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Lastingham Church and its ancient Crypt

In the beautiful picture postcard village of Lastingham, on the edge of the North York Moors, opposite one of my favourite village pubs The Blacksmiths Arms lies a Church. The Church is dedicated to St.Mary and whilst the crypt and much of the church dates back to the late 11th and 13th Centuries worship on the site dates back to a much earlier era.

A mention by The Venerable Bede

Not many Yorkshire churches are mentioned by The Venerable Bede in what is often recognised as one of the first ever history books – his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum) written in the 700’s.

“During his episcopate among the West Saxons, God’s servant Cedd often visited his own province of Northumbria to preach. Ethelwald, son of King Oswald, knowing Cedd to be a wise, holy and honourable man, asked him to accept a grant of land to found a monastery. In accordance with the King’s wishes, Cedd chose a site for the monastery among some high remote hills, which seemed more suitable for the dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for human habitation.

His purpose in this was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: the haunts where once dwelt dragons, with reeds and rushes, and he wished the fruits of good works to spring up where formerly lived only wild beasts, or men who lived like beasts”.

In his book he mentions Lastingeau, meaning the abode of Læ̃sta's people. It was here that the land was procured from King Ethelwald, to build a monastery.

Cedd's Monastery

So what is the story behind the first monastery on the site?

After the Romans left Britain in 410AD, the Angles and the Saxons came to Britain and settled. At the time these Germanic settlers were Pagans and a family or clan known as the Læ̃sta's settled in the area now known as Lastingham.

In 627, Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria converted to Christianity being baptised in York. By 654 the Northern Saxons were mainly Christian, and lands were donated in the area to the church by the King.

4 brothers (Cedd, Chad, Cynebil and Celin) who had been monks at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne were tasked with setting up a monastery in Lastingham.

By 664 they had built a monastery and Cedd had become Abbot. Coming from Lindisfarne they would have preached a Celtic form of Christianity as opposed to Roman Catholicism. It is believed Cedd was present at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when church leaders gathered to agree on which form of Christianity to follow in Britain.

When Cedd died he was originally laid to rest outside before the monks built a church around him and Cedd’s body was laid to rest near the altar. There is little left of this structure which had been commissioned by Cedd’s brother Chad took over as Abbot.

The area came under Viking control in the 800’s and it is believed that the monastery and the church were pretty much destroyed by the Norsemen in 877. Sadly there is nothing left from this period apart from the remnants of Saxon preaching crosses now in the crypt of the later church.

The Norman Crypt

Whilst religious worship on the site dates back to Saxon times, the church is still unique in having an ancient Norman crypt beneath the existing church.

The story behind this is interesting.

In 1078, William the Conqueror gave permission to build a new church at Lastingham and it was run by Benedictine monks from Whitby under the control of Stephen of Whitby. A crypt was built where they believed that Cedd’s body had originally been laid to rest.

But the monks only lasted 10 years before leaving, either due to the remoteness or outlaw nature of the area at the time. Thick romanesque columns in the crypt points to this brief period but after the monks left, the church was left to decay.

This Norman crypt is unique in the fact that it is the only Norman Crypt in England with a nave, apse and side aisles. The walls are also nearly 3 feet thick.

Steps lead down from the main church into the crypt, then the silence and calm hits you. It is an atmospheric place where you need to stop and breath in the history. The central passage leads to a stone altar which is lit by a thin lancet window.

There are some interesting historical remnants in the Crypt. There are pieces of a Saxon preaching cross found in the 1800’s and believed to be part of Cedd’s original church. It is believed the cross would have been over 20ft high.

There are celtic carved stones believed to also date back to Cedd’s time and which would have been part of a shrine.

There is also sections of The Old Ain Howe Cross – which was a marker stone which stood above Rosedale Moor, but moved to Lastingham when it eventually fell and broke into smaller pieces and was replaced with a newer one in the 1800’s.

Interestingly one of the shafts of preaching cross in the crypt has Norse style design carvings – does this show a later conversion of Vikings to Christianity?

Later Churches

Later in 1228, a new Parish Church for the area was built on the site and north and south aisles added the following century, then a tower. The original font from this period sits close to where the steps start to descend to the crypt.

This structure above ground was in a poor state by the 17th, before being rebuilt by

Thomas Ferres, who was a former resident of Lastingham but had moved away eventually rising to become Mayor of Hull.

Definitely worth a visit, you can almost feel the aura of the place and I can also recommend the Farrier’s Platter in the Blacksmith’s Arms across the road too!


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