St Michael le Belfrey

St Michael le Belfrey

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York resident and regular contributor. Fascinated by this historic city and always keen to promote local, independent businesses. The man taking the photographs and tweeting from @Jorvik

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St Michael le Belfrey is the only remaining 16th-century church in York; built between 1525 and 1536 it is the largest pre-Reformation parish church in the city.

It stands on the southern side of Minster Yard adjacent to where High and Low Petergate meet. The church may take its name from the Minster’s belfry (bell tower) which probably once stood on the site. The Minster’s Master mason John Forman was in charge of the church’s construction which was undertaken in one complete build. The 1848 bell tower is a copy of one from around 1705.

The church whose congregation would be drawn from the many wealthy merchants and craftsmen of the city was originally under the control of the Minster’s Dean and Chapter. It replaced an earlier church dating to the late 13th century. However, Saxon burials discovered in and around Petergate suggest there has been a church on this location since the 8th century.

Guy Fawkes was christened in St Michael le Belfrey Church on 16 April 1570 as an Anglican; however, he later converted to Catholicism. His infamy stems from his part in the abortive 1605 Gunpowder Plot. The appropriate page from the church baptism register listing Fawke’s entry is displayed in an enlarged form inside the church. Fawkes lived in nearby Petergate.

St Michael le Belfry Entrance

Church Entrance

The rare and beautiful stained glass east window (mid-14th century and likely to be from a church previously on the site) depicts Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, amazingly surviving Henry VIII’s 1538 order to destroy all images of St Thomas. The spacious aisles run the church’s length. The church houses many 18th-century monuments and memorials. John Etty designed the impressive and recognised Baroque reredos (altarpiece) and altar rails which his son William Etty completed in 1712.  A gallery was added to the church in 1715.

The church’s west front was fully restored in 1867 after houses attached to the building were demolished.

Simon Jenkins in his 2002 book England’s Thousand Best Churches describes St Michael le Belfrey as ‘pompous, squat and rather fat’ while The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland, 1868, feted it at the time as ‘the most spacious and the most elegant of the York parochial churches’.

Today St Michael le Belfrey is still the largest parish church in York. The neighbouring St Cuthbert’s Church, whose burgeoning congregation outgrew the building under David Watson’s leadership from 1965, merged with St Michael le Belfrey in the early 1970s; St Cuthbert’s is now the administrative centre.

St Michael le Belfrey has become widely known as a centre for charismatic renewal and continues to mirror the creativity of the David Watson era. Six services are normally held on Sunday and two during the week including an informal café-style service held at Burnholme Community College, an alternative worship service (Visions Multimedia Worship), and an ‘all-age’ service. The church has links with Riding Lights Theatre Company, York Schools and Youth Trust (YoYo) and Alpha UK as well as numerous organisations involved in local and international mission work. The church is a member of the One Voice York network of churches.

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