Celtic Cross

St Mary, Scawton

The Church

This church was built in 1146 - by the Cistercian monks who, thirty one years later, went on to build Byland Abbey.

At this time they were temporarily based at Tylas, a mile or so up river from Rievaulx. In the mid-1130s they'd been driven from their house at Calder in Cumbria by marauding Scots. And then they had wandered homeless across the country, for a year, with all their worldly goods piled high on a single wagon, pulled by eight oxen; looking for a patron. Until, at last, they struck lucky when the good lady Gundreda, of the great de Mowbray family in Thirsk, took pity on them, and gave them land - first at the bottom of Sutton Bank, then at Tylas.

The de Mowbrays' steward, Hugh de Malebisse, had a mansion here: the bumps in the field behind the house opposite are probably its remains. And the church was built for him and his retainers, so that they wouldn't any longer have to trek across the wild ravine to the church at Old Byland.

St Mary, Scawton St Mary's Church

Inside St Marys
Inside St Mary's


The basic shape of the building is unchanged. The font came from Old Byland church in 1146, and has been used for the baptisms of some 30 generations of villagers. Behind the 16th century altar is the stone original: you can still see the little crosses in the corners. This is a great rarity, since stone altars were outlawed at the time of the Reformation.

The two side arches in the wall, dividing the chancel and sanctuary from the nave, may well have been used as side altars where the priests using them would look through the "squints" and watch the priest (perhaps the abbot) at the main altar so that all could act in unison.

In the north wall of the chancel there is a small low window through which it is possible that people suffering from leprosy, or other diseases - standing outside - were allowed to receive communion, or absolution for their sins. Further along the wall, by the altar, is a mysterious pillared sink. We don't know what it was used for. It may well have been brought here from Byland or Rievaulx in the late 1530s, after the dissolution of the monasteries.

Just over the churchyard wall, by the road, there is also the stone base of a later medieval wayside cross; originally one of a series along this road.

The font
The font

One of the squints
One of the squints

The leper window
The leper window

"God is friendship"

In the later 19th century the building had fallen into considerable disrepair. But, as Pevsner puts it: "A bouquet is due to [the architect] Hodgson Fowler, who, in 1892, restored the church so tactfully that it now appears as genuine as one can find medieval village churches".

Again, in 1999-2001, extensive further restoration work was undertaken. "God is friendship", proclaims the plaque which records this: a formula which first appears in the treatise, Spiritual Friendship, by the great St. Aelred of Rievaulx; who was himself a friend of Roger, the abbot of the Byland community when they were building here. Aelred actually became abbot of Rievaulx the very year after Scawton church was built. Roger was abbot of Byland until 1196.

The pillared sink
The pillared sink

The Infamous Richard de Malebisse

After the death of Hugh de Malebisse, Scawton came into the possession of his grandson, Richard. Richard's main home was at Acaster Malbis, but he owned a great tract of hunting lands here, stretching as far as Snilesworth, by Osmotherley. He was also chief justice in York.

Unfortunately, though, he had large debts to Jewish moneylenders and in 1190, when a mob set upon the Jews in York, he saw his chance. He put himself at the head of the mob. The survivors took refuge in Clifford's Tower, and were besieged there. After several days, in despair, most of them - having set fire to the building - joined in mass suicide. A few, however, ran out onto the battlements. Richard shouted up to them, repeating the offer he had made several times before, "Come down, be baptized as Christians, and we'll spare you!" So down they came, to be baptized. Whereupon he turned and gave the order, "Slit their throats! ".

By way of punishment king Richard the Lionheart confiscated some of his lands, including this estate. Moreover, the following year he was fined again, and excommunicated, for his role in a plot against the king. But in 1199 - when king Richard was succeeded by his brother John - he was allowed to buy everything back again. The price was £100, two hawks, two leashes of harriers, and four fine horses.

Upper Ryedale Parish

In 1979 Scawton, having previously been a parish united with Cold Kirby, was incorporated into the newly created Upper Ryedale parish, also including Old Byland, Hawnby and Bilsdale Midcable. Although it covers such a large area the total population of the parish numbers not much more than 450. Still we continue to hold regular services here, at least once a month; cheerfully singing our hymns to the electronic accompaniment of Lincoln Cathedral Choir.

And visitors are very welcome to join us.

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