Foreword by Jon
Layne: This booklet was written by my mother in 1950 as part of the
Church Restoration Fund activities. The target was £2500 -
probably about £100,000 at today's prices. My father, Cyril
Layne, was the Organiser and the sum was raised within the target
period of three years. The printing was donated by the Proprietor
of the Rotherham Advertiser as his contribution to the
A copy was sent to the then Queen, now the Queen Mother, and she donated a canteen of cutlery which was sold by auction to aid the fund.
See also:Florence Protestant Cemetary article, Italian restin place of the rector of All Saints, Aston 1850.
The earliest history of Aston remains wrapped in mystery, but there is little doubt that the village existed in Anglo-Saxon days, since its very name comes from an old English word East-Tun (meaning an enclosure or a homestead in the East). In William the Conqueror's Domesday Book (1086) the village is referred to as Estone, and formed one of the many "Estones" which still, under their later name of "Aston," remain scattered over the British isles. As in modern times, parish Boundaries changed from time to time, since in Commonwealth days [i.e. circa 1649-1653] our particular Aston was described as ''Aston in Morthing" (now Morthen). Moreover, in about 1539, the village of Ulley was partly in the parish of Aston, while the remaining part belonged to Treeton parish. Old records show that payments were made by the Tempests (lords of Aston Manor) to the Preceptory of Newland, near Wakefield, on behalf of their Ulley lands. In addition, at the time of the founding of the College of Jesus in Rotherham (1482) by Thomas Rotherham, lands were held by that educational establishment in the town and fields of Hardwyke (now Hardwick). From the rents of this land dues were paid to Lord George D'Arcy, as lord of the Manor of Aston.
It is highly probable that there was a church at Aston in Anglo Saxon times. It may well be that the first church there, probably of wood, was founded soon after the year 627, when Edwin of Northumhria, having married a Christian princess from Kent, turned to his wife's faith and encouraged his people to follow his example. An ancient history book (Bede's Ecclesiastical History) states that King Edwin's wife, Ethelberga, was otherwise called Tate. This gives rise to the following train of thought: Was Todwick, formerly Tate-wick ("wick" being a settlement) a possession of the Northumbrian Queen? If so, it may well be that the Church had its first origin in this district at Todwick, and spread (as did all fashions, good or bad, even in those far-of days) to the surrounding villages. Be this as it may, Aston may crow over its neighhour, Todwick, in one respect. Whilst there is mention of a church at Todwick in the Domesday Book of 1086, there is no mention of a priest. Of Aston it says "A church is there and a priest." Moreover, Aston was one of the few parishes in this vicinity which could boast of a church and a priest at the time of the Conquest. It is quite feasible to think that from 1066 to 1086 the Normans were far more busy in destroying and devastating the lands of those who challenged their authority, than in building churches and endowing them. Therefore we may safely assume that the church referred to in William's survey was of Anglo-Saxon origin. Later, when the Norman overlords of our vicinity had quelled and quietened their unruly minions, they set about the task of restoring, improving or rebuilding this church of ours. Of the Anglo-Saxon Church there are few authentic remains, since in the course of 800 years, the various parts of the Church must have been altered, enlarged and changed until the original building was lost entirely. Our ancient altar-stone, however, may be a part of the Saxon church but of this we will write later.
That the church at Aston was enlarged and altered from time to time is plainly indicated by its architecture. The nave is entirely Norman, or late Norman, as is proved by the fact that one of its six arches was formed in the new pointed Gothic style which came to England from France about the time of Henry II [1154-1189]. The transepts are of the Decorated period, while the tower is of the Perpendicular type. This blending of the various types of architecture again shows that additions and alterations went on throughout the centuries, so that no definite statement can be made about the age of any ancient church like this, since all the past generations have done their part to beautify it.
A remarkable fact of this Church's building is this. While the main part of the building is executed in red sandstone (probably of local origin - Ulley district?) the chancel is of limestone, similar to that used in the building of the Abbey of Roche in 1147. No reasons can be given for this difference of materials, but alas the red sandstone being softer, shows far greater traces of decay, particularly in the old porch, where deep hollows are to be seen in the ancient stones.
