A Lune valley church rebuilt after Robert the Bruce’s raid of 1322.
The remains of an Anglo-Saxon cross suggest that there has been a church at Melling since the C10. Furthermore, in his book of 1823, the “History of Richmondshire”, Dr Whittaker, describes “a rich Norman arch at the northern entrance” of the church. Immediately behind the east end of the church, in the garden of the former vicarage, is a motte and bailey earthwork. So clearly the site is of some antiquity. However, the church has suffered at the hands of both the ill-disposed (the raiding Scots), and the well-intentioned (zealous clerics). The long, low, typical North Country church that we see today, dates from the C13 to C19.
The nave has north and south aisles with no chancel arch. The arcades show evidence of re-use, presumably after the turmoil that must have followed the destruction of 1322, and date from the C13 and C14. They have octagonal columns and very basic capitals. The west window of the south aisle is from about 1300. It is a single light with trefoil. The arch over the south door may date from this time also. In the mid-C18 a clerestory and slate roof was added. Before that time the roof was apparently thatched. The old roof line can be seen on the tower at the west end of the nave. The present paired clerestory windows date from the C19.
John Morley created Morley Chapel, also called the Chapel of St Catherine. He turned an existing chapel to a chantry. John Morley had fought as a knight at Agincourt in 1415. A squint in the chapel was built to allow the chantry priest to see the main altar and synchronise his offices with those of the church’s priest. Chantry chapels and priests were endowed by the benefactor to intercede on behalf of their souls, and were widespread until their suppression in 1547. In 1841 the Morley Chapel was heavily re-modelled when windows were replaced, the altar was removed, and an external parapet added. In 1994-1995 it was restored as a chapel.
Much of the remodelling of the church, including the removal of ancient windows, gallery and screen, was carried out by William Grenside, vicar of Melling for 57 years. His term of office is commemorated in the church.
Overlooking the main road is the west tower – 55 feet tall, embattled with three-light pointed bell openings. The mouldings of the tower west window and door, and the stepped angle buttresses, all point to the Perpendicular style. In the belfry are six bells which, in 1754, were recast from the original three C15 bells by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester.
The church has some good stained glass including a fragment of medieval glass in the west window of the south aisle. The east window is by Holiday. It does not, in the writer’s view, compare with the Powell glass which has fine figures and subtle colouring.
Unusually, the church has not always been called St Wilfrid’s. In the C16 it is recorded with this dedication, but in the C18 it was called St Peter’s. Canon Grenside was responsible for the re-dedication to the original saint in 1895.
An unusual memorial at the west end of the south aisle is to Clementine Rumph. Described as the “German Florence Nightingale” of the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-1871, she became a resident of Melling in 1887, and wrote for the Lancaster Guardian until her death in 1898.