A TOUR OF THE CHURCH
THE WEST TOWER
Visitors first enter the Priory through the unfinished West Tower. Here, a fortunate consequence of the 1539 Dissolution was that an architectural calamity was avoided; if the Perpendicular tower, intended to rival those of the abbeys of Furness and Fountains, had been fully completed, the next step would have been to demolish the late Gothic west facade and doorway in order to make the inside of the tower continuous with the nave. However, the tower was not completed, and so this beautifully decorated wall and doorway was preserved.
Prior Moone commissioned the construction of the tower in 1520 on foundations laid directly outside the thirteenth century west facade, but when the work abruptly stopped in 1539, it left a roofless structure, a third of its planned height, only partly connected to the church. There is therefore a gap between tower and wall, with projecting tie-stones, and an attractive but unglazed window.
In 1984 the work started by Prior Moone was finally completed by Canon Slaughter. The structure was topped with the modern laminated pine roof, with its central boss in the shape of the Yorkshire rose, converting the incomplete tower into an imposing porch with superb sound qualities. These acoustics are exploited to the full by our choir, who regularly sing the Introit here at the start of the main Sunday service. On one of the modern stone corbels supporting the roof is a crescent moon (symbolising Prior Moone) while the one opposite bears a likeness of the face of Canon Slaughter, whose work in roofing and restoring the tower is marked by commemorative stones below, beneath which his ashes are now interred.
The door in the corner, where there is a framed copy of the Angelus prayer, now leads to a modern bell turret. The single bell, inscribed in Latin, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord. 1695”, is rung eighteen times at noon, interspersed with readings from the Angelus, to recall the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary.
The elaborately-decorated late Gothic west facade and doorway lead through into the nave.
On passing through the elaborate Victorian wooden screen, a full view of the nave can be seen. The decorated roof, though much restored, is possibly the one installed by the canons shortly before the Dissolution.
It is possible to envisage what the original nave would have looked like. If the painted east wall at the far end of the nave were removed, and replaced by a carved oak rood screen slotted into the two ‘gashes’ in the pillars of the great arch, then the site of the fourteenth century choir stalls (now outside, in the ruins) and the great stained glass window beyond these would be clearly visible.
At each end of the South Wall to the right are doors leading to the cloisters outside. Above them are six soaring thirteenth century lancet windows, containing nineteenth century glass designed by Augustus Pugin (described in detail later), with an adjacent passageway leading through and along the walls.
Lower down the wall, a board records the names of the Priors, Ministers, and, later, Rectors of the Priory over the last eight centuries. It was made in the Kilburn workshop of ‘Mousey Thompson’ (whose trademark ‘mouse’ can be seen at the two o’clock position on the semi-circular top of the board).
Beneath the board and to the left, a candle always burns beside the Prayer for Peace, below the brass plate bearing the names of the War Dead.
Nearer the front of the nave is the sanctuary enclosure with its twin pulpits (ambones), used for bible readings and sermons in the main Sunday service.
The gates into the enclosure were designed by George Pace of York. Within the enclosure are decorated Victorian floor tiles, and some of these designs have been picked up by the embroiderers in the tapestry kneelers in the pews.
The focal point at the very front of the nave is the Cross and Altar, centre of the great Eucharistic celebration held here each Sunday. The entire nave points east towards Jerusalem, and the elaborate and decorated Cross on the altar echoes the simple cross in Jerusalem on which Christ died.
The painted wall that stands in place of the original pre-Reformation rood screen does have its own beauty and significance. Built in 1877 to replace the previous wall of 1539, it was decorated three years later by local craftsman Thomas Bottomley and his assistant, R.H. Greenwood. The painted plants and symbols depict various aspects of the biblical and Christian narrative (described in detail below). In 1935, however, when the paintings apparently displeased Queen Mary, it was concealed by a vast tapestry curtain!
INTERPRETATION OF THE EAST WALL PAINTING
The five Madonna lilies, all slightly different, refer to the Priory’s dedication to St Mary, the ‘Madonna’. This lily appears again between Mary and the Archangel Gabriel in the first panel of the stained glass window to the right.
Alternating with the lilies, from left to right, are six symbolic plants:
Barley: Jesus describes Himself (John 6) as ‘the bread of life’, source of strength and vitality to His followers. In the celebration of the Eucharist, we are especially aware of the bread as His body, given for us on the Cross.
Olive: In His agony and fear before the arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prayed among the olive trees of Gethsemane. Olive oil was also used for anointing kings, and ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one’ – set apart for God’s purpose of redemption.
Vine: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches,’ said Jesus (John 15), describing how His spirit should flow through the body of His followers, helping them to bear fruit.
Passion Flower: A traditional folk-symbol of Christ’s suffering on the Cross; the flower-head has three ‘nails’ and a ‘crown of thorns’.
Rose: The thorny branches represent the crown of thorns, and the red roses symbolize the spots of blood on the dying Christ’s forehead.
Palm: This plant recalls the short-lived triumph of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but as the palm is also a symbol of victory it also signifies His lasting triumph over death and sin and forms a fitting ending to this sequence.
Below the plants are symbols, one heraldic and ten religious:
- Priory Cross: Derived from the arms of the Earls of Albermarle, early patrons of the Priory.
- Angel: Symbol of St Matthew, from the vision of the four beasts in the Revelation of St John the Divine.
- Chi-Rho: The first two letters from the Greek word for Christ – Χριστός – linked together in a monogram.
- Lion: Symbol of St Mark. (See 2 above.)
- Crossed Keys: Symbol of St Peter, on whom Christ founded His Church, giving to him ‘the keys of heaven and of hell’.
