Lancashire Churches

St. John the Baptist’s Church in Tunstall

A church regularly visited by the Bronte sisters hides a Roman altar.

A church is recorded at Tunstall in the Domesday survey, and Roman settlement is recorded at nearby Burrow where a camp has been excavated. However, the oldest Christian remains at Tunstall is the Anglo-Saxon altar stone (probably C8). This was found in the churchyard and put back to its proper use in the 1950s. During the C13 the church and its lands were granted to Croxton Abbey. This was a Premonstratensian foundation in Lincolnshire, which also had an abbey at Cockersand, Lancashire, situated where the River Lune enters the sea.

The oldest structural work in the present church is C13. This constitutes the capitals of the east and west responds of the north arcade, and probably the west lancets of the aisles. The oak parish chest, still found under the tower, is also thought to date from this time. The bulk of the church is mainly the result of rebuilding during the C15, complemented by further work of the C18 and C19.

The plain west tower dates from the major rebuilding of c.1415. It is embattled with small bell openings. Small panels on each face below the parapet show heraldic devices. A window has been walled-up and a later sundial added. This is inscribed St Michael Tunstall and dated 1637.

The south porch is two-storied with a room above. Such spaces often served as meeting places and schoolrooms. In 1816 the Rev. William Carus Wilson came to the parish, and in 1824 he established the School for Clergy Daughters near to Cowan Bridge. The Bronte sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily entered the school the same year. During their short time there they regularly walked the two miles to Tunstall church for the Sunday services and a meagre meal. In “Jane Eyre” Tunstall is called Brocklebridge Church. The churchgoing is described as a rather bleak affair.

The nave has north and south sides and a chancel separated by a screen dating from 1907. A chapel at one of the aisles is called the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, the name given at its foundation by John of Hornby in 1333. It has a much mutilated stone effigy said to commemorate Sir Thomas de Tunstall (knighted 1426). The C18 font at the west end of the nave is a particularly elegant marble piece on a stone baluster.

A fragment of a Roman votive stone, found at nearby Burrow, was built into an east window of the north side during the 1907 restoration of the church. It has a dedication to Aesculapius (the god of medicine) and Hygeia (the goddess of healing). Why it was put in on its side?

The church has many praises to the Fenwick family, and some particularly interesting and beautiful stained glass. The east window has medieval Flemish glass depicting Mary, Jesus, St Anthony, St Peter and others. It was given by Richard Toulmin North of Thurland Castle in 1810.

A fine piece of C20 glass in the south wall is by Jane Gray (1979). It is an excellent example of a modern treatment of heraldic and decorative subjects.

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Quiet day at Tunstall. A wonderful winter walk.

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