St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham, North Yorkshire

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Ricardian Places

Middleham in North Yorkshire is famous, today mainly as a centre for the training of horses, but also as the site of Middleham Castle, one of Richard  III’s favourite residences, and before that the stronghold of the Neville family.

The Collegiate Church of St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham (© Copyright Bill Henderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

This post, however, deals with the local church, dedicated to St Mary and St Alkelda.  A dedication to St Mary is not unusual, but probably only very few of us have heard of St Alkelda.  There are only two churches dedicated her, this one in Middleham and one in Giggleswick (also in North Yorkshire).

According to legend, Alkelda was a Saxon princess and/or nun, who on 28 March 800 had the misfortune to encounter two Danish women who were part of a Viking raid.   These ladies are said to have twisted a napkin around Alkelda’s neck and strangled her.  During renovations to the church in 1878 a stone coffin containing the remains of a woman was discovered and it is assumed that these are those of Alkelda.  Another theory is that the name is derived from a holy well nearby, the Old English word for holy well was haeligkeld, which then became Alkelda, the saint of a holy well.  Whatever the origin of the name, St Alkelda’s fest day is on 28 March, and Middleham received from Richard II in 1388 the permission to hold a fair on her feast day [1].

The earliest trace of a church at the site is from the 12th century, but only a few stones remain.  We can trace the plan of a church built in approx. 1280.  About 60 years later the church was enlarged by widening the chancel and moving the south wall.  The advowson of the church was with the castle which was the seat of the Neville’s.

In 1470 Edward IV granted a licence to John Cartmell, clerk, to establish a chantry to pray for the souls of the founder, Richard late Earl of Salisbury and Alice his wife (the Parents of Richard Neville Earl of Warwick) at the altar of St. Mary the Virgin [2].  The chantry was founded and endowed a few months later.  It formed the Eastern portion of the South aisle and extending more than half the depth of the choir [3].

After the death of Richard Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, Edward IV granted the Earl’s northern lands, part of which was Middleham castle and with it the church, to Richard Duke of Gloucester [4].  As we have seen before with All Hallows by the Tower in London, the foundation of collegiate churches were projects close to Richard’s heart.  On 21 February 1478 Richard procured royal licences to establish two colleges, one at Middleham and one at Barnard Castle [5].

The college at Middleham was to consist of a dean, 6 chaplains, 4 clerks and 6 choristers.  One of the clerks was charged with offering perpetual masses for the good of Richard’s living family and the souls of all the faithful departed [6].  As the licence was obtained just a few days after the execution of his brother George Duke of Clarence (on 18 February 1478) it has sometimes been suggested that the college was connected to his end.  However, I think Ross is correct in saying that this seems unlikely as there is no specific mention of George among those for whom prayers should be said.  It seems more likely that Richard had planned the establishment of the colleges some time before.

The statutes for the college were drawn up on 4 July 1478 and reflect the personal wishes and preferences of the founder.  An example is the decision of who should be dean, which clearly reflects Richard’s preference for Cambridge over Oxford.  The dean should be chosen from among the six priests.  Should none of them be suitable, he should be one of the priests and fellows for whose education Richard had made provision at Queens College, Cambridge.  And if there was also no suitable candidate among these who was “able in cunning, disposition and policy” then the post was open to any Cambridge graduate [7].  The statutes are in English, rather than the at that time more usual Latin, which indicates Richard’s personal involvement [8].  He was known to favour his mother tongue over Latin, as also displayed by his parliamentary statutes being in English for the first time.  The stalls were to be named after a number of saints:

Also that the said Sir William Beverley, Dean, and his successors, have the principall place and stall of the right side of the high quere of my said Collage which I wil be called Oure Lady stall; and Sir Laurence Squier … the first prest that shalbe admitted thereto occupie the principall place and stall to be called Saint George stall; and Sir William Symson, second prest, in the next stall to the Deane on the said right side, and that stall to be named Seynt Kateryn stall; and… Sir Richard Cutler, therd prest the secund stall on the said left side, that stall to be called Saint Ninian stall; and Sir William Buntyng….the fourt prest, the third stall on the said right side, the same to be called Seint Cuthbert stall; and Sir Hugh Leverhede, the fift prest, the third stall on the said left side, the said stall to be called Seint Antony stall; and Sir John Bell… the sext prest the fourt stall on the said right side, and that to be called Seint Barbara stall; and two of the…clerks on the said right side, and the other two clerks and the clerk sacristane beneth theme on the left side, at the assignacion of the said Dean; and the sex queresters there places accordingly as the said Deane shal assigne theme….

The choice of saints for the stalls is interesting:

St George:  the patron of England, of the Order of the Garter and the church at Windsor Castle, but also the name of Richard’s recently executed brother.

St Katharine was the saint of maidens, perhaps this was Anne’s choice.

St Ninian and St Cuthbert were saints of the North country.  St Ninian was an apostle of the Picts.  Richard’s Book of Hours (now in the library of Lambeth Palace) includes a Collect of St Ninian.

St Anthony might be connected to Richard’s emblem, the White Boar, as he was the patron of swineherds and his emblem is a boar.

St Barbara was the patron of the professional soldier, which would have been appropriate for someone in Richard’s position.

In 1481 the first dean obtained a charter of exemption from episcopal jurisdiction and a charter of exemption from archidiaconal jurisdiction was secured later [9].  Richard also sought Papal consent, somewhat unusual for founders of chantries, which was granted in a bull of Pope Sixtus XI in 1481.  This meant that the college at Middleham was endowed with greater privileges and freer of outside authority than any but the colleges under the direct patronage of the King [10].

Over time Richard settled property on the college, one of the grants, from 1 October 1480 included a buck each year for the dean and the chaplains on the Feast of the Assumption and a doe on the feast of St Alkelda.  It is quite endearing to see Richard being concerned about a venison dinner for his chaplains [11].  Richard’s last settlement, made shortly before Bosworth, by which he wanted to make the college more financially secure, was not enacted by Henry Tudor [12].

Apparently there were plans by Richard to build a house for the chaplains.  At the time of his death the footings had already been put in.  If this was the case it was never completed, and nothing now remains of it.  However, there is a field nearby with the traditional name “Foundation Close” [13].

William Beverley, the first dean of the college, must have enjoyed Richard’s trust and earned Richard’s loyalty.  He was promoted to become dean of the college of St George’s in Windsor, when Richard became king in 1483, though there were quite a few other deserving priests whom he could have chosen.  He is also said to have been a royal councillor [14].

However, while many of these collegiate foundations became victims of the reformation, the King’s College of Middleham was one of the few exempted from suppression [15] and continued as a college until 1845, when a special Act of Parliament had to be passed to abolish it.  Nor is Richard forgotten:  he and his family have a memorial window in the South Aisle and his pennant is flown from the tower on significant dates [16].

The church is supported by the Richard III Society, who donated in 1963 a heraldic altar frontal, bearing the Plantagenet and Neville arms and gave in the early 1980s £3500 towards a new lead roof [17].

The above-mentioned window was a gