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Mystery Stone

Barwicker No. 104
December 2011

At All Saints' Church, Barwick-in-Elmet, in 2006, a massive slab of limestone was dug up from the aisle and propped temporarily against a front pew. This was the original altar stone. but it is so heavy, and unwieldy that it cannot be moved or rocked to see what is on the reverse side. This ancient stone is the oldest in the church and now stands neglected and forgotten: little is known of its history.

A short typed notice on the stone says that the church is fortunate to have this relic of our Christian heritage and that the lifting of this altar stone from the floor of the church aisle was organised by the Reverend Brunei James. it adds- 'Still visible are two of the coma crosses and just discernible is the cross in the centre, almost worn away'

Rectors had always been aware that this particular stone is longer. thicker and better dressed than surrounding stones in the aisle. Brunei said that he did not like to step on this most sacred stone. He was grateful when a member of the weekly Roman Catholic congregation then using the church. donated money to raise the stone and have it replaced in the floor.

Altar stones are intriguing. But what are they, what was their function, how were they installed, what were their secrets and how did the Barwick stone end up being used as a common paving stone in the church aisle?

This short article will attempt to answer these questions.

In pre-Norman days a church altar was often wooden and called 'Christ's Board' or 'God's Board'. It was usually supported on stones or four or five legs. Natural stone like limestone, granite or marble eventually replaced wood.

In early medieval England when a church was being built. the altar stone was installed first. then the church was built around it. The stone came before the structure; it was the reason for the existence of the church: the building housed and protected the stone. The altar stone had immense spiritual significance because Jesus Christ was regarded as the living corner stone of the church .

'Come and let yourselves be built as living stones into a spiritual temple ... 10 offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.' ( 1 Peter 2: 4).

'Christ Jesus himself is the foundation stone. In him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.'
(Ephesians 2: 20)

The solid piece of natural stone was fixed to the wall and floor so that it was immovable. The elevated altar was the holiest place in the church; sometimes rood screens were built to give greater sanctity.

From the 12th century onwards in English churches, five crosses were cut into the stone to signify Jesus Christ's crucifixion; one in each corner to represent the wounds in His hands and feet and one in the centre to show the wound in His side. This was eventually to be represented by the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Writing in The Antiquary' in 1890 Father Morris said that when consecrating altars,

'a little fire is made on each of the crosses. Five pieces of incense are put on each cross and on the lumps of incense a cross is made of thin wax tapes, which is lighted at the four ends. When the fire is burnt out the ashes are scraped away with a wooden spatula with the melted incense running into the incisions where they dry.'

In medieval times, bishops consecrated altar stones using specially blessed water called Gregorian water, which included wine, ashes and salt. It was essential that holy relics were used in the consecration; these should have come from two saints, one of whom had been martyred.

These fragments could be a piece of human bone, a single hair, or thread from a garment. They could be placed within a crack or cavity in the stone itself before being sealed in by a thin stone known as a sigilhim; alternatively in the absence of a fissure in the stone, a relic may have been placed underneath in a vessel known as a sepulchrum.

The altar represented the sacred place of sacrifice and thanksgiving and only what was needed for the celebration of the Mass could be placed on the flat altar surface or mensa.

A whole ritualised sequence of activities and events were to develop over the centuries. Unfortunately in the later Middle Ages, extensive church corruption developed.

Money was to be made out of the sale of indulgences and holy relics and cottage industries developed encouraging pilgrims to visit shrines and churches on holy days (holidays.) These were the early stirrings of the tourist trade.

Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Pardoner's Tale"¹ revealed the extent of greed, hypocrisy and depravity which came to sour the church and sow the seeds of the Reformation.

And in a bottle had he some pig's bones.
For in his bag he had a pillow-case
Of which he said, it was Our True Lady's veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, on time he sailed
Upon the sea, till Jesus him had hailed.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
But with these relics, when he found on ride
Some simple parson dwelling in the countryside,
In that one day gathered more money
Than the parson in two months, that easy.
And thus, with flattery and equal japes,
He made the parson and the rest his apes.

