St Helen with St Martin, York

Brief history St Helen

Brief history of St Helen Stonegate


In Roman times the site of St Helen was within the Roman military fort. The Via Praetoria ran along the current Stonegate towards the River Ouse where there was a bridge leading to the Civilian town. Brass studs in the pavement outside the Ivy restaurant mark the edge of the fort. It is highly probable that there are Roman remains beneath the Church building.

There is no evidence that there was a church on the site prior to the Norman conquest in 1066. However, there are strong indications that there was a Church prior to this date as the Church’s alignment corresponds to the presumed alignment of the Anglo-Saxon Minster. The earliest written record of the Church is 1235 when it became a benefice of the priory of Moxby (near Stillington, North Yorkshire). The font situated in the south west corner has been positively identified as 12th century but whether it at St Helen since then is unknown.

During the medieval period the church was the guild church of the glaziers and stainers who had workshops in Stonegate. There were three chapels dedicated to the Virgin, to St John the Baptist and to St Michael. The west window contains, in the main, 14th century glass. There are other examples of medieval stained glass including the glaziers’ emblem in the south west window.The Bluecoat scholar in the north west window is of special note.

 In 1548 at the Reformation it was proposed to unite St Helen with an adjacent parish. In 1551/2 the church was sold and partly demolished. However, in 1553/4 an Act was granted to reinstate the church because it stood in a “principal place” and its suppression had “defaced and deformed” the city. The present north aisle is believed to have been rebuilt shortly afterwards. In 1558 money was left towards rebuilding the steeple. St Helen’s is therefore a rare example of a parish church being reinstated after the Reformation.

The church's graveyard was to the south. In 1732 it was sold to the City and was paved over to form what is now known as St Helen’s Square. The human remains were disinterred and buried in a communal ossuary in Davygate (the raised area next to Café Nero).

In 1805 and 1814 the west front was restored and rebuilt. The steeple was replaced by a lantern tower. This followed the main lines of the pre-existing structure and included the pierced and crenelated parapets over the aisle end walls. In 1857/8 extensive work was carried out under the direction of the architect WH Dykes including reconstruction of the lantern tower. Both the north and south aisles were rebuilt retaining earlier styles. The chancel was extended to the east. In 1875/6 further work was carried out at the west end with enhancements to the bellcote.

In 1910 the Parish of St Helen Stonegate was united with that of St Martin Coney Street. There was a further reorganisation in 1954 when St Helen’s became the parish church following the partial destruction of St Martin’s by bombing in 1942.

During the 20th century the choir stalls and pulpit were removed and a new communion rail designed by Geporge Pace was placed below the chancel step. Other work by Pace done at this time include the aisle light fittings and the organ casing which houses the excellent organ built by JW Walker& Sons Ltd in 1959. The organ is used in our worship and for recitals.  

The two 17th century bells were rehung for automated ringing by Whitechapel foundry in 2017.

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