History of St Peter’s Woolley
The date of the foundation of the church is not known. There may have been a church in Anglo-Saxon times, possibly of wood. The name Woolley is of Anglo-Saxon origin meaning forest glade or clearing frequented by wolves. In the Domesday survey the township was called Wiluelai (1086) and was held by Turchil a Saxon and valued at twelve carucates for geld. There was land for eight ploughs, one villein, one sokeman, and one bordar with two ploughs and one acre of meadow. It was then worth three pounds.
The Norman Church
A small stone church consisting of a short chancel and aisleless nave was in existence in 1158, as a chapel of ease within the parish of Royston. The Parish Church of Royston was at that time given to Monk Bretton Priory on the foundation of the Priory by Adam Fitzswain, a rich Anglo-Danish landowner, shortly before his death. During successive centuries the Priory had the rigid to appoint the chaplains of Woolley Church, until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. There are visible today two pieces of stone carving from the Norman Church - the tympanum or canopy, and one of the shafts of the south doorway. The panel of the tympanum has a sculptured Agnus Dei clasping the flag, and a beautiful floral patterned border. This can now be seen over the entrance doorway of the 15th century rood-loft stair in the south aisle of the nave. The circular Romanesque shaft, 4 feet 6 inches high, has been fixed at the upper corner of the same staircase. There was also a large plain circular font of the same period which was unfortunately removed at the restoration of the church in 1871.
13th Century Extension
The chancel was enlarged, the east wall set back and the side walls also set back in line with the nave walls and the chancel arch widened. This would give more space for the ritual of the period. A little later a narrow north aisle was added to both nave and chancel. The only survival of the period is the pillar behind the pulpit with its semi-octagonal respond and capital carved with studs.
14th Century Chapel
Sir William de Notton in 1350 conveyed land to Monk Bretton Priory “to build a chantry chapel at Wulveley Church, and find a chaplain to celebrate Divine Service for the good estate of the King (Edward III) and Queen Phillippa and their children, and the grantors and their children, and for their souls when they are dead”. Sir William was a Judge of the King’s Bench, ultimately Chief Justice of Ireland and was the owner of an estate which formed the nucleus of the subsequent Woolley Hall estate. 1350 was also the year immediately following the severest outbreak of the Black Death. The new chapel was erected on the north side of the chancel superseding the narrow aisle of the 13th century. The square head of a beautiful three light window from this chapel was built into the north wall of the chapel which replaced it in the 15th century. The piscina on the south side of the chapel altar also belongs to the chapel of 1350. The altar and the chapel were dedicated to St. Michael.
It is worth noting that in 1293 Thomas Tyrel of Chevet gave his son William a parcel of land in Wolvelay on payment of 6d yearly to the Light of the Blessed Mary of Wolvelay.
Again, in 1349, Sir William de Notton paid the parson of Blessed Mary of Wulveley one shilling at Easter, and executed a deed which mentions the chaplain’s house. It is not known when the dedication of the church was changed to St. Peter.
The Rebuilding of the Church 1470 - 1520
An almost complete rebuilding of the church was started in the late 15th century, a period of great enthusiasm for church building in many places, paid for largely by parishioners themselves. In Woolley these were principally several families of local gentry; the Staintons, Popeleys, Wheatleys, and the Woodruffes especially. The Woodruffe family bought land in Woolley and Notton in the 14th and 15th centuries, including the estate and house formerly belonging to Sir William de Notton. “The Woodruffes continued to make purchases at Woolley, till in 1517 they had got possession of five out of ten fees, Woolley had then been for a considerable time their chief house. They had a park and private chapel, beautifully ornamented in the chapel or church of Woolley”: J. Hunter, The History of the Deanery of Doncaster (1831).
The present tower seems to have been the first part of the new church. Next came the widening of the nave and north aisle and the north chapel which by that time belonged to the Woodruffes. The enlargement of the chancel was undertaken at the expense of the Prior of Monk Bretton as Rector of the parish. A new three light east window was erected at that time, and contained the figure of Thomas Tickhill, who was Prior 1504 - 1523.
The south chancel aisle was widened, and windows and bench ends contained the arms of the Wheatley and Popeley families. The east windows of the south chancel had the arms of the Stainton family. These details were noted by the historian Dodsworth who visited Woolley Church on the 2nd July, 1627. Very fortunately, most of this valuable 15th century glass remains, although some of it is now in different positions, and some of the inscriptions are not easily read. The Trinity window, in the Lady Chapel, is a very rare depiction of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Look for John Woodruffe, Lord of the manor of Woolley, and his wife Elizabeth Hammerton and their arms, in one of the north windows of what used to be his chapel. John Woodruffe was constable of Sandal Castle and Receiver of Royal rents over a very wide area under Edward IV and Richard III, and accordingly a man of great importance to the locality. Note also the arms of the families related by marriage to the Woodruffes, and the Wentworths, who succeeded at Woolley, on the ceiling bosses of the chapel roof. The unique shape of the shields help us to date the chapel to between 1510 - 1530.