Church decadence, together with a whole series of political and religious grievances led to the English Reformation when the Church of England broke with Rome. This was part of the wider Protestant Reformation which raged through sixteenth century Europe.

King Henry VIII (1491-1547) made himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus uniting Church and State. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, (1536-40) with its malevolent vandalism, saw most of the wealth of the Church transferred to the monarchy and aristocracy. Henry, still remained a believer in Roman Catholic teachings however, even after he was ex-communicated from the Church. The Church of England became recognisably Protestant in the reign of Edward VI. (1537-1553) when the son of Henry and Jane Seymour came to the throne aged 9. He died when he was 15 and his reign was dominated by the Regency Council which governed the country.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, initiated Protestant reforms, and produced the revised Book of Common Prayer in 1552. It was at this time that many churches were attacked and altar stones torn away from walls, to be replaced by communion tables. A great fury descended on many churches which were wantonly damaged as religious images were destroyed or defaced.

Barwick church will have suffered terribly during this period, but there is no known evidence of what happened. The King's Commissioners set out through the land to destroy, eradicate, remove or desecrate Catholic images considered to be superstitious or idolatrous.

The altar stone will have been pulled away from the wall and may have been damaged or defaced in a search for a relic It will have been treated with disdain and contempt and at some stage placed underfoot in the aisle so that parishioners would walk over a consecrated Catholic symbol.

Statues were smashed, church lead and bells stolen, pictures, vestments and Catholic symbols were destroyed. The destruction of Jervaulx Abbey near Ripon is well documented; here the sacred relics were removed and destroyed where the altar sepulchrum was lodged. A statue of the Virgin Mary was decapitated and rood screens were smashed. The monastery was blown up and the Abbot Adam Sedbergh, executed at Tyburn because he would not acknowledge Henry VIII as Head of the Church.

The beautiful little statuette² now placed in the vestry at Barwick was found when some cottages adjacent to the church were pulled down in 1897, and may we 11 have been hidden at the time of the Reformation to avoid destruction by the commissioners.

Edward's death ushered in a period of tortuous political and religious instability and 'Bloody' Mary Tudor (1516-1558), daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, tried to re-impose Roman Catholicism in this land. She became Queen in 1553 and in her reign nearly three hundred Protestants went to the stake. It is a terrible irony that making bonfires of devout Christians was carried out in the name of Jesus Christ.

Elizabeth (1533-1603), daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne in 1558 and fully restored Protestantism in England during her reign. She became the Supreme Governor of the Church and her Religious Settlement stabilised the nascent Church of England.

The tumultuous story of the Barwick altar stone is unknown; it is assumed that it is the original altar and that it has witnessed the full panoply of English history from the time of the Conquest. It represents the life of the church from its beginning in Barwick when its founders believed that every celebration of the Mass makes real Christ's death upon the cross.

Bede³ writes of the pagans who killed King Edwin and burned down his residence and basilica at the royal residence of Campodonum (possibly Doncaster or Slack near Huddersfield)

'and later kings replaced this seat by another in the vicinity of Loidis. The stone altar of this church survived the fire and is preserved in the monastery that lies in Elmet Wood and is ruled by the most reverend priest and abbot Thrydwulf '

What happened to this stone is not known.

The All Saints' stone merits an honoured place in the church, rather than its current obscure neglect. Christianity has always treasured its symbols and the church must decide what to do with this most ancient and significant legacy.


¹ Geoffrey Chancer (1340-1400) The Canterbury Tales.
² A Beautiful Statuette' Article and Photograph. The Barwicker Number 61 March 1961
³ Ecclesiastical Historv of the English People.
'731 Bede Foxe's Book Of Martyrs 1563'. John Foxe(l516-87)
The Bible. King James Authorised Version.
A History of Barwick-in-Elmet 1908. Revd F.S. Colman.
All Saints', Barwick-in-Elmet NADFAS Record of Church Furnishings. 1999.
A New History of Early Christianity 2009 Charles Freeman.
A Short History of All Saints' Church 2010 Martin Tarpey.
Walk With Me. A Lenten Journey of Prayer for 2011 Arthur Roche, Bishop of Leeds.

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