The Tower, while not ruinous, is in a bad state of decay, its stones eaten away by the tempests of the years, and probably by the various impurities found in the air of an industrial district. One of the pinnacles is missing from its corner. It fell after a great Storm years ago, and may be found standing on a plinth in the Swallownest garden of a former undertaker and churchwarden of the parish, dead these last 30 years [circa 1920]. He was wont to say that "if nobody else will put up a War Memorial at Swallownest, then I will!". So our noble pinnacle, toppled from its ancient height, stands a mile or so from its mother tower, inscribed simply 1914-1918." It may be, at some future time (subject to the generosity of its present owner) that it will once more occupy its old place.
Near the base of the tower is an ancient window at eye level, often described as "A Leper's Window," now blocked up. When leprosy was prevalent in England the affilicted ones would thus be able to catch a glimpse of the altar that was denied to them in their terrible disease. As this died out in the land the window became of no purpose, and was accordingly filled in with stonework. Or it may be that the window was used by excommunicated persons who, cut off from all entry and the rites of the Church, would be able to see the elevation of the Host dut tug the Sacrament.
The tower roof is approached by a spiral staircase, so ruinous that in the interests of common safety the belfry door is now left locked. From the roof a splendid view of the surrounding villages and churches is to be seen, plainly proving the medieval wisdom of using the church as a watch-tower in times of trouble.
The South Porch, now in an advanced state decay, is built in the Decorated style, and was probably erected about the time of Edward III and Queen Philippa, [1327-1377] whose heads in stone are seen on the corbels of the outer doorway. It is of interest to note that in "The Leeds Mercury dated July 7th, 1900, these heads are reported as being " well-carved" so that we assume that nearly 50 years of chemically polluted air have done their fell work, for the clear lines of the sculptures are now obliterated.
Edward and Philippa were married in 1326, and probably their sculptured heads were the mason's compliment on their union. It is pleasant to think that our little village church has a link with the brave Queen who begged the lives of the six good Burghers of Calais from her warrior husband in the year 1347. Above the porch doorway is an empty niche, with a carved angel beneath it. The saint who occupied the niche has long ago been relegated to the "limbo of forgotten things," probably being displaced at the time of the Reformation, when a great deal of vandalism took place in connection with our churches and abbeys.
On the outer side of
the South Transept walls are various strange, almost ludicrous
carvings. In the middle Ages such carvings were common outside the
Church for any or all of the following reasons
(a) To portray to the world at large the works of the Evil One.
(b) To keep away evil Spirits.
(c) To contrast the atmosphere of the outer world with the peace and sanctity of the Church within.
(d) To appeal to the rather coarse vulgar type of humour that was often prevalent among the peasant classes in the Middle Ages.
Certainly the gargoyles in the form of fierce animal heads are weird enough to keep away all the unholy fiends. One carving portrays the Devil blowing a horn, presumably to summon his trusty henchmen. Another, which has heen descrihed as surely the strangest sculpture in Christendom," portrays a nude human figure, head downwards in the grip of the Evil One himself. In one hand this figure (evidently a woman, by her long hair) holds a milk-pail and in the other a creamer. An old story tells how ahout the year 1350 a milkmaid employed at the old Aston Hall had, as part of her daily duties, to distrihute free milk to the poor. For personal gain she sold part of the milk, diluted the rest, and bestowed that upon the needy. However, her dishonesty was found out and her punishment was that her evil deed was to he rememhered through the ages. She was to hang naked forever (in stone of course) in the grip of Satan himself, with her pail and creamer by her side while lesser imps heaped indignity upon her. On the outer South Chancel wall are very well carved heads in a good state of preservation. They may be the sculptures of prominent local people at that time as the local craftsmen were excellent at their work and loved to chisel the faces of those whom they knew, frequently showing much character and humour in their work.
This is late Norman, having five Norman arches and one Gothic one probably erected (as said before) at the transitional stage. The pillars are alternately rounded and octagonal, and have been neatly "patched" in places with matching Stone. One corbel ends in a carved mulberry leaf, complete with silkworm, while another bears an image of a fox's mask on either side. The present pews are about 200 years old, and are of a quality of comfort guaranteed to keep even the most uninterested awake during the most prosy of sermons. It is planned to renew the seating, using as much of the old oak as possible, while ministering a little to human ease. A squint, now blocked, formerly gave glimpses of the High Altar to those sitting in the South Aisle. We plan to open this squint when the Church is restored. Before it now stands a handsome oak eagle lectern overlaid in gold leaf which is dedicated to the memory of the Rev. W. H. Brooke, Rector of Aston from 1909 to 1938. The pulpit is of a very uninteresting character and probably of no great age. Its severe plainness seems to indicate a Commonwealth origin [i.e. circa 1649-1653].
