In the shadow of York Minster, St. Michael le Belfrey is a real historical gem
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Being so close to the Minster – St Michael le Belfrey on High Petergate in York often gets overlooked, but it has a wonderful history in its own right.
There has been a church on the site of Michael le Belfrey Church from the 8th Century. The present building dates from the 1500's and the name comes from a nod to St Michael who was reputedly an archangel and leader of “God’s forces of heaven”
The "le Belfrey" either refers to the next-door Minster belfry or to an older church on this site which had a bell tower. It was controlled by the Minster's Dean and Chapter for several hundred years.
You may think why does there need to be a church so close to the Minster? But it is a parish church serving the local community. (The Minster is not a parish church.) It still gets congregations of up to 800 on a Sunday.
The St Michael's you see now was rebuilt between 1525 and 1537, during King Henry VIII's break with Rome. It’s funny when religious buildings were being dissolved during King Henry VIII’s reign, that new religious buildings were still opening.
John Forman, the Minster's Master Mason at the time was responsible for the Tudor gothic style with a renaissance influence. They recently found chalk plans on the wall of the Masons Loft in York Minster relating to the church. Probably the next project as soon as the actual York Minster was complete.
The building is in a Gothic style but where the Minster we see today tends to be a mix of Early English Gothic and Decorated Gothic architecture – this church is very much in the final stage of Gothic architecture called “Perpendicular gothic”. You can see this in terms of the Perpendicular straight vertical lines of the central pillars, the window tracery and of course the lantern tower.
It was, and still is the largest parish church in York, originally serving a wealthy community of merchants and craftsmen including some of the Guild members based on Stonegate.
If you look to the right of the church – there is the Guy Fawkes Pub – named after Guy Fawkes who is supposed to have been born there, although another building on Stonegate also argues that he was born there too!
Guy Fawkes was baptised here in 1570. He was part of the infamous gunpowder plot where catholic sympathisers tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill James I. His death is now celebrated on November 5th on Bonfire night by burning his effigy!
The lantern tower is a replica from Victorian times of the earliest known lantern tower. Fires were lit in the tower as there were no street lights to help direct people to the church. There are other lantern towerson churches throughout York including at All Saints Church on Pavement and St Helens Church.
The west front needed to be "restored" in 1867 after houses attached to the church had been pulled down.
There is now a modern pulpit, and a lectern made by Robert “Mousey” Thompson with their trademark mouse on its plinth, and a stage area for the musicians who lead our singing.
William Richardson was vicar from 1771 to 1821. His powerful preaching urged people "to turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ". He visited the poor, cared for prisoners and set up York’s Sunday School Movement. He became known as the "Father of the York clergy".
There was talk of closure in the 1960's and of using the building for a museum but this didn’t come to fruition.
In 1973 Revd. David Watson, a gifted preacher, moved the half-mile from St Cuthbert's to St Michael's with a congregation which over eight years of his ministry had outgrown its premises.
The Church is a living church, but only open to the public at certain times. There is an office open 10- 5pm and even if the church is closed if you call in advance they will often open up especially for you.