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Profile: Halifax Minster

With elements dating back to Norman times, the Minster at Halifax has been welcoming visitors since the 1430s.

Medieval Halifax Minster in the centre of the town, Town Hall clock tower in the background
Halifax Minster, with the Town Hall clock tower in the background

People have worshipped and been welcomed to the Minster site in Halifax for centuries, so it should have been no surprise to me when I was warmly welcomed one Saturday morning, given a guide booklet and left to it. The booklet, by the way, is a great little resource, with historical research courtesy of local historian Dr John Hargreaves [1].

Much of the present building dates to the early 1400s, but the most interesting features come from a little later...

Suggested origins of the Minster include a hermitage dedicated to St John the Baptist on this site, or possibly a Saxon church linked with Dewsbury – from where other parts of West Yorkshire, including Bradford, were also evangelised. Either way, we know Cluniac monks had a presence in Halifax in Norman times, and fragments of their church remain visible. Much of the present building dates to the early 1400s, but the most interesting features come from a little later, when Halifax as a town experienced a boom thanks to the growing Tudor cloth trade.

Chapels and Chantries

There's the Rokeby Chapel, dedicated to the Halifax vicar and later Archbishop of Dublin, William Rokeby (d. 1521), who in 1516 officiated at the baptism of Mary Tudor, the king's daughter. Buried under the slabs are the Archbishop's entombed heart and bowels (the important bits). The chantry was dedicated to him in 1533, so he'd have expected prayers to be said on a regular basis to help ease his soul from purgatory. But just a few years later, Henry VIII broke the English church away from Rome's control, and such Catholic practices were scrapped. On the far side of the Minster is the Holdsworth Chapel, dedicated to the vicar (1525-56) who replaced the church's Latin Bible with an English one, and introduced the Book of Common Prayer written by Henry's reforming Archbishop of Canterbury. As far as ordinary worshippers were concerned, these were probably the biggest changes they'd notice during Henry's Reformation; a Bible in English, so they could understand it without priestly guidance, and new prayers, also in English.

Halifax Minster's chancel window, depicting the Crucifixion, with a Nativity scene in front
Halifax Minster's chancel window, depicting the Crucifixion, with a Nativity scene in front

But if the English Reformation of the 1530s-50s did away with Catholic practices like chantry chapels and clergy saying prayers for the departed, then why, you may wonder, did Dr Robert Holdsworth get just such a chantry dedicated to him after his death in 1556?

In 1553, Mary Tudor (baptised a Catholic by Rokeby, remember) became queen and reversed many of her father's religious decisions. Back came the Latin Mass and rituals, and the prayers. Reverend Holdsworth, having been reluctant to remove the Catholic elements of worship, happily reintroduced them, and the chantry chapel was presumably a reward of sorts.

Holdsworth may have been at odds with his parish, however, and the local population – like the English population at large – seems to have displayed an increasingly Protestant inclination in the years following Mary's short reign (possibly encouraged by Mary's orders to burn a local man at the stake for heresy, and the execution of the Halifax-born Bishop of St David's – not for nothing was she later nicknamed Bloody Mary).

Post-Reformation and Glass

Mary's counter-reforms were undone in her sister Elizabeth's reign, and by the early seventeenth-century the parish is described in the guide as a Puritan stronghold. The church was occupied by both sides during the civil wars of the 1600s, and it was during the Puritanical 1650s that the stained glass in the West end window was replaced with what is now called the Commonwealth Window, a simple yet striking plain-glazed design.

Much more colourful stained glass decorates the Wellington chapel and the east end chancel (whose glass dates to the 1850s). This came just ahead of a wholesale restoration of the medieval building during the nineteenth-century, under supervision of two of the Scotts responsible for so much Victorian church redesign. They lowered the height of the pews and altered floor levels, installed new casing for the pipe organ previously played by organist (and future King's Astronomer, discoverer of Uranus) William Herschel, and removed the triple-decker pulpit once used by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

Minster chapel, with Poppy wreaths for rememberance at the altar, and standards from the Duke of Wellington's Regiment
The Wellington Chapel, Halifax Minster

The Wellington Chapel is dedicated to the Duke of Wellington's Regiment – now part of the Yorkshire Regiment – and displays several of their military standards, as well as poppy wreaths for remembrance. The chapel's carpet was made by Crossley Carpets [2] of Halifax, who at one time operated out of the Dean Clough mill, down the road from the Minster, and had made a fortune revolutionising the production of carpets in the 1800s. Their mill operated for 180 years, finally shutting down in the 1980s, and at its peak extended half a mile along the Calder Valley, exporting carpets all over the world. The family was also involved in national as well as local politics, taking seats in the House of Commons, and building various almshouses, orphanages, baths and public parks as well as their own grand houses around Calderdale.

The Modern Era

There are a few modern touches to the place. The Wellington Chapel, for example, commemorates the fallen of recent wars, and an influx of tourism to Halifax has prompted the installation of a gift shop and an attractive visitors' entrance in the north porch. In fact, so significant in the civic life and heritage of Halifax has the church been considered that, in 2009, it was granted symbolic Minster status.

There's a pleasing symmetry in that, as 'Minster' is a term usually reserved for the churches used as a base by the monks who evangelised the pagan Saxons – including the church at Dewsbury, whose members, you will remember, possibly founded the earliest church on this site.

1. Hargreaves, J. A., Halifax Minster: A Short Historical & Spiritual Guide

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