The South Aisle is of greater interest and has an old Perpendicular octagonal font bearing on its base the figure of King Herod, spear in hand, lying in wait for the Infant Christ. On the opposite side is a watching angel. The East Window of this aisle is of ancient heraldic glass and bears in the centre the D'Arcy Arms surrounded bv the Arms of other families which were probably taken from damaged or destroyed windows in the church and placed here. Beneath this window there was, in olden days, the altar of the Chapel of St. Mary. The piscina where the officiating priest used to lave his hands at the Communion Service is still there to prove it. There is, however, no record of a chantrv here.* [see lost hamlet of Canonthorpe below]. At what period the altar was removed we do not know, but it was certainlv there in 1398, when Sir William Melton, the lord of the manor, was buried (as requested in his will) between the chapel of St. Mary and the body of the Church. Indeed, this chapel seems to have been a favourite last resting place, for there was John Danyel (Rector from 1364 to 1391) buried too, as well as other members of the families of the lords of Aston.
The only chantry (i.e. a small chapel where masses were sung for the dead) on record in this parish was at Canonthorpe. It was given by Robert de Estone (Aston) to the brothers of Nostell Priory, and services were held thrice a week as early as 1231. This Canonthorpe hamlet has entirely disappeared. It has heen stated to have been situated hetween Aston and Beighton, but the writer of this booklet begs to differ. And why? Because the later name for the hamlet was "Fawkeners" and on the western boundary of Aston parish runs the old lane called Falconer (formerly Fawkener Lane) up the lane, close to the edge of "Hail Mary Wood" is an old farmhouse (with relics of an even older house nearby) called Faulkner Farm". These facts point to this part of the parish being the lost Canon-thorpe, and the name of the wood may he derived from the "Hail Mary's" which echoed from the little forgotten chapel near by the tree-covered slope. The chapel was probably destroyed at the time of the Reformation [circa 1530], and would seem to be a wayside one for travellers, being an on old trade road (or packman road), now known as Smallage Lane. The Aughton end of this lane is known as West Lane. This name may be obtained from its direction or from the family of Wests who were the lords of the Manor of Aughton untill the end of Elizabeth's [the first] reign. Other branches of the West family lived at Rothwell and Firbeck and their arms bore three leopards' heads. An ancient legend says that King John stayed at Aughton Hall (now split up Into cottages) when he fled North fleeing from his brother Richard.
A scheme is now afoot to completely restore the Church both externally and internally, and an important part will be the restoration of this Chapel of St. Mary. This work will he as a form of rememberence for those who died in the two world wars of this century. It is hoped to make it very beautiful, a fitting reminder of those of whom we may say "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends". The great army of the Dead knew no bounds of race or creed, and this holy chapel will be the sacred reminder of all the heroes of the parish, whether they were of the Anglican Communion or not. In this chapel, upon completion, a book will he placed wherein the roll of the dead will he inscribed. Several people have already promised furnishings in memory of their loved ones, and it is hoped to make this Chapel of St. Mary a gloroiu gem within the walls of our ancient Church.
Here the ancient leaded North windows are of plain glass with square heads, one of them being blocked by the vestry which was evidently added at a later date. Below one of the North windows are some ancient brasses, the larger plate engraved "Of Yor charitie pray for the Soule of Sir John Melton, Knight, which deceased the Xl daie of July, the yere of our Lord MoVeXo , and the second yere of the reigne of Kyng Henry the eight. On whos soule Jesus have mercy. Amen" while the two smaller shields flanking this bear the Melton coats-of-arms.
It is interesting to know that this knight, who deceased in 1510, was one of a long line of Meltons of Aston Hall, the first of whom, Sir William Melton, acquired the Hall in 1332. He was a notable figure in the State, being Archhishop of York, and Lord Chancellor of England. Thus has Aston had its part in the ecclesiastical and civil government of England. Another point of interest is that these same Melton Arms are to be found on the brasses of Rotherham Parish Church.