- Paschal Lamb: Symbol of the Resurrection – the lamb is the animal of sacrifice, but carries a flag of victory.
- Star of David: Jesus was born in the City of David (Bethlehem) and was ‘of the house and lineage of David’.
- Ox: Symbol of St Luke. (See 2 above.)
- IHS: Monogram of the first three letters in the Greek word for Jesus – Ἰησοῦς.
- Eagle: Symbol of St John (See 2 above.)
- Alpha and Omega: Monogram of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, recalling Jesus’ words in the Revelation of St John, ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the first and last’.
THE NORTH AISLE
On the left side of the nave, to the north, three large arches open onto the single aisle where there was once a side-altar and chapel.
At the east end of the north aisle, mounted on a stone plinth, stands a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus. Mary is holding an apple out to the baby Jesus, symbolising the fact that he is destined to become the ‘second Adam’. St Mary, together with St Cuthbert, is a patron saint of the Priory. The statue, mounted in August 2014, was sculpted by Tim Foster of York.
THE STONE ALTAR
Near the statue of St Mary, a light burns over a worn stone slab carved with five crosses, possibly an altar used in the Priory in Pre-Reformation times. The depression in the centre may have held a relic according to Catholic practice, although in more recent times it contained an inscription plate which can now be seen on the wall alongside. (For a time the stone served as a floor slab over the tomb of Elizabeth Morley, before being set up in its present position.) The handmade medieval tiles surrounding the altar came from the now ruined choir.
Music, an essential element in worship, has always resounded through the Priory, from the Gregorian plainchant of the canons to the harmonies of our present mixed choir, and the organ adds a special dimension to this music. This Victorian pipe-organ tells its own history through the various brass plates on the case. Having been rebuilt some years ago, it now has a separate modern console.
Designed by George Street, the font was moved into this unusual position in 1985. A baptism party can now comfortably gather round it and the whole congregation can see and share in the ceremony, when a new member is welcomed into Christ’s family.
Made by the boys of Ermysted’s Grammar School in Skipton for the Priory’s octocentenary in 1954, the model, together with the aerial photograph, helps us to visualise the Priory in former days, to appreciate the beauty and compactness of its layout, the order and discipline of the life it represented, and the symbolism of the great Priory church, sheltering and watching over the whole.
THE NORTH AISLE WINDOWS
The Priory’s only surviving ancient glass (fourteenth century), which probably escaped destruction during the Dissolution because it depicted figures from the English royal family, is found in the upper sections of these three windows. They comprise various attractively coloured roundels and very fine crowned heads in ‘silver stain’ (a fourteenth-century technique for producing white and gold on one piece of glass). The King has not been positively identified, but he may well be Edward III; if so, the Queen would be Philippa of Hainault.
One of the windows shows three scenes of martyrdom in nineteenth-century glass inserted in the space where medieval panels may have been destroyed. They represent St Stephen (the first Christian Martyr) being stoned for his faith, St Polycarp of Smyrna burnt at the stake and St Ignatius of Antioch thrown to the lions by the Roman Emperor Trajan.
ST CUTHBERT WINDOW
Above the choir vestry at the west end of the north aisle, a tiny window depicts the northern saint Cuthbert to whom, with St Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Priory is dedicated. The window was a gift from a nineteenth century steward of the Duke of Devonshire and shows Cuthbert as Bishop of Lindisfarne, cradling in his arms the severed head of his fellow saint, Oswald, a Christian King whose skull is possibly the one found during excavation of Cuthbert’s grave in Durham Cathedral.
THE SIX SOUTH WINDOWS
Medieval stained glass in churches had a two-fold purpose – partly to teach an illiterate congregation through pictures but also, more importantly, to create an image of heavenly glory in coloured light which would draw people’s eyes upwards to thoughts of heaven. The great nineteenth century architect and artist, Augustus Pugin, who designed a large part of the Palace of Westminster, also designed this glass in 1851, continuing the medieval ideal by presenting the whole Gospel in thirty-six powerful scenes from the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Pentecost, against a background of intricate, jewel-bright colours, the intense blue being perhaps the most attractive of all. On a sunny day, the church appears filled with all the colours of the rainbow.
The walkway along the base of the windows gives access to a staircase in the thickness of the wall, and from there up to the curious alcove that is a unique feature of Bolton Priory. It was quite possibly where a canon kept vigil during the night, a custom in many monastic houses, so that nothing would disturb the prayer and watchfulness in the holy place.
THE NARRATIVE OF THE SIX SOUTH WINDOWS
OUTSIDE – THE EXTERIOR OF THE TOWER
Over the door, Prior Moone’s prayer, in quaint sixteenth century northern spelling, reads (modernised), ‘In the year of our Lord 1520 R. [Moone] began this foundation, on whose soul God have mercy. Amen’.
A small laughing dog looks down, giving perhaps some support to the tradition that the ‘Hey diddle diddle’ nursery rhyme, with its references to ‘the moon’ and ‘little dog’, had connections with Bolton Priory!
The band of carving running round the base of the tower has a graver meaning. It represents the Catherine wheel on which St Catherine of Alexandria was martyred, a reminder that the church is often founded on the blood of its martyrs, now as in earlier times.
In the opposite direction, across the fenced garden (not open to the public), can be seen the central block of Bolton Hall. The filled-in archway is built within what was once the Gatehouse of the Priory. Goods, produce, guests and pilgrims would have come and gone through this imposing entrance, checked in and out by the porter, whose little stone office chamber still exists today.
Finally, a pilgrim can be seen in the form of the small statue on the south-west corner of the tower. He carries staff and scrip (purse) – emblems of the medieval pilgrim.