In 1280, the Neville family created a new medieval settlement at Hornby near Lancaster. As Lords of Hornby, they built a castle on the hill by the River Wenning and this still stands today. They also founded a church in the centre of the town by one of the castle gates.
The early church would have been a relatively simple construction and probably did not have a tower. Excavation at the time of the Victorian restoration revealed the foundations of its octagonal pillars that would have supported three bays of arches on either side of the nave.
Lord Monteagle’s Church
In 1513, the tower we see today was commissioned by Edward Stanley, Lord Monteagle. He built it in thanks for his safe return from the Battle of Flodden. Monteagle is said to have played a decisive role in the battle which resulted in the death of Scotland’s King James IV.
The unusual tower consists of two octagons, the upper one being rotated a half turn against the lower. On the outside there is the badge of the Order of the Garter awarded to Monteagle in 1514. The inscription in Latin reads ‘E. Stanley miles DNS Monteagle me fieri fecit’ that is: ‘Sir Edward Stanley, Lord Monteagle had me built’. An empty niche on the tower probably held a statue of St Margaret.
Ten years later, Lord Monteagle had the chancel constructed which still remains at the opposite end of the building to the tower. He wanted it to house a grand tomb for himself, but died before the work was finished and was instead buried initially at Hornby Priory. Twelve months later, he was moved into his chest tomb in the completed chancel. All that remains of it now is an exquisitely carved stone angel, which was probably one of several bearing shields showing his family connections. His will left money to establish a grammar school and almshouses within the churchyard, but these have long since vanished.
Georgian and Victorian Times
In 1750, Dr Richard Pococke the Bishop of Meathe visited Hornby and observed the rush bearing ceremony. He noted how garlands of flowers and rushes fixed onto poles were brought into the building by girls walking ‘two by two’. The garlands were attached to the screen between the nave and the chancel and the rushes were strewn on the floor to keep the parishioners’ feet warm in the winter.
In 1761, the six church bells were recast by the Rudhall foundry in Gloucester. This establishment was used by many Lancashire churches, with bells being taken by ship from Lancaster. Mr Rudhall had recently died, and because the foundry was in the hands of his executors his name was not put onto the bells.
A major restoration took place in 1851. While leaving the Tudor tower and chancel intact, the nave in between them was completely demolished and a new one constructed. This seems to have been instigated by John Marsden, the owner of Hornby Castle, and his steward George Wright, along with David Murray, the owner of Hornby Hall. While the windows from this period remain in place today, the rest of the rebuild was not a success. They removed the old supporting pillars from the arcades and placed a new larger roof on top of the nave walls.
Unfortunately, the walls could not support the new roof because it was far too heavy and emergency supports had to be put in place in the form of ten larch tree poles. The situation was not resolved for quite some time as 20 years later replacement poles had to be put in place. This was because of a long running dispute as to whether John Marsden’s will, leaving the Hornby estates to his steward George Wright, was actually legitimate. Marsden’s relatives claimed that Wright had unduly influenced Marsden. After much wrangling, one of Wright’s relatives, Admiral Tatham, was able to take control of the castle and finally have the church fixed.
The Victorian Austin and Paley Restoration
In 1889, Austin and Paley did restoration work on the church. They are seen as the most important provincial architects of their time in England. Based in Lancaster, the firm built or renovated a huge number of Lancashire churches. At St Margaret’s, they reduced the height of the aisle walls in the nave. Five bays on slim pillars were put in to support a new roof. The floors were completely replaced; wood block was laid under the pews (wood is a better insulator than rushes on a stone floor), York flag in the aisles and encaustic tiles in the chancel. A new organ, pews, pulpit and choir stalls were all commissioned. The work was financed by Colonel Foster and his brothers, mill owners from Queensbury near Halifax, who had become the new proprietors of the Hornby estate in late Victorian times.
Today, the church interior is little changed to how it appeared in the Austin and Paley restoration. The Tudor tower and chancel are still in very good condition and inside there is a wealth of history to be seen, as detailed below.
Visiting St Margaret’s Today
The oldest artefact on display is a Roman coin, found recently during an inspection of the tower. It is made of bronze and dates from the time of Emperor Constantine, being minted between 330-335. Two rare Anglo-Saxon sculptural fragments (see our page on them here) are displayed along with six medieval grave slabs featuring swords and chalices. The medieval bell from nearby St Chad’s Church in Claughton hangs in the tower, and, dated 1296, is thought to be one of the oldest in Britain. A very small narrow tower door leading to a spiral staircase is made from oak boards and dates from 1514.
The relic angel from 16th century Monteagle tomb is located in the chancel, and is a very fine piece of carved sculpture. Other former owners of Hornby Castle have left their mark on the church. There are the hatchment boards from the funerals of John Marsden from 1826, and his eventual successor, Admiral Tatham, from 1842. These would have hung outside the castle when they died, and then were brought into the church during the funeral procession. The Foster family have pews in the south-east corner of the nave carved with their family crest.
The Austin and Paley restoration also features outstanding work done by another Lancaster firm, Shrigley and Hunt. In the chancel you can see the reredos (the screen behind the altar) paintings done by one of their chief designers, Edward Holmes Jewitt. He was very heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, particularly Rossetti, as the work on his figures show here. Shrigley and Hunt are best known for their stained glass work and the west windows have wonderful depictions of angels and archangels.
Outside there are also interesting features. The tower has two Legs of Man motifs from the Stanley family. Look around the lower parts of the tower and you will see ballistic damage on it, from when it was fired on during the Civil War. It may have been used as a defendable look out point during the conflict. All around the building are excellent gargoyles and grotesques. The churchyard also contains an early Anglo-Saxon cross base, which we discuss here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2019
St Margaret’s Church is open to visitors everyday. With its wealth of history it is not to be missed by anyone who is passionate about the past.
Park in the free car park by the main bridge into Hornby.
On the same site
Nearby, just a short drive away
A Short History of Saint Margaret’s Church Hornby, A.J. White (2015). Booklet currently available in the church.
St Margaret’s Hornby Visitors Guide. Pamphlet currently available in the church.
Stained Glass from Shrigley and Hunt of Lancaster and London, William Waters (2003) Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
On site interpretation within the church.
Lancashire church book