St Mary's Little Driffield History

Both historical and archaeological evidence indicates that there was a church at Little Driffield in the Saxon period, probably from soon after the introduction of Christianity into Yorkshire in the 7th century by Paulinus. The Driffield area was an important area of Saxon settlement and nearby there are four 6th century cemeteries.

It has been suggested that Great Driffield may have been a Saxon royal seat. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, compiled c1100, records that King Aldfrith of Northumbria died at Driffelda in the year 705 A.D. Tradition has put his place of burial at Little Driffield and by the late middle ages there was seemingly an inscription to this effect on the wall of the chancel. This important royal burial has drawn the attention of antiquarians to Little Driffield since the 16th century.

Little Driffield, along with Great Driffield, was part of an important royal manor at the time of the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Book of 1086 records that there were two churches in the manor. One of these almost certainly stood at Little Driffield. There was a royal castle at Great Driffield and the settlement was visited in 1200 by King John and in 1227 by King Henry III. There is no clear evidence to show that Little Driffield church was the mother church of the parish, although the settlement, being the site for the important four annual Driffield fairs, played a significant part in the life of Great Driffield. It has been suggested that the two livings of Great and Little Driffield were held separately but since the 1360s they have shared one incumbent. The main fabric of the church appears to date from the Norman period although some Saxon carved stones survive. The church was once considerably larger and during the later Victorian restoration, the plans of at least two more extensive buildings on the site were located. The bases of several pillars were found in the foundations of the walls and the capitals beneath the wall, showing that formerly there had been a north aisle. The chancel was once much greater in extent too.

In 1807 the chancel and the nave were largely taken down and rebuilt, with little account being taken of its existing architecture. A minor restoration was carried out in 1863 but it was in 1888-89 that the church took on its present appearance. The architect Temple Moore carried out the restoration most sympathetically, at a cost of £1,200. A contemporary account records that he ‘converted the hideous low backed deformity into an elegant Gothic edifice, with a roof of high pitch. Throughout the centuries there has been some change in the dedication, but no authorisation can be found. The earliest reference to a dedication is to St. Mary in a will of 1454. A further reference in Sharp's Manuscript around 1700 is likewise to St Mary, but thereafter the reference is to St Peter until the late 19th century, when the title St Mary is again used.

Points of Interest
Walk around the church in an anti-clockwise direction from the 1890s porch. Notice inside thePorch, are the two halves of capitals of pillars made into low seats and also the reused Norman stones with chevron work supporting the ceiling. In the south west corner of the porch, the base of one of the pillars of the former north aisle is exposed in situ.
To the right of the porch, in a niche in the north wall of the Nave, is the base of another of the north aisle pillars. Notice also built into the wall three pieces of memorial slabs dating from the 13th century. One is carved with a floriated cross-head and another a foliated cross-head. Around the church are many pieces of early medieval grave slabs, which it is said were used for walling materials in the 1807 restoration. How many pieces can you locate? The attractive floral air bricks along the base of the nave date from the 1889 restoration.

The Tower has a base, which is probably early Norman and an early 15th century top. Notice the row of carved heads just below the top and the large grotesque gargoyles directing rainwater away from the tower.On the south side of the Naveis a blocked doorway of c1200 with a pointed head and ball ornamented hood. An unusual low stone bench runs between the buttresses on the south side of the nave. On the easternmost buttress are carved two sundials, more commonly termed mass-dials for they were used to tell the time for the medieval services. There is another one, more crudely carved, by the priest's door on the south side of theChancel.

The east end of the church was rebuilt in 1888-89 and given two huge buttresses, flanking the splendid Decorated style window. Temple Moore designed this window, in common with almost all the windows in the church. The north side of the chancel is unusual in having no windows. Built into the east wall of the Nave where it joins the chancel, is a most interesting piece of stone with Saxon knot carving - possibly of the 10th century. This may be part of a cross-shaft. Also built into the north wall of the nave is an early medieval memorial slab carved with a cross-shaft and a crude sword.

The Churchyard
The survival of a large number of 18th and 19th century gravestones adds much to the interest of the very pleasant country churchyard. No doubt it was this quiet setting that led many leading residents of Great Driffield to select Little Driffield churchyard as their final resting place. On the north side of the church are the tombs of Washington Harrison, Surgeon, died 1859, who gave his name to Washington Street in Great Driffield, and Dr. Francis Forge, for whom Easterfield House, New Road, Great Driffield was built. Of particular note on the south side of the chancel is the brick tomb chest with a thick grey slab on it. The largely illegible inscription is partly in memory of Charlotte[Hotham] the wife of Charles Best of Elmswell who died in 1710. She had 14 children. Charles Best was the grandson of Henry Best whose famous farming book was published in a new edition by the British Academy in 1984. Also on the south side against a holly tree is a gravestone commemorating George Sherwood who was ‘killed by natives at the Solomon Islands in the South Seas' in 1872. For further details on the churchyard memorials click here

The Church Interior

The early Norman circular-headed tower arch, with its attractive groups of three simple carved heads at either side, is the finest architectural feature of the church. Amongst the early carved stones displayed on the tower window sill, are a number of examples of Norman chevron work and a piece of Saxon knot carving, possibly part of a cross head and associated with the similar piece built into the exterior of the nave.

On the floor by the pew at the entrance is a brass inscription to Ralf Buckton of Elmswell [died 1540] and Margaret his wife, both of whom would have witnessed the beginning of the Reformation that brought great changes to the internal appearance of the church. The fine 18th century pulpit was formerly in All Saints, Pocklington and was placed here at the restoration in 1888-89. The roof, of hammer-beam construction, dates from the 1889 restoration.

On the walls are various memorial inscriptions, the most celebrated being that to King Alfred [Aldfrith] on the north wall. An earlier inscription was painted on the wall but when the chancel was rebuilt in 1807 the present inscription was put up. In 1784 a party of gentlemen from Driffield, under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries, made a search for the body of King Aldfrith.

They claimed that ‘after digging some time within the chancel, they found a stone coffin, on opening which, the entire skeleton of that prince presented itself, with a great part of his steel armour!' This account was later proved to be false, and no stone coffin or body was found. A search made at the rebuilding in 1807 also failed to find any remains. As it is known that the chancel was once much wider and longer, it is assumed that if the king was buried at Little Driffield, then his body must now lie in the churchyard.

Also on the north side of the chancel is a memorial inscription to John Boyes of London and Rose Villa, Great Driffield, died 1847. He was a member of the family which ran Wansford Carpet Mill, which employed 400 workers in the 1790s. To the east is an inscription to the Reverend Richard Allen, for 34 years incumbent of Driffields Ambo, died 1833 aged 74. This long serving incumbent is best remembered as a diarist. Three volumes of his diaries are known to survive for 1828, 1830 and 1832. The diaries, although consisting of only short daily entries, provide many insights into the religious and social life of Great and Little Driffield. Allen lived in his own house at Little Driffield and was related to the Holtby family, to whom there are many memorials inside and outside the church.

On the south side the most prominent memorial is that to Lora Burton Dawnay, Viscountess Downe, who died at midnight 24-25th April 1812. Although it contains a quite lengthy eulogy, the reader is encouraged to seek more on her character in The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1812! The Downes were the lords of the manor of Great and Little Driffield. Viscountess Downe was buried at Snaith, near the family seat of Cowick Hall. [This house can be seen just north of the M62, a few miles past Goole].