St Michael’s Church is old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book as ‘Michelescherce’. Bounded by the River Wyre, it has been called St Michaels-on-Wyre since the 1100s. The earliest parts of the present building are Norman, as can be evidenced by the door on its north side. The site is even older though and there has probably been a church here since Saxon times. Compared to its sister church of St Helens in Churchtown, it has a very different appearance. St Helens has a large open high nave, contrasted with St Michael’s very low roofed aisles. Both churches hold much of interest for the visitors and historians who come.
As you enter the building, the first thing that strikes you is not the usual silence of a church interior, but the loud slow ticking of the tower clock. The large pendulum hangs down on one side of the tower wall and its hypnotic rhythm can be heard throughout. The clock was installed in 1850 but the rest of the church is much older than this Victorian timepiece.
Original Medieval features include a piscina for washing the communion vessels, stained glass and a mural. The glass is painted pieces that have been cut up and reused in modern windows. Careful examination reveals the portrait of a woman’s face (although upside down !) and parts of buildings. The medieval wall painting is thought to depict Jesus ascending in to heaven, but it’s hard to make out the scene clearly. Mary’s head with a halo around it is just about visible, but the apostles watching are hard to define, as is the figure of Jesus with just perhaps his foot on view. Another mural of similar date was discovered in the 1856, but can no longer be seen. This depicted the devil chasing lost souls !
In 1480 John Butler of Rawcliffe Hall gave money for a chapel dedicated to St Katherine. This contains a circular Flemish piece of glass from the 15oos, showing a woman and a man shearing sheep. It has the word ‘Junius’ for June and a picture of a crayfish possibly meant to represent Cancer the crab in the Zodiac. There are similar pieces showing other months and seasons at Rawcliffe Hall and these have probably been taken from this chapel and installed there.
The large solidly built tower was constructed in 1549 when John Singleton left 40 shillings for the building of a steeple and 10 shillings for the bells. There are three bells, the oldest one resulting from this donation and the other two are from 1663 and 1742.
The churchyard has three unusually shaped graves; two have coped body stones with a square head and the third has a rounded top. Local folklore states that these are the ‘Soldiers Stones’ dating from 1643 when a Spanish ship was wrecked on the Wyre estuary. The two with the square heads are said to be those of two Spanish sailors who had become vagabonds. The event occurred during the Civil War and the ship was plundered by both Royalists and Parliamentarians. The Royalists set the ship on fire, so there had been little hope for the surviving crew to return home. (To see more on this story, have a look at our page on Lancaster Castle here).
After your visit, take time to go nearby St Helens in Churchtown (click here) to see the contrast between these two Medieval churches.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
The church is open at the weekends, and may be open during the week
St Michaels and St Helens have a joint website about themselves- see here
St Michael’s-on-Wyre Parish Church: A Short History, Colin Cross Printers Garstang Undated booklet currently available from the church
The History of the Wyre, Michelle Harris & Brian Hughes (2009) Harris & Hughes
The Old Parish Churches of Lancashire, Mike Salter (2005) Folly Publications
The Civil Wars in Lancashire 1640-1660, Stephen Bull (2009) Carnegie
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