According to the Doomsday Book of 1086 the lands surrounding what was then the very tiny settlement of Arksey and Bentley were held by Roger de Busli, an officer in the invading Norman army of William the Conqueror. The land was low lying and so was a very marshy corner of Doncaster. In about 1120 the highest area in Arksey was chosen to be the site of a church (although there was probably an earlier Saxon church on the same site) of substantial size and importance, to demonstrate Roger de Busli’s ownership of the land and his family prestige. The church was built of stone and in the shape of a cross by Norman masons, men who had brought with them the distinctive architectural style that in Europe is called ‘Romanesque’. At the centre of the cross shaped building, de Busli had built, a single storey tower. This tower has only small, narrow, round-headed windows. Something like 80% of this original church survives within the building we see today.
Adam de Newmarch, Lord of Arksey, (the grandson of Roger de Busli) began extending the building in 1180. The extensions consisted of a second storey to the tower, with aisles both north and south of the Nave. This work took until 1220 to complete. The north aisle was added first, with most of the nave wall being replaced by three round columns, each column having octagonal capitals and double chamfered arches between. A large round-headed archway was built in the west wall of the north transept for access to the north aisle. The remains of a Norman window are still visible in this wall, it is narrow, little more than a slit, and has a round-headed arch of Norman architecture. The south aisle was not as large an extension as the north aisle at this time, and was built as a narrow aisle, possible to creat a chantry chapel. The pillars of the south aisle are octagonal in section and differ greatly from those of the north aisle. When one looks at the top of the wall of the staircase of the tower, at the est end of the south aisle, deep grooves can be seen into which had been inserted the roof of the narrow aisle. After the second storey addition the weight of the tower was now doubled and so a fine set of four arches were constructed in order to transmit the weight of this addition through to the load bearing foundations, the arches, built in the style of ‘Early English’ are perhaps the finest architectural feature of the entire church.
The north east chapel, now housing the church organ, was built around 1300 as indicated by the style of its east window. The south east chapel, which somewhat oddly projects a few feet east of the chancel, was built later in about 1400. Its present windows were constructed at that time. The chancel’s north and south walls were opened out in the same century, with the fine arches we see today. Fragments of the original window openings may still be seen.
During the middle of the 15th century, the south aisle was widened to be as we see it today, and the porch was built. This completed the extensions to the church at ground level, but a spire was added onto the tower at a later date.
Inside the church there are many fine Jacobean furishings. The font cover is dated 1662 and incorporates the initials of the craftsman who made it. The cover is suspended by means of a steel cable, with pulleys, to a counter balance weight (50kg). The pulpit is dated 1634 and carries the initials ‘G.B.’ A roughly made book rest runs around the pulpit and the vanes on the sounding board on the pulpit resemble those on the font cover. The centre pews are also from this same period and are thought to have been produced by local craftsmen. The pew ends are inconsistent; those on the south side crafted in the 17th century are of a ‘boiled egg’ spherical pattern whereas, the pews on the north side are to a slightly simpler conical or ‘acorn’ design. In the course of Sir Gilbert Scott’s restoration in 1870, a further variant in pew end design emerges in the side aisles, when the joiners employed, reused as much of the good 17th century wood as possible, using their own initiative to provide a design of their own.
The ancient timber chest at the north door probably dates from the 14th century. This is a fine example of a ‘three lock’ chest. There is also a Jacobean chest outside the vestry. The High Altar incorporates an altar stone from before the reformation. Nearby are simple ‘sedilia’ (seats for the priests) and piscina (a bowl in the wall for washing the chalice after Mass), these are from the 13th century.
The east windows were installed in 1914. The middle one has several very unusual features – the ‘pelican in her piety’ has heraldic crests over the crown; the serpent of evil transfixed into the ground with tent pegs; the sunflower as a symbol of the resurrection.
The pipe organ was built by Mr Abbot of Leeds in 1878 at a cost of around £550. It underwent a renovation in the mid 20th century and is considered one of the finest parish church organs of its size in Yorkshire. The organ was again renovated and overhauled in 1999 at a cost of £15000.
The timber screen in the south east chapel (vestry) was probably constructed from all that Gilbert Scott found remaining of the mediaeval screens across the eastern crossing arch and the two arches to the north and south transepts. The tower contains eight bells, five dating from the 17th century, one being added in 1897 and the remaining two in 1919 as a memorial to those men who had laid down their lives in the Great War.
There is a mediaeval grave cover built into the gable of the east wall of the south chapel. This cover stone may only be seen from outside the church. It is known as a bracelet type with a straight-armed cross superimposed. It would have marked the grave of a knight and without doubt would have originally been inside the church. It dates from the early 13th century and may have adorned the resting place of the Newmarches.
The heraldic glass in, or hung against some of the windows is mediaeval. It shows the arms of noble families. A number of these families are known to have had connections with Arksey church at various times (unhappily, much of the mediaeval glass has been lost to us due to carelessness or ignorance of workmen who carried out restoration work in the 1850’s). Ralph de Nova Mercato, a Norman knight and contemporary of Roger de Busli of Tickhill Castle fame, built his manor house in Bentley in the early part of the 13th century. He assumed the title of Baron Newmarch and held the lands until 1276. When Newmarch fell from grace, Eva Charworth, wife of Robert Tibetot, acquired his possessions. The Tibetot’s two granddaughters married the brothers Roger and Stephen Scrope who held the manor of Bentley, and whose arms, impaled with those of the Tibetot’s may be seen in the nave. After the death of Stephen his widow married Sir John Falstolf, K.G. of Castle Coombe. This English gentleman is reputed to be the inspiration of William Shakespeare’s Falstaf. His step-son Richard Scrope succeeded him. He too left a widow, who married Sir John Windham of Felbridgge in Norfolk. The Windham family held the lands until 1594, at which point the manor had a succession of owners right through until February 20th 1636, when they passed to Bryan Cooke Esq, and so began a long association between this famous family and the village of Arksey. Many marks of their patronage may still be seen both in the village and in the church.
In the north transept their is a Cooke memorial that bears the inscription:
“In this tomb rests the body of George Cooke of Wheatley, County of York, Baronet. Who died a bachelor the 16th October 1683 and here awaits for resurrection and mercy…….”
Opposite the church, Bryan Cooke built a cluster of almshouses in 1660 for accommodating a select few of the poor and needy villagers, he pledged to pay for their upkeep ‘ad infinitum’. George Cooke constructed the ancient Grammar School which stands next to the almshouses in 1680, later to become a local authority youth centre and latterly, a Cost-cutter supermarket.
The fine structure at Arksey is Grade 1 listed and is widely described as ‘exceptional’. Prayer and praise has been offered here for over 860 years!
– With thanks to Desmond N Hart.
There is a website dealing specifically with the history of Arksey which you can visit by clicking here.