The oval shaped graveyard of St Helens is a key indicator that a very early ‘Dark Ages’ Saxon church stood once in this place. The name ‘Churchtown’ was at one time called Kirkland, with ‘kirk’ being the Viking word for a church. The earliest parts of the present building are the pillars of the north aisle which date from 1180 when the Norman church was widened. Further expansion in 1250 occurred as the south aisle was added. The stout tower was constructed in 1450 along with the fabric of the outside walls and windows. When there was a dispute with neighbouring St Michaels on Wyre as to which one was the oldest and so the ‘mother’ church, St Helens won the argument.
Inside we see a range of artefacts from the Medieval through to the Tudor and Stuart period. One of the earliest can be found close to the pulpit- it is a large stone carving from the 1200s of a person with hands together in prayer. It’s not known who this is supposed to represent, some sources suggest a priest, a saint or a martyr.
The Tudor period saw the construction of two side chapels. The first one was for Roger de Brockholes who endowed a chantry chapel in 1490 so that prayers could be said for his soul after his death. In 1529 Margaret Rigmayden paid for the building of the Lady Chapel. The choir stalls and misericords also date from this time and include characteristic themes of human heads and mythical beasts. There is an excellent carving of an elephant carrying a medieval castle (familiar to many in the Elephant & Castle pub signs). To see the misericords you may have to carefully tip the choir seats into their upwards position.
Cockersand Abbey were the owners of St Helens Church from 1240 through to 1539. When all the abbeys were abolished by King Henry VIII Cockersand for the main part was torn down. Some of the stone was brought to St Helens and was used to construct a two story vicar’s vestry in 1570. This can be identified easily from the outside because of the very different stone from the main body of the church, and so a little part of Cockersand lives on here.
In 1971 St Helens gave up one of its secrets that had been lost for centuries. On removing some of the thick plaster in the side chapels some very rare wall paintings were revealed, one Medieval and the others from Stuart times. The Medieval picture dates from the 1400s and has been interpreted as the head of a bishop. This would have been covered up and replaced by the Stuart paintings dating from the 1650s. These have large decorative picture-like frames, with flowers around the edges and quotations from the King James Bible inside. The clearest one states:
These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren Proverbs 6: 16-19
Something for the congregation of 350 years ago to think about when they gathered together on a Sunday ! These paintings in turn were hidden under white plaster as further reforming zeal overtook the established church leaders at a later date.
In 1986 these valuable finds were conserved for future generation to see. Lime plaster that matched the original was added around the walls surrounding the paintings. Lime and sand slurry was injected into the lose plaster in order to stabilise them. The original faded paint was impregnated with gum arabic to enhance its colour.
Visitors to the church today will be struck by the use of writing above the arches and doorways all around the interior of the building, probably added in Victorian times. Here are just a few examples: The Rich and Poor meet together, Bring Presents and come into his Courts with Praise, and above the door leading to the vestry Reverence My Sanctuary.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
The church is open at the weekends and may also be open in the week.
The History of the Wyre, Michelle Harris & Brian Hughes (2009), Harris & Hughes
The Old Parish Churches of Lancashire, Mike Salter (2005), Folly Publications
On Site Interpretation within St Helens Church