History

The Parish Church of St Leonard, Middleton

A Grade I Listed Building

Church from southern elevation

The Church is open to visitors 1 - 4 pm every Friday afternoon until the end of September and, in addition, Tuesday afternoons in September and for the Heritage Open Days on September 12th, 13th and 14th.

We are pleased to be able to include this link  to “Lumiere” (Capturing the cycle of light at Saint Leonard’s Church) by Andy Marshall. This project was made possible with the support of the Middleton Heritage and Conservation Group and Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council as part of the Edgar Wood and Middleton Heritage Initiative which is funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

St Leonard’s Church is a Grade I listed building richly blessed with historic features, from the Saxons to the twentieth century; each era adding its mark.  The BBC considered the church had the strongest case for the oldest continually inhabited building in the Manchester area. The following is an outline of the history of the church and a summary of its fittings, furniture and monuments that can be seen today.

Saxons and Normans

The earliest Middleton church was dedicated to the Saint Cuthbert “whose mortal remains were carried to Middleton-juxta-Manchester” around 880 to escape destruction by pagan Danes then attacking the north of England. It is curious to think that we can still see the decorated coffin of this wonderful Saxon saint and the marvellous Lindisfarne gospels that accompanied it.  Now they lie in scientifically controlled environments at Durham Cathedral  and the British Library but a thousand years ago they rested quietly and safely in this modest place. Middleton’s oval-shaped churchyard was laid out at this time; with plenty of space around the then tiny Saxon church.  A tangible memorial to the period in the church  is a beautifully carved rectangular stone, probably a late Saxon grave stone.

After the Conquest of 1066, the Normans built a larger church dedicated to the French Saint Leonard, patron saint of prisoners. In this building, a young Thomas Langley, Middleton’s greatest son, received his religious nurturing and education some 300 years later.

Norman Stonework

Medieval Period

Thomas Langley   became Prince Bishop of Durham and Lord Chancellor of England under three successive kings, Henry IV, V and VI. He was England’s first Foreign Secretary and is often referred to as Cardinal Langley, though he turned this honour down.

Bishop Langley never forgot his birthplace and in 1412 he returned Middleton to demolish the then crumbling and out-of-date church and to build a brand new one in the Gothic style.   A particularly lovely feature of this church is the ornamental south porch, now also romantically crumbling away.   Langley created a chantry in the church dedicated to The Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Cuthbert and established a school in the north aisle.  Two pupils, Robert  and Alexander  Nowell, subsequently founded the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in1572 and were major benefactors of Brasenose College, Oxford

In what seems to have been a individual show of sentiment, Thomas Langley incorporated  important parts of the old Norman church into the tower arch and the arch to his chantry chapel . He also created a niche in the north wall for an eleventh century tombstone to a now unknown priest.

A century later, churches were being altered and rebuilt throughout England as the wealth of the country increased.  Middleton was no exception and the church benefited from further changes initiated by the then Lord of the Manor, Sir Richard Assheton, who excelled at the Battle of Flodden  in 1513.  Richard dedicated his standard and armour to St. Leonard and placed them in the church.  He also installed the famous “Flodden Window”  showing sixteen named archers who fought at the battle.

Other medieval artifacts include the bold rood screen, eight priests’ stalls with misericords, a more delicate parclose screen, stained glass coats of arms, a hidden piscina and a stone altar.  Most importantly Middleton has “the finest brass memorials in the north of England” dating from 1483 to1650.

Brass of Sir Ralph Assheton

Jacobean and Georgian Times

The later brasses lead us into the seventeenth century which left various interesting furnishings including the fine Hopwood Pew and a Puritan communion table.  Also in 1666 the curious wooden belfry was added on top of the medieval tower to enable a new set of bells to be added. It’s four simple pediments face the points of the compass and the styling marks the time where the classical style was becoming popular.  Several small but attractive monuments in classical styling were installed over the following two centuries and the 1788 sundial ‘Lose no time’ and 1807 clock by Platt of Manchester remind us this was also an era of science and invention.The graves of the famous ‘Peterloo’    radical reformer and writer,  Samuel Bamford,  and the mathematician, James Eastwood are in the churchyard extension.

Victorians and Twentieth Century

In contrast, the Victorians set about carefully restoring the gothic character of the church by a series of initiatives over several decades.  They involved sensitively repairing the medieval work, creating matching furniture and installing new stained glass windows by various artists including Clayton and Bell, John Hardman and Co. and Burlison and Grylls.

It began in 1843 with a gothic fantasy pulpit and lectern by George Shaw of Saddleworth followed by a colourful chancel window by Lavers, Barraud and Westlake in 1869. More dignified is the later restoration work by G. F. Bodley including a Boer War memorial window and triptych

In 1907 the architect Edgar Wood installed a new roof in traditional gothic style and a little boiler house and chimney in his pioneering Art Deco style.

Stained glass continued to be installed into the twentieth century and the church has some fine windows by important artists such as Christopher Whall  , Veronica Whall   A. K. Nicholson  and Christopher Webb.

George Pace   is the third important architect of  Middleton church.  He designed the World War I memorial and in 1958 built a choir vestry and installed new lighting in his characteristic blend of modern and traditional styles.  He also designed a new rectory on Mellalieu Street in the grounds of the medieval one.

Visits to the church can be arranged through the parish office. The church is open during September on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and for the annual Heritage Open Days. Other open days and special events are announced in the church diary.

There is a list of Rectors, which include the sons of local gentry especially sons of the Lord of the manor

Rector's Board

 


The Old Grammar School
A brief history of the Old Grammar School