St Michael’s through the ages
Witton Gilbert, named after an early Lord of the Manor, Gilbert de la Ley, was in the twelfth century a small village of workers who laboured in the woods by which it was surrounded. The church here was built shortly after 1170 as a chapel of ease within the large parish of St. Oswald’s in Durham. A charter of the Bishop of Durham, Hugh de Puiset, written about 1189 refers to the chapel at Witton and its sister chapel at Croxdale as having been built by the Bishop ‘to answer the need arising from the remoteness of the place’, and adds that at Witton ‘we have dedicated a cemetery’. The villagers would be spared the journey into Durham to attend the obligatory three masses per year at the great festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, and the expense of transporting their dead to Durham for burial.
The original stone chapel would have been barn-like with a steeply pitched roof of stone tiles, probably quarried from Baxter Wood at Bearpark. Of this original building, part of the chancel and the South wall with its two small, deeply splayed, round-headed windows and partially blocked South door, still remain.
The chancel arch seems to have been removed sometime in the Middle Ages, probably because of the instability of such a wide round-headed arch. The East window is of the fourteenth century and replaced an older and smaller one. There remains of the medieval stained glass, two small roundels in the top of the window, one of which seems to be a king’s head, perhaps from a Nativity scene.
Other windows were also made to allow more light into the dark chapel. At this date the interior would have no pews, and the floor would be of beaten earth, beneath which graves would be dug for the more important village people.
A wooden screen, probably carved locally, divided the nave from the chancel. This screen or its successor ‘of very rude and homely description’ was replaced by the current screen in 1886. The font, which has always stood near the door as a symbol that baptism marks the entry into the Christian life, has the original Frosterly marble circular shaft and base, but the bowl has been replaced by an irregular octagonal one sometime in the fifteenth century. Bowls often cracked, as water left in them from one Easter to the next was liable to freeze solid in winter. the pulpit was made in the seventeenth century, and may originally have had a matching sounding board. There is a wooden bracket on one of its sides which would have held a large hourglass used to mark the length of the sermons.
We can tell how the interior of the church would have looked in the eighteenth century from the details of payments for repairs, surviving in the Churchwarden’s Accounts. The floor was now paved with stone flags, and in the nave and chancel were pews where the farmers and craftsmen would sit with their households. They were furnished with ‘book boards’ and ‘kneeling boards/ and the front pews had mats on the floor. On the whitewashed walls hung wooden boards inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. At the West end of the church, was a gallery to provide seating for the increasing population. There also the small village band would play to lead the congregation in the singing of hymns and metrical psalms. The clerk had a desk near the pulpit where he would stand to read the services and lead the responses.
Over the years, the church roof needed expensive repairs. In 1484, the Prior of Durham rode out to see for himself what repairs were needed, and offered to help the churchwardens who pleaded lack of funds, provided that there were no further demands made on his generosity. In 1625, the Prior’s successor, the Dean of Durham, granted the churchwardens ‘six trees of great timber as also four other timber trees to help towards finishing the ceiling of the parish church.’ In 1860 the church was re-roofed as part of a general restoration.
There was a small bell turret similar to the existing one at the West end of the church, housing two bells, one of which was dated 1693. Both were recast in 1948.
The church registers, now kept in the County Record Office, date back to 1570, and are some of the earliest in the County. In them are recorded the births, marriages and burials of the people of the parish, together with a few interesting notes which the vicars have wanted to preserve, like the one about the great storm of 1614 which reads: ‘on this day there was a great snow, and it started on Jan. 5th., and it lasted with storms every day more or less until March 12th. , and many men and animals were buried in the snow.’
The church looks as it does today because of the extensive restoration and enlargement which was carried out in 1859-60. The North wall was removed, and the North aisle and vestry were constructed, the old North door being reused at the West end, where the old gallery was taken down and a porch was made. The church was fitted with new pews and altar rails. Six years later the present chancel screen was put in. Structural repairs to the East window were carried out in 1934 and new stained glass put in. Oak panelling was installed in the chancel together with a matching altar table and choir stalls.
For over 800 years this building has borne witness to the faith of Witton Gilbert people. Here they have worshipped God, and lived their lives. May we who follow them be equally faithful, and care for the building they have handed on to us.
Katherine Beer 2008