The History of Snaith Priory

In May 1100, Selby Abbey was given the right to found a cell or Priory at Snaith for two monks. It is possible they lived in a small dwelling in Priory Garth, towards the present railway line. Nothing remains of the earlier church and the one we visit today is basically the work of the Benedictine monksof Selby Abbey.

The Parish of Snaith was very large, stretching about twenty miles and including twenty-five townships. To assist the two resident monks a secular priest was appointed, and these were joined by at least two additional priests after the foundation of the charities. Snaith was at its busiest and most important during the Middle Ages and was a resting place on the pilgrim routes from Canterbury to Durham and York. The peculiar and consistory court was active under the Abbots of Selby, who took the profits from the court, such as tithes and fines.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Selby Abbey handed over control to the lay authorities and with it the powers of the Consistory Court. Much was lost at Snaith, including valuable vestments etc. In 1547 the chantry chapels were suppressed and destroyed.

The 17th Century saw a period of renovation. New bells, silver chalices and church plates were presented to Snaith Priory. In 1856 the rood screen was taken down and the chancel, which had been the “monastic area” of the church, fell into disrepair. During the 18th Century chapels were built in the villages that made up the Parish because of the ever-growing population. By the mid 19th Century the old parish had divided into a number of smaller parishes.




When entering the Priory by the little South door, directly opposite is large wooden screen on which there is a plan of the Priory. This plan is colour coded to show the age of different sections of the Priory. The oldest sections date back to before 1150.

The East wall in this area has a small window containing fragments of medieval glass: all that is left of the early stained glass windows.



The area to the immediate right of the door is the Downay Chapel. The large Carrara marble statue of the 5th Viscount Downe of Cowick was carved in 1837 and dominates this area. There are also two tombs in the area. The one at ground level is dated 1486, and the raised tomb of Sir John Downay is dated 1493.

Hanging on the East wall are fragments of 17th Century armour and a mantrap, all taken from inside the tomb of Sir John, which is below the floor. Along the South wall is a churchwardens’ chest dated 1825. It was once a storage place for registers, but is now empty.



To the left of the door is the Guild Chapel of the Holy Trinity. In the Middle Ages it was the site of a shrine to Saint Etheldreda. Fragments of stone on the windowsill, part of the wall and a broken statue of a woman, are all that remain.

Etheldreda was a duchess. She lived a humble life, eating one meal a day and wearing only woollen garments, rejecting the luxurious life she was born into.

Etheldreda died in 679 with a large tumour on her neck. She attributed this to divine punishment for vanity in her youth when she wasfond of wearing necklaces. When she was exhumed sixteen years later her tumour had healed. For that reason she is the patron saint of those suffering throat and neck ailments.


There is a staircase in the chancel arch pillar. This staircase used to lead to the rood loft above the rood screen, a raised wooden platform with a carving of Jesus on the cross on top. The priest would preach important news from there in the days before the centre of the church contained pews. In those days people had to stand so the priest had to be much higher in order to be seen. It is rumoured that due to the diminutive size of the new Rector this problem is back again, and so this high perch may yet see active service again!

The rood screen once divided the nave and the chancel. Around the side of the same pillar there is a small niche. Over it are the letters STA SITHA, standing for "Sancta Sitha". It is so old that no-one is sure for whom it was made. Some say Saint Sitha, others say it was for Saint Osith.

Sitha was a serving maid who lived around 1218-72 and devoted her life to helping the poor and sick. During her lifetime, miracles were attributed to her, such as angels baking bread while she prayed. After her death a popular cult developed around her. Osith, who is often wrongly confused with Sitha, was an obscure Anglo-Saxon princess. She died around 700 when she refused to commit idolatry and was beheaded by pirates. She is said to have carried her severed head 3 miles to a nearby church, where she was buried.

The South aisle was once full of pews, installed by the Victorians. These pews were recently removed and the area paved.

Most of the stained glass windows in the Priory were re-glazed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The frames are 14th Century stonework. Wealthy Victorians donated the windows in memory of their relatives. They depict Bible stories because many people could not read.

Near the end of the aisle on the South side is a large wooden chest. This is a churchwardens’ chest from about 1350 and used to hold important papers and money.

It has three different locks; the vicar and two churchwardens had one key each. It could only be opened when all three people used their keys.


The main doors, although usually now locked, used to be kept open. There are seats along both sides of the entrance hall for travellers to rest. There was once a room above the porch called a 'parvise' where all the church records and documents were kept. However, when the Priory underwent extensive restoration in 1856 it was removed because it was felt that it spoiled the line of the church. The other notable change was the new high pitched roof.


At the end of the nave there is a stone font dated 1721. The lid was given in memory of the Reverend B. A. Ramsker, who was tragically killed while vicar of this parish. The lid was made by Thomas of Kilburn. Carved upon the underside of it is his usual small mouse motif.

At the back of the church there is a large wooden screen dating from the 15th century. This screen contains many different panels and most are carved. Beyond the wooden screen is what used to be the consistory court. The church held a judicial court here to sort out disputes on issues such as land ownership, estates and wills. The court had jurisdiction up until 1857 but was not a criminal court. Apparently, the new Rector intends to re-introduce the court and bring back floggings for misdemeanours!

Directly above the main section of the consistory court is the 13th century bell tower. The bell tower has had substantial renovation work carried out and recently some of the older stonework was replaced to ensure the tower remains stable. The door to the bell tower is kept locked for safety reasons, but the staircase leads up to the bell ringing chamber and the church clock. In 1552 four bells were bought for the bell tower, and one for the clock tower. There are now eight bells, which are rung on Sundays, for weddings, and for other special occasions.

The clock frame is blacksmith made and dates back to before 1552, but the precise date is unknown. The clock usually keeps good time (although Ken Hird has to gently persuade it at times!). The proctor of Carlton repaired it in 1623, at a cost of 30 shillings (£1.50). In 1970 the winding mechanism was electrified. Before that the clock was driven by two big weights, one for the going side and one for the striking side. Each week these weights had to be wound back up the 75 foot tower.

There is a charity board on the south wall dating from 1890. It gives details of several local charities. On the North wall (through the white door, into the crèche) is a wall painting which is quite faded. The whole church once had many of these before renovation removed the plaster.

At the very bottom of the nave on the north aisle is an old font, which is probably Saxon.

The two pillars at the west end of the church are different from the rest along the nave. These two pillars are from the same period as the bell tower. The rest of the pillars are 15th Century, as is most of the nave, the clerestory and the chancel arch.



The area past the electric organ in the north aisle is the Chantry of St James. It is also called the Boynton Chapel because it contains several memorials to that family.

The chancel used to contain choir stalls on both sides which were recently removed and the area completely paved in York Stone.

Beyond and to the left of the old 1921 organ is the Stapleton Chapel. The Stapletons of Carlton built the chapel in the 15th Century and many members of the family are buried below. The Stapleton Chapel is also called the Lady Chapel. It is used for services when the congregation is likely to be very small. Behind the altar is a beautiful alabaster monument to Lady Stapleton, which was erected in 1683.

The Communion rail was made by Thomas of Kilburn. There is a small mouse, Thomas’ trademark, carved on the left hand side.



At the other side of the rail on the floor is a large black marble slab. This probably once carried the brass effigy of the last Abbot of Selby.


The text and photos in this section were originally shown in the booklet "Welcome to Snaith Priory" prepared by Helen Miley. I was told by Rev Canon Cyril Roberts that the work was done as part of Helen's GCSE studies. Helen, however, remembers it slightly differently: "It was slave labour!". In any case, it is a fantastic resource, and due thanks are made.