The Meltons were patrons of the living of Aston from 1332 to 1539, until the time of the Reformation of England. Whether the Melton family still continued in the old Faith, and thus gradually (owing to heavy fines and penalties) lost their wealth, history does not record. But at all events their patronage of the living ceased in 1539. We do know, however, that from 1496-1516 a Mr. William Melton (probably a relation of the patron of Aston) was Rector of the Church.
On the left of the small North door (now closed because of damage by subsidence) is an exquisite stone carving of a cherubs head in an excellent state of repair.
Up to 1920 or so the space under the belfry was used as extra seating accommodation in the Church, but a modern oak screen, beautifully carved, was then erected as a memorial to the men of Aston Parish who lost their lives in the First World War of 1914-1918. Their names are recorded on a brass plate attached to the screen. The screened-off space is now used as the robing vestry by the choir. Here may be seen copies of portraits and (in most recent times) photographs of some of the Rectors of Aston, but "Some there be that have no memorial," except the inclusion of their names in the framed list hanging there. This starts in 1254 beginning with a Norman (probably placed in office by the Norman conquerors) followed by an Italian name, and then gradually the list acquires an English sound.
About the year 1719 a gallery was erected at the West end of the Church beneath the bell-chamber. All the seats in this gallery were paid for, and, we are safe to assume, occupied by the more prosperous farmers and householders. Another record states that in 1753 a licence was granted to build another "loft or gallery" on the West end of the South Aisle (above the font, it is to he presumed). Whether this was actually completed we do not know, but at any rate the former gallery was in existence up to 1860 at least. It was evidently not used for seating then, but housed a barrel organ. This organ could play a limited repertoire of hymns to aid the singing, and gives rise to an amusing story. Upon one occasion the music stopped dead in the middle of a hymn, and the agitated head of the worthy who turned the handle of the organ appeared over the gallery rail. " Parson ! Parson ! " he called in a husky whisper, " T'andle's cum off
For over 400 years there have been three bells hanging in the Belfry tower, the first definite record of them being in 1552. The present bells are about 160 years old, being placed there in the time of Wm. Mason, the Rector at that period. His name and those of his churchwardens are engraved on two of the bells, with the date 1784.
As has been said before, the Chancel stonework is in limestone, a more enduring stone than the red sandstone of the main part of the (Shureb. Its South wall bears two stained windows of the late Decorated period and an Eastern window of comparatively modern glass. Up to the nineteen-twenties this window was flanked on either side by a large wooden tablet, upon which the Ten Commandments were numerically set out in the fashion of the last century, now extinct. These tablets were removed when the chancel was restored to its original medieval appearance. At the same time the old pre-Reformation altar stone was replaced. This had been found lying cracked and discarded, its crosses nearly obliterated. In all probability it had been thrown out, together with " all relics of Papistry," in the sixteenth century. This ancient altar stone, nearly 7 feet long and of 8 inches in. thickness, may be the sole relic of the old Saxon Church which stood on this Spot before the Conquest, and if so it is good to think that once again it occupies its place of honour. We cannot be sure, however, of its Saxon origin, but it is certainlv of great antiquity.
On the North Wall, occupying four niches, are four kneeling figures in alabaster. The uppermost one is of John, Lord D'Arcy, while the three below are of his three wives who died in 1606, 1622 and 1624 respectively. The local story is that he married the first for beauty, next for riches (this fact substantiated by the fact that the second lady was 60 when she died) and lastly for love, which was, however, of very brief duration, his poor young wife wife dying after a year at the age of 19. A fourth wife, Elizabeth who outlived Lord D'Arcy, and became the wife of Sir Francis Fane has a monument to her memory on the opposite wall of the chancel over it is the Fane crest. It is interesting to know that this same Sir Francis Fane, K.B., was a staunch Royalist at the time of the Civil War and was heavily fined after the commonwealth forces came into power for his support of the Stuart king. The Aston and Todwick estates were the property of his wife, the former Lady D'Arcy, and so were not seized, but he lost considerable possessions elsewhere. All these people whose monuments adorn the chancel are buried either under the floor of the Chancel or within its walls, as also are some of the Melton family.
