Since the completion of the great west tower of Halifax Parish Church in the late fifteenth century four grotesque, spouting gargoyles have enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of Halifax. They have witnessed not only the faith journey of a vibrant community centred on Halifax’s historic Parish Church, but also the vicissitudes, which have shaped the history of the town of Halifax.
The pre-conquest history of Christianity in Halifax remains obscure. It has been suggested that there may have been a hermitage on the banks of the Hebble dedicated to Saint John the Baptist dating from the seventh century mission of Paulinus to the North or possibly a later Saxon Church linked with the Anglian parish of Dewsbury, but both theories remain conjectural.
Even after 1066, evidence is sparse, and there is no specific reference to a church or priest at Halifax in the Domesday Survey. However, the gift between 1078 and 1081 by the second Earl of Warenne, lord of the manor of Wakefield, of the rents and dues of the sub-manor of Halifax-cum-Heptonstall to the Benedictine Priory of Lewes, founded by his father, is documented, and it appears likely that the black-robed Cluniac monks had constructed a new church at Halifax by the early twelfth century.
Fragments of an Anglo-Norman Church situated to the north of the present building are clearly discernible in the distinctive carved chevron stonework incorporated into a late-thirteenth rebuilding after the appointment of the first Vicar of Halifax, Ingelard Turbard, in 1274. Surviving Early English lancet windows in a three-bay length of masonry in the north wall have been attributed to this phase of rebuilding. Before 1274, absentee rectors, including such distinguished figures as John Talvace, later Archbishop of Lyons, Hubert Walter, later Archbishop of Canterbury and William Champvent, later Bishop of Lausanne, had administered the church.
A medieval grave cover in the south porch dated 1150, depicting a pair of cropper’s shears, provides the earliest evidence for the textile industry in Calderdale. Although plague, which claimed the lives of three later vicars, caused considerable economic and social dislocation in the late fourteenth century, during the fifteenth century the church was substantially enlarged in a magnificent perpendicular rebuilding in order to offer more spacious accommodation for the growing population of the parish sustained by the expanding textile industry.
The rebuilding of the nave appears to have commenced in 1437, followed by the huge west tower in 1449. The surviving, intricately carved font canopy, originally brightly coloured in blue, gold, green and red, is a superb example of late-medieval woodwork.
Text researched and written by Dr John A. Hargreaves
Artist’s impression of a gargoyle at the top of the Bell Tower; Chevron stone in the north west corner (G Farr); grave cover in the south porch & picture of the font & font cover (both Chris Lord Photography)