Church Street, York YO1 8BG

Now a community centre for the over 60s, St Sampson’s Church lay empty and neglected for six years until it was rescued by York Civic Trust in 1974. It is the only church in England dedicated to St Sampson of York.

The earliest mention of the church is in a charter of King Stephen dating from 1154 in which he granted the avowson – the right to choose the parish priest – to Pontefract Priory. An attempt to revoke the grant was made by the next king, Henry II, and the avowson was disputed for the following 240 years between the Crown, the priors of Pontefract and the Archdeacon of Richmond. King Richard II resolved the matter, in 1394, when he granted the church and its tithes to the vicars choral of York Minster on condition that they should pray daily for his soul and that of his consort, Queen Anne, after their deaths. Although prayers for the dead were abolished at the Reformation, the vicars choral retained possession of the church until 1936 when it passed to the Dean and Chapter of the Minster.

The dedication of the church is unusual. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written around 1136, describes how Aurelius, King Arthur’s uncle, recaptured York from the Saxons in the 5th century and began to rebuild the cathedral and churches which had been destroyed. According to Geoffrey, Samson ‘a most distinguished man who was famous for his great piety’ was made archbishop, but the Saxons took York again and Samson was driven out. However, the accuracy of the History has been questioned in recent years and it is now considered more an important piece of medieval literature than a verifiable account.

Prior to the restoration and conversion work in early 1974, an archaeological investigation was carried out by York Archaeological Trust. This revealed the foundations of an earlier church, probably Norman, built over the south-east wall of the Roman fortress. During the 14th and 15th centuries, at a time of great prosperity for the city, the church was rebuilt; the south aisle in about 1400, the north aisle in 1445 and the tower around 1485. During the following centuries, St Sampson’s survived a number of attempts to reduce the number of churches in the city; less fortunate places of worship were made redundant or demolished. By 1844, however, the condition of the church had deteriorated to such an extent that it was closed. Wealthy Victorian merchants came to the rescue and, in 1846-8, the church was rebuilt comprehensively to a design by the architect Frederick Bell of York. Only the lower part of the tower remained from the earlier building. In 1907-9, the upper stage of the tower, designed by C.E. Hutchinson, was added and, in 1923-5, the aisles were restored.

St Sampson’s Church today

The Oxford Movement

Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s and 1830s led to the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK. This tolerance to the Catholic faith also had an effect on leading theologians in the Church of England, most notably John Henry Newman, an evangelical Oxford University academic and a priest in the Church of England. Together with other like-minded clergymen and academics, Newman wrote an influential series of pamphlets, Tracts for the Times, which were published from 1833 to 1841. Initially known as Tractarians, the members formed what came to be called the Oxford Movement. Their aim was to restore the liturgical customs and theology which had been suppressed following the English Reformation. Although, perhaps inevitably, Newman was received into the Catholic Church in 1845, there were many priests who continued to promote the ethos of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England.

The new “high-church” rituals began to have a physical impact on the fabric of parish churches including St Sampson’s. Rood screens, statues of the Virgin Mary, stations of the cross and more elaborate altars were installed. The design and manufacture of church fittings and stained glass was about to enter a golden age in the late 19th century. Priests wore richly embroidered robes, and candles on the altar, bells and incense became part of the ritual of worship. At St Sampson’s, the firm of J.W. Knowles decorated the chancel roof in 1865 and provided a new stained-glass window in the chancel in 1866. Knowles also restored the medieval stained-glass windows. A new stained-glass east window by Kempe was installed in 1905, followed by the north chapel window in 1907. In 1914, a rood beam was installed and, in 1917, the parishioners agreed to the use of incense.

In 1920, the altar was redesigned by George Halford Fellowes Prynne, an architect noted for his Gothic Revival churches and for the design of chancel screens, and in 1923 he designed the reredos. Prynne had been raised in a high-church household; his father, George Rundel Prynne, was a controversial Tractarian clergyman and writer. During the 1970s’ conversion and restoration, many of the church fittings were removed. St James the Deacon, Acomb was the main beneficiary, receiving the pews, font, royal coat of arms and other items. The rood screen figures of the crucified Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist are now at St Peter’s Church, Rockland St Peter, Norfolk, and the chancel screen is now at Castleford.

New lease of life

Following the church becoming redundant in 1968, there were a series of proposals for new uses but none of these came to fruition mainly due to lack of funding. York Civic Trust came to the rescue in 1974. With the help of a gift of £67,000 from the Hayward Foundation, the church was converted into a centre for people over 60 years of age. York architect George Pace was responsible for the conversion work and the three York Round Tables raised £7,000 for furnishing.


David Palliser, Henry Stapleton, John Hutchinson, John Shannon, St Sampson’s Church, York, A Brief History and Guide (York: York Civic Trust, 1974, 2nd edition, 1995)

© Richard Wilcock