Wm. Mason, who was Rector of Aston from 1754 to 1797, was one of the minor poets, and has a monument in Westminster Abbey, although his poetry was of rather mediocre character. His successor to the living of Aston, the Rev. Christopher Alderson, B.D., put up a memorial tablet to him on the North Chancel wall, with a medallion bust of the poet himself. The most interesting fact about Mason is that he was a friend of the poet, Thomas Gray, who wrote "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." Gray visited Aston upon various occasions and, indeed, one school of thought insists that at least part of the famous elegy was composed at Aston, and not at Stoke Poges. Certainly the stanza : -
But whether the beautiful scenery of Aston gave Gray the urge to write poetry or not, we do know that he frequently visited his friends there. Indeed, he described Aston as " an elysium among the coalpits, a terrestrial heaven.". He was often asked to visit Aston, but set far less store on the formal flower-beds of Mason's garden (for the Rector at that time was a keen gardener) than in the varied scenery with which our old Church was surrounded. A further proof of this friendship is shown in the garden of the Old Rectory, where an arbour was built and its walls decorated with memorial urns and medallions of Mason and his friend Gray. over the entrance formerly hung a board, on which was painted a verse (not generally included in the printed Elegy) of Gray's poem, but this was stolen long years ago. The summer house, however, has been restored to its former condition by the present owners of the Old Rectory.
Throughout the ages the lords of Aston were patrons of the living of Aston until 1840 when, upon one occasion, the presentation was sold but later returned to the Manor. The lords of the Manor were great benefactors of the Church, and this booklet would not be completewithout some mention of them. In all probability a Saxon hall was in being at Aston long before the Norman Conquest. The Meltons were the patrons from 1332 to 1539. In fact Sir Wm. de Melton built a new hall there in the years between 1317 and 1342, while he was yet Archbishop of York. After 1547, the Hall came into the possession of the D'Arcys (through the female side of the Meltons) who held the estate for about two centuries. In the middle of the eighteenth century the old hall was destroyed by fire and the present house was built, the architect being the famous John Carr of York. By this time the lands had once more reverted to the female line, i.e. to the only daughter of the last of the Earls of Holderness (a descendant of the D'Arcys, of Hornby Castle). This daughter married, as her second husband, Capt. John Byron, father of Lord Byron, the poet. Through this last owner the Hall passed into the hands of the Verelsts.
Of this family we learn a great deal in Sir Osbert Sitwell's book, "The Scarlet Tree." He tells us that the first Simon Verelst or Van der Elst " as the name was originally was born at The Hague in 1644. This Dutchman, who was a flower-painter, came to England and appears to have set a new fashion in portraits, surrounding his subject with masses of blooms. In fact, so exotic did his pictures become that they apparently " went to his head " and he lost his reason. His brother and his nephew Cornelius continued as portrait painters, and his great nephew William painted family portraits of the Sitwells, which I believe are still at Renishaw Hall, and which are remarkable for their beauty and technique.
The next generation of the Verelsts, however, forsook the brush for the pen, and entered into the service of the East India Company. This Harry Verelst rose high in the ranks of this great company and finally became Governor of Bengal. It was this member of the family, who, returning from India in 1770, bought the Hall from Capt. John Byron. In 1928 the estate was broken up and the Hall sold to the present Sir Ronald Matthews, J.P. At the time of writing  it has been acquired by the West Riding County Council as a home for female mental patients. Thus is the end of its reign as the home of the lords of the Manor. Truly, "Sic transit gloria mundi" [note; in 1970 it was returned to private ownership and is now the Aston Hall Hotel].
The restoration is planned to be carried out in such a manner that none of the ancient character of the Church will be lost. It will be done by trained craftsmen in wood and stone, so that none of its architectural features will be destroyed. Rather will it be restored to its ancient splendour when the Chapel of St. Mary had its honoured place beneath the main South Aisle window. This Chapel will once again rise from the dimness of the past, as a lasting tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in the two World Wars of the present [20th] century. The seats will be made comfortable, while their appearance will harmonise with the building which has stood as a monument to the Faith for nearly a thousand years. Through centuries of peace and war, of understanding and intolerance, of quiet reigns and bitter political strife, All Saints' has stood as a landmark and a sign of the hope which endures for ever in men's hearts. May we repay that endurance by putting our house - nay God's house - in order and beauty.