The church at Tadcaster is somewhat unusual in that it is situated on low ground alongside the river. Usually churches are built at a prominent site such as at the top of a hill. The site of the church may be a clue to its origin.
Alongside the river are “Popple Wells” or springs. It is possible that in Pagan times, the present site of the church was a religious site at one of these sacred springs.
The Romans built the town of Calcaria at the crossing point of the River Wharfe, and archaeological excavations have shown the town centre to have been only 50 yards north of the church. The Romans could have perpetuated the site as a temple to some of their Gods.
Earliest known building
The first stone church building on the site is said to have appeared around 1150 AD. Sydney Decimus Kitson was very precise as to its size, this being 51’ 8” x 15’ 7”. We have not found the original work of Sydney Kitson, but he is referred to in a book on St Mary’s Church by George E Kirk, published in 1939. How Kitson was so precise as to the dimensions is unclear, but dimensions between the internal pillars and between the West wall and the East end of the nave of the present church happen to match these dimensions quite accurately.
There may have been some stonework associated with the church in Saxon times as, during later work, some Saxon stonework has been found.
In 1180, the church was widened with a southern extension. In 1189, the church was gifted to the Cistercian Sawley Abbey near Clitheroe by Matilda, daughter of William de Percy. The monks of the abbey received tithes from Tadcaster, making Tadcaster an important source of income for the abbey. Around 1280, the church was again widened, this time on the northern side. The original side walls of the church became pillars.
Between 1311 and 1322, the Scots under Robert the Bruce attacked the north of England in a series of raids. In 1318, one of these Scots raids visited Tadcaster and the town and church were severely damaged. The church is said to have been burnt down.
By around 1380 the church had been rebuilt. It started to take on an appearance similar to that of today. By 1476 we know that a bell tower existed as a parishioner made a donation towards some work in the tower.
Until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the vicars of Tadcaster had been nominated by Sawley Abbey. After the dissolution, the advowson of Tadcaster passed to the Lord of the Manor, the Percy family.
The earliest drawing we have of the church dates from 1611. The map of the parish shows a church with a spire. Whilst this may have been a way of showing a church, having standardised symbols on maps were a long way in the future. It is therefore probable that the church did at that time have a spire at the top of the tower.
Outside, on the south side of the tower, is evidence that a statue once stood there. Just when this disappeared is not known. It may have been at the Reformation or during or after the Civil War.
The next picture we have is a drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar from about 1670. This shows the church looking much like it does today, and it has no spire.
Other drawings by Hollar appear to be accurate so we can be confident that this drawing represents the church as it was.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, additional seating was provided at the west end by the construction of raised galleries. These provided about 6 foot of headroom at ground level and must have been quite claustrophobic.
The church included enclosed pews. The drawing shows the elaborate pulpit that existed at that time. The pulpit was replaced after the rebuilding.
The pulpit was quite a structure which included a canopy. Canon Dixon, c.1845, said “The Pulpit is of oak, and is rather a handsome Box, tho’ as incongruous with the building as can well be imagined “
Being on the riverside, the church suffered from repeated flooding. In 1795, there is a record of the church having flooded to a depth of five feet. As well as the inconvenience, repeated flooding was damaging the structure. Various ideas were put forward but it was not until 1875 that action was taken. This involved a rebuilding of the church. Between 1875 and 1877, the church was carefully taken down and rebuilt five feet higher.
Some photographs remain of the church before it was rebuilt. This view of the north side of the church includes a blocked up doorway. After rebuilding this blocked up doorway was retained, and when the wall was moved 8 feet north later in 1897, again the doorway was retained. The door must have had some particular significance.
Today the church stands (mostly) free of flooding. The most significant recent flood was a severe event just after Christmas in 2015.