Although there were earlier Saxon and Norman churches on the site, the basis of the building we see today is medieval, though most of the later fabric is Tudor. It was built in 1412 by Middleton-born Cardinal Thomas Langley, Prince Bishop of Durham and Chancellor to three Kings – Henry IV, V and VI. Dating from this time is the large entrance door in the South Porch with its defensive drawbar that can be used to prevent the door being forced open from the outside. Such a precaution was common in those turbulent times when Northern England could expect Scottish raids, either from an organised army, or border reivers. A similar drawbar exists at St Leonards the Less, Samlesbury near Preston, and there are records of the first Samlesbury Hall being attacked by Robert the Bruce’s raiding party.
Cardinal Langley also set up an endowment for a grammar school to be housed within the church, with money for two priests to be the teachers. The school continued until 1586, being replaced by the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School that still stands on Boarshaw Road.
In 1524, the church was heavily remodelled by Richard Assheton and most of what we see now is from his time of building. The famous Flodden window was installed in this period. This is thought to show Richard Assheton and his wife, with the Middleton Archers who fought at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. In 1666, a wooden belfry was added to the prexisting tower to house a new set of bells. This has been reclad over the years, but makes the church a rare surviving example with such a feature.
Internal Historical Features
The interior has many rarities from differing periods over the church’s long existence. From the early Norman building is the broken stone altar showing three of the five original consecration crosses simply carved on top of the large surface. The distinctive Norman chevron or dogtooth pattern can be seen in the arch leading to the church tower, this attractive piece of architecture being reused when Langley remade the church.
Other internal features from the Medieval period include the two nave altars and carved misericord seats in the choir. The roof bosses feature a Green Man, an owl and a serpent chasing its own tail.
The rood screen only survived destruction during the Protestant Reformation because its carvings are secular, not religious. However, the crucifix, St Mary and St John have been removed. The rood screen contains the coat of arms of families and benefactors connected with the Asshetons, including the Radcliffes, Stanleys (Earls of Derby), Grosvenors (Dukes of Westminster) and Hugh Oldham, who was the Bishop of Exeter and founder of Manchester Grammar School.
The brasses found in the sanctuary have been moved from various places around the church. The Brass Memorial Society has declared them the best brasses in the North of England. They include various members of the Assheton family from Tudor and Stuart times. The Assheton Chapel contains the Assheton funery helmet with a boar’s head crest. This was stolen in 1960, but a London antique dealer recognized it and had it returned to the church.
From the 1600s is the Hopwood box pew and a three lock alms box. The rector and two wardens would originally have had a key each to open the chest, keeping the money inside very secure.
The Victorian and Edwardian times saw many refurbishments of the church. The noted Middleton architect Edgar Wood designed the new nave roof in the gothic style. This was installed in 1907 after the previous one had become unstable. Wood also designed nearby Long Street Methodist Church as well as over thirty buildings in Middleton, many of which still remain today. For more about his work, click here.
If you visit the church, do take the guided tour if it is offered. You will see so much more in the presence of one of the very knowledgeable volunteers.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2015. This page written 2018.
Access can be arranged through contacting the Parish office, see the webpage here
The church is open on Tuesdays and Friday afternoons until the end of September, but do check first on their website first here
The Parish Church of St Leonard, Middleton: The Church with a thousand Year History, (2014) booklet available from within the church. Contributors Stuart Chesters, Colin Gilbert, Mike O’ Connor, Jack Wilson, Leon MacLeod, Geoff Wellens (available in St Leonard’s Church)
Flodden Window, Leon MacLeod (2015) St Leonard’s Church History Guide leaflet (available in St Leonard’s Church)
Long Street Methodist Church and Schools: A Brief Guide, (undated and available from Long Street Methodist Church), Friends of Edgar Wood Centre, Middleton