Churches are often the oldest standing structure within a community and present a valuable resource to the student of both medieval and Tudor history. Some of West Yorkshire's parish churches date back to the Anglo-Saxon or Norman periods but during the late 15th and early 16th century many went through a period of reconstruction and renovation. This does not mean that populations were growing in each of the County's towns and villages, but it should be seen as an indication of economic prosperity within the region. In many cases such buildings were piecemeal, rather than a concerted effort to remodel the whole church at once. Halifax, for example, has two external chapels and a porch, all given by different donors. In some churches the building programme was largely over by the time the Tudors came to the throne. In others it was still underway well into the 16th century. The tower at Bradford, for example was built in the decades on either side of 1500. The roof at Almondbury was not underdrawn until 1522 when the church was fitted with a fine oak panelled ceiling.
Perhaps the most striking feature is the number of west towers that were erected. Many are so similar that it seems likely that they were built by the same team of masons or from the same pattern book. The principal features of the design are a large window at the base of the tower to let light into the interior of the church, a second storey bell ringers' chamber, and then the bell-chamber above with louvered opening to allow the sound of the bells to escape. The tower is topped by battlements and pinnacles and sometimes there is also a west door. Examples can be seen at Almondbury, Barwick, Bingley, Emley, Guiseley, Normanton, Rothwell, Thorner and elsewhere. The central tower at Sandal was also raised in the same period.
The early Tudor period also saw the building of a number of chantry chapels within existing church buildings. Some of these, such as the Holdsworth chapel at Halifax or the Savile chapel at Thornhill are quite elaborate. Others such as the Waterton chapel at Sandal are less so. Such chapels, like their medieval predecessors, were founded to enable a priest to say masses for the souls of the dead. This practice was abolished by Tudor reformers.
Fashions in windows changed. Instead of sharply pointed arches, Tudor builders preferred window arches with more flattened tops and vertical stone bars separating the panes of glass. Good examples can be seen at Thornhill (1499) Elland (c. 1490) and Normanton (c. 1519). There was also a tendency to add a clerestory (a row of windows in the upper part of the church wall) to allow more light into the body of the church.
Most medieval and Tudor stained glass was broken up during the Reformation. Besides being viewed as a distraction to people listening to the words of the sermon, the stained glass was considered to promote the worship of idols, or 'graven images' as the Bible phrases it. However, much of the original glass at Thornhill and Elland still remains.
Many West Yorkshire churches were fitted with oak panelled ceilings during the late 15th and early 16th century. The most impressive is Almondbury which can be dated by its inscription to 1522. Another at Wragby has an inscription dated 1533 asking for people to pray for Alured Comyn, the last prior of Nostell.
Specific churches are discussed elsewhere in Tudor West Yorkshire. See for example:
Almondbury, Bradford, Bingley, Halifax, Pontefract, Sandal, Thornhill
The WYAS has also issued a number of Information Leaflets on medieval churches in West Yorkshire viewable in Adobe PDF format.
Barwick in Elmet: Church Tower
Emley: Church Tower
Elland Stained Glass Window
Elland Detail of Stained Glass
Guiseley Church Tower
Normanton Church Tower
Normanton: The Tudor Window
Thorner Church Tower
Ryder P., 1993, Medieval Churches of West Yorkshire