 and more recently. Expansion took place in the 12th century to match a rise in the population. Major work was also undertaken in the late 14th century when the west tower and spire were added. In the 15th century, the chancel ceiling and decorated aisle were added, as was most of the stained glass. In 1886-7, major work was overseen by Atkinsons of York. This included the reconstruction of the south aisle, restoration of the roof, the installation of a new organ, a covered porch, additional seating, new glazing, and the redecoration of the chancel ceiling and reredos. In about 1910, Edwin Ridsdale Tate re-created the anchorhold. Tate’s chancel screen, its carving in harmony with the age and character of the building, was installed in 1926, following his death.
During the English Civil War, through negotiations with Cromwell’s attacking forces, Royalist York managed to protect much of the city’s medieval stained glass. In many churches elsewhere, Puritan iconoclasm led to the destruction of stained glass and disfigurement of religious statues. Thus, the Minster, All Saints Church and several other city-centre churches still contain well-preserved examples of this means by whichpriests used images for religious instruction to a non-literate public. Scripture, literacy and much social control were firmly in the hands of the clergy. The Bible was available only in Latin, the language of the mass and sole preserve of priests; Latin was otherwise read only by educated laymen. Except in nunneries, and in common with the public at large, medieval women, irrespective of class, were rarely taught reading, still less Latin. Though there were striking exceptions including women depicted in the stained glass of All Saints.
The church’s stained glass is a treasure, mostly dating from around 1410. From the north aisle, the windows are:
• Coats of arms
• St Thomas
• Corporal Acts of Mercy
• Prik of Conscience
• Lady Chapel east window (c.1330)
• Chancel east window
• South aisle east window (c.1350)
• St Michael and St John (c.1430)
• Nine Orders of Angels
• St James
The windows are rich in colour, craftsmanship, and curiosity – there is even one small image of a medieval spectacle wearer – but their messages are not always easy to retrieve today. A concern with the Orders of Angels – Milton listed them too, in Paradise Lost (1667) – now seems merely quaint, but the Corporal Acts of Mercy remain relevant: feeding the hungry, relieving the thirsty, giving hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting both the sick and those in prison. Burying the dead, the final act, is missing. However, the suggestion that the charitable figure pictured might be the window’s donor, Nicholas Blackburn (York merchant and mayor), may now raise questions; for all its piety, is this a persuasive portrayal of charity, a wealthy man’s self-promotion, or perhaps both?
Prik of conscience window
Unique in medieval art and of international importance, the Prik of Conscience window is based on what may have been the most popular, and certainly the most copied, religious poem (of the same name), in Middle English; 130 manuscripts, each of around 9,500 lines, are known to have survived.
Described as a penitential text, it comprises seven parts:
1 Of Man and his Wretchedness
2 Of the World’s Unstableness
3 Of Death and the Pain that with him goes
4 Of Purgatory where Souls are cleansed of their Folly
5 Of the Day of Doom and of the Tokens that before shall come
6 The Pains of Hell
7 The Joys of Heaven.
Each is structured around quotations from the Bible or church fathers, but the cheerily thumping couplets sit oddly with their severity. A brief flavour of this penitential brutality may be gathered from the Day of Doom –the subject of the window, where Hell is destined for, among many others, parents who fail to beat their children. Much the same eternal penalty awaits schoolmasters who withheld the birch; notions of Christian duty, of childhood and of effective teaching that are far remote from what now seems humane, or proportionate.
As with the Acts of Mercy, the Prik of Conscience window may also prompt modern visitors to wonder, marvelling at the workmanship (perhaps by John Thornton of Coventry, responsible for windows in the Minster) but with some qualms about their ethical underpinnings. In short, donations were traded for indulgences whose sale filled church coffers. Even the Archbishop of York offered them to fund the Minster’s nave (1306). Part of an indulgence is preserved, too, in the St James window at All Saints. In the Canterbury Tales, in the person of his shameless Pardoner, Chaucer satirised this deeply dubious practice. The church employed Pardoners to squeeze the pockets of the faithful to buy indulgences, ‘comen from Rome al hoot’; his Pardoner had a sideline in fake relics too: pigs’ bones and supposed remnants of the Virgin’s clothing. John Osborne’s drama Luther brings such questionable sales vividly to life, and Luther, himself a doctor of the church, found them unjustified by scripture. His revulsion was part of the reason for his momentous break with Catholicism and the consequent rise of Protestantism.
The window itself is concerned with just one part of the poem: the 15 tokens (signs) that emerge daily before Christ’s re-arrival as judge. Each has a glass panel mostly matched with a line of text unusually in English. The sequence starts from the bottom and goes left to right. The days shown are:
1 The sea covers hills and mountains
2 The waters recede to the seabed
3 The sea returns to normal
4 The fish of the sea appear roaring
5 The sea catches fire
6 Fruit drops from the trees
7 All buildings fall
8 Rocks and stones are consumed by fire
9 People hide in caves
10 The earth is flattened
11 People emerge from caves praying
12 Graves are opened
13 Stars fall down
14 All living people die
15 The whole world catches fire.
To conclude its dire warnings – they seem to shock even the donors at the window’s base – two top panels picture the blessed being led to heaven and the damned drawn off to hell.
The chancel screen
The designer of the chancel screen was Edwin Ridsdale Tate to whom a York Civic Trust plaque was unveiled in 2018 by Father Ken Gabbadon and author Peter Stanhope.
James H. Morey (ed.) Prik of Conscience, (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012). TEAMS Middle English Texts are published for the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan and are now available online
A.L. Oldfield, The Stained Glass of York (York: Maxiprint, 1992)
S. Powell, ‘All Saints church, North Street, York: Text and Image in the Pricke of Conscience Window’, Prophecy, Apocalypse and the Day of Doom, Harlaxton Medieval Studies Vol .XII, Nigel J. Morgan (ed.) (Donington: Paul Watkins Publishing, 2005)
F.N. Robinson (ed.) The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London: Oxford University Press, 1957)
Roger Rosewell, Stained Glass (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2012)
Roger Rosewell ‘The Pricke of Conscience or the Fifteen Signs of Doom Window in the Church of All Saints, North Street, York, Vidimus, the on-line magazine devoted to medieval stained glass, No. 45 (November 2010)
For further information about All Saints Church, including service times.
© Graham Frater
Photographs: Rachel Semlyen