The arcade of columns and pointed arches on the north side of the church is noticeably lower than that on the south side. These very low and uneven arches on the north side of the chancel suggest that they belong to a period of building earlier than the 15th century. Some good woodwork was placed in the church at the time of this rebuilding, notably the Richard Wheatley bench ends now supporting the front pews of the nave. The bench ends at the rear of the nave and the parclose screen in the south aisle have been described as 15th century, and are also notable. A medieval rood (large cross) with its screen and loft, all of timber, separating the nave from the chancel, must have existed prior to the general removal of these features after the Reformation. The doorway and stairs to this screen and the loft, can be seen in the south wall of the nave. The south porch also dates from this rebuilding and contains the original timber roof.
Look for the masons’ marks throughout the church. There are at least five different and distinct marks still to be seen on very many of the stones.
The Wentworth Chapel
Francis Woodruffe sold his Woolley lands and house to Michael Wentworth in 1599. Through the centuries the Wentworth family were generous benefactors and patrons of the church until 1949 when the Manor and Woolley Hall were sold. In 1930 the chapel was restored by Guy and Eleanor Wentworth to what we see today. The heavy marble top of the tomb of Ann Wentworth (died 1624), wife of Sir George Wentworth and daughter of Lord Fairfax of Denton, became the new altar table. The cross and candle sticks in florentine style were given at this time. Note the fine memorial to Sir George Wentworth over the north door, and the funeral hatchment of Godfrey Wentworth, died 1865.
The Re-ordering of the Church in 1871
This gave us the re-ordered interior that we see today. The chancel level was raised and new choir stalls and pulpit fitted, and a new five light east window. The box pews of the 18th century were replaced by new pine wood pews, the west gallery removed, and the organ placed in its present position, and a new font erected. A new collar braced roof was built for both nave and chancel. Seven new stained glass windows were donated, one of which, in the west wall of the nave by William Morris, is particularly beautiful.
The medieval glass was very carefully restored and reworked by Clayton and Bell. The architect was John Loughborough Pearson, famous as the designer of the Truro Cathedral, and the building work was by Simpson and Malone of Hull and cost £2,300.
The Ellis Bequest
The framed parchment, which tells of the generosity of Thomas Ellis who died in 1704, can be seen on the west wall of the nave. This memorial, which was hung in the middle aisle of the church for very many years, has recently been copied and re-framed.
There is a peal of five bells in the key of B flat major. The two heaviest bells were hung in the tower when it was erected. The tenor bell of 7 cwt is inscribed; I.H.S., with a lion, a rose of five points, St. M. and fleur-de-lis, (emblem of the Virgin). The oldest bell is inscribed; given by Sir Richard Woodruffe, (1477 -1522). These bells were re-hung in 1743 by James Harrison of Barrow, Lincolnshire, in a wooden frame, together with a third bell dated 1612. A fourth bell was added in 1871, donated by the Farmers of Woolley. The bells were re-hung and augmented with a fifth bell, the treble, in 1984.
This is a beautiful crafted instrument and clock face, thought by experts to date from I743 and probably made by John Harrison whose brother made and fitted the bell frame in that year. Originally the clock face was fixed high above the bell louvres on the parapet of the east side of the tower. It was moved to its present position on the north side in 1871, “so that villagers could tell the time”.
The Church Yard
There are many finely carved grave slabs in the shadow of the church on the south side. Four of the raised grave stones are Grade II listed; they are to Susanna and Anne Fretwell, 1707 and 1714, and George Wildsmith and George Stringer, 1723 and 1724. Also Grade II listed are the pair of shrine-like tomb chests - of uncertain date but possibly Norman. J. W. Walker mentions that Dr Johnston (late 17th century) observed them, and was told that “they were the tombs of the builders of the church”. Also listed is the circular cross base, probably medieval, in which is sunk a short section of the square cross shaft. There is a complete set of registers which date from 1651.
The reredos behind the altar replaced one from the 19th century in 1966. It was made by Thompson of Kilburn, North Yorkshire.
The church was paved in York stone, and the roof laid with Hardrow tiles in 1968.
The old organ, which had served from 1825, was replaced by a modern instrument in 1986. This came from a redundant church in Penistone and is a beautiful example of a Norman & Beard instrument from 1915, with a pleasing case.
The tower screen was fitted in 1989, and a new ringing chamber built, with money from a legacy in memory of Elsie Hallsworth.
A year 2000 Millennium project was the installation of a contemporary style gable-cross over the front of the porch. designed by Charles Gurrey. The cross is inverted, as St. Peter, our Patron Saint, was crucified upside down. In front of the cross the ‘key’ symbol of St. Peter is also shown. The niche below the gable-cross has a relief sculpture, also by Charles Gurrey, depicting three fishes. The fish, as well as being a further symbol of St. Peter – the fisher of men – was used from the earliest Christian times to denote places of Christian assembly, the Greek word for fish (ichthus) being an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” (Iesous Christos Theou Uios Soter). Three fishes also represent the Trinity.
Church Notes 1627, Dodsworth (YAS Vol. 34) History of the Deanery of Doncaster 1831, Joseph Hunter. The Manor and Church of Woolley 1923, J. W. Walker (Yorks Archaeological Journal)