In a field opposite the Crooked Billet pub near the village of Saxton, in North Yorkshire, stands the tiny chapel of St Mary’s, Lead. Cross the field over Cock Beck, which was said to run red with blood after the nearby Battle of Towton in 1461, and you are stepping through a vanished hamlet to where the medieval Lead Hall once stood. Lumps in the ground betray the presence of absent structures, pathways, ponds and field patterns, where people once lived and worked. Now, the only inhabitants are sheep.
Long ago, this area was part of the ancient British Kingdom of Elmet, conquered by Northumbria in the 7th century. Four hundred years later, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the local landowner was Gunnarr – suggesting Danish roots. Lead is well within the old area of the Danelaw, though the place-name itself might be Old English (Anglo-Saxon), from laed (‘water channel’) – probably not, as some sources suggest, hleo-wudu (‘wood with shelter’). By the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086, Lead was owned by Ilbert de Lacy, who is said to have fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings and to have taken part in the Norman King’s almost genocidal Harrying of the North in 1069. By the 13th century, the Manor of Lead was in the hands of the Tyas family, vassals of the de Lacys. It then passed to the Scargills (or Skargills), Vavasours (of nearby Hazlewood Castle) and then the Gascoignes.
We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to the manor house, the hamlet, or the people of Lead – whether the lands were enclosed for pasture, the hall became surplus to requirements, or what – there are any number of speculative possibilities. There’s a farmhouse near the site today; perhaps the manor house was simply too expensive to maintain and a more modest building was sufficient. The last recorded resident of the manor was Sir Robert Scargill, who died in 1531; but the remains of Lead Hall were shown on maps as recently as the 1950s.
St Mary’s, Lead Chapel, was the private chapel for Lead Hall, never a parish church. At one time twice its current size, it must have been a relatively impressive building – in all likelihood the only fully stone construction on the estate. It was built around 1150, possibly on the site of an earlier church or chapel, with later additions in the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1596, it was noted that “the Chappell of leade is in utter Ruyne and decaye,” though it seems to have had varied fortunes since. It was repaired in 1784 and, much later, found in a poor state by a group of walkers, restored by them in 1932. It has subsequently often been referred to as ‘the Ramblers’ church’ – one of several bearing that title in Britain. Christopher Winn in his book, I Never knew That About Yorkshire, also calls it Yorkshire’s smallest church – a claim that might be disputed by St James’s, Fordon and St Andrew’s, Upleatham.
Inside, Lead Chapel exudes what feels like an illusory simplicity. There is no electricity and, once you’ve shut the old timber door behind you, you could be miles from anywhere. There’s that distinctive old stone and wood smell – what someone once described to me as “the fusty smell of antiquity” (though I guess that could apply equally well to an elderly aunt). The plain font is medieval, the benches late medieval, the rare 3-tiered pulpit 18th century. On the wall are old biblical texts. In the truncated nave, in front of the altar (itself made of an erstwhile tombstone), are 5 massive grave slabs. Three of these bear the coat of arms of the Tyas family, who built the chapel. Under them lie the 13th century remains of Sir Baldwin (nobilis miles Baldwinius Teutonicus), his son Franco and his wife Margery. A fourth might be the 15th century grave of Lady Johanna Skargill and the fifth possibly a priest, identity unknown. Some sources say all the graves are of the Tyas family – I’m not sure if that’s true. The name, incidentally, is an interesting one: you will have noticed the Latin ‘Baldwin Teutonic’ (or ‘Baldwin the German’). Apparently, Tyas is by some convoluted route an Anglicised version of the old French Tieis which allegedly means ‘German’. In any event, stay awhile with the old owners and soak up the atmosphere of this curious historic building, the only remnant of an extinct estate; but don’t leave without looking at the inscriptions on the back of the door.
A word should be said about the Battle of Towton. Despite what you may read elsewhere, nothing I have seen suggests that St Mary’s Lead had any direct association with or part to play in the battle, though it is possible that some of the soldiers may have sought solace in it, before or after the fighting. There is a local legend that the adjacent Crooked Billet pub stands on the site of an earlier hostelry used as an HQ by the Yorkist faction and, possibly, as a resting place by the wounded Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘the Kingmaker’) during the battle.
Lead Chapel has played a small part in a more recent drama, however. It was one of the locations used in a TV drama, Dark Angel about Victorian serial poisoner Mary Ann Cotton, starring Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates in Downton Abbey), first screened in 2016. By the time she was hanged at Durham jail on 24th March 1873, it’s thought that Mary Ann Cotton had murdered her mother, three husbands, a lover, eight of her children, seven stepchildren and a friend. And you thought you were just getting a bit about a medieval chapel…
Lead Chapel, the Ramblers’ church, is now in the care of the excellent Churches Conservation Trust.