The first record of a church at Cockerham is from 1134, and although the present church was built later, it still stands on the same site. In 1153, William of Lancaster gave the church and the manor of Cockerham to Leicester Abbey. At first the abbey sent none of its canons to administer the site, but set up a chaplain to run the church.
After a rival monastery set up at nearby Cockersand, in 1207 the Abbot of Leicester sent three of his canons to live at Cockerham to make sure their abbey’s rights were not being encroached upon. A chaplain named Reginald, who had been previously appointed by the abbey, was to remain in post at the church for the rest of his life, but after he died a fourth canon would replace him. (See the full story of the setting up of Cockerham Priory and its conflict with nearby Cockersand Abbey here).
Over the next couple of hundred years, the church would have to withstand raids, plague and flooding. Following an invasion into the county by Robert the Bruce in 1292, the damage was such that the normal tax take from the church of £13 was reduced to £3 6s 5d.
In 1349, the Black Death reached Cockerham. That year, only a half of the normal tithes could be collected. The Archbishop of Richmond claimed that 1000 men and women died between 8th September 1349 and 11th January 1350. It is thought that there is a plague pit within the churchyard, possibly under the garden shed. That the incumbent vicar died of the Black Death is a distinct possibility, as a new one took over in 1350. He is simply named ‘John’ on the board listing the vicars inside the church. That same year John is recorded as being wounded with an arrow fired by Adam the Archer on the Sunday after Pentecost. Adam was put on trial for the crime at the local assize court.
Flooding was an ongoing problem for Medieval Cockerham and for this reason today the church is often known as the ‘Church in the Fields’. Churches were not built isolated from the community around them, but were always at the heart of a settlement. Unfortunately for the villagers, the land around the building was prone to tidal flooding, and eventually the settlement was moved a short distance further from the shoreline onto higher ground.
Centuries of Rebuilds
The tower that we see today was built in 1586 and must have been a prominent landmark out at sea. Local tradition holds that the bells from the abolished Cockersand Abbey were installed in the tower. This may well be so – the ones there today bear a later date, but may well be the original ones that have been recast.
The 1600s saw the rest of the church rebuilt, and a school installed within it around 1622. In 1681, a separate building for the school was constructed in the north east of the churchyard near the main gate. While no trace of this is visible today, its date stone still exists in the front wall of School House next to Cockerham Primary School on Main Street.
By the 1700s, the persistent flooding on the north and west sides of the church had forced the villagers to relocate to higher ground where the village stands today, leaving the church surrounded by fields. The earliest date stone in the village is 1710.
In 1742, the decision was made to recast the bells. However, the second Jacobite uprising seemed to put the plan on hold. The Scots supporting Charles Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) may well have marched by Cockerham on their way to Preston to gather men in support of their uprising against King George II in 1745. A year after this, the churchwardens said they would have the bells recast “as soon as times settle” as they did not think it was safe to send the bells “at present by water”. It wasn’t until 1748 that the work was finally done. Fittingly the treble bell states “Peace and Good Neighbourhood”, the second bell “Prosperity to the Parish”, the third “We are all cast at Gloucester by Abel Rudhall”, the fourth “Robert Gardner, Edward Francis, Robert Fell, Stephen Bond, Churchwardens” the fifth “The Rev Mr Thomas Winder, Vicar”. Rudhall’s foundry cast many of the bells in Lancashire, including those at St Margaret’s in Hornby.
The 1800s saw more rebuilding of the nave and chancel, and the addition of the arts and crafts window in the chancel constructed by Morris & Co. It features the four evangelists and the designs are based on ‘cartoon’ drawings from three of the most famous names in the Pre-Raphelite movement. Ford Madox Brown designed St Matthew holding a gold angel and St John holding a chalice topped with a small rising eagle. Edward Burne-Jones designed St Mark holding a winged lion and William Morris designed St Luke holding a winged ox.
More rebuilding occurred in 1910, under the design of the famous Lancaster architects Austin and Paley, with J. Hatch and Sons carrying out the actual work. Additions and repairs have continued until present day, and most recently the church has raised a huge amount of money for repair of their organ.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2019
There is parking outside the church, which can be found down a signposted lane just off Main Street in Cockerham. The church may not be open when you visit. It is best to contact them to check opening times. The church’s Facebook page is here.
On the same site, Cockerham Lost Medieval Priory
Just a short walk away
Lancashire’s Medieval Monasteries, Brian Marshall (2006) Landy Publishing
From the Fells to the Sea: 3,000 years of Amounderness, Brian Marshall (2009) Parrox Hall Trust. Available from Fleetwood’s Maritime Museum shop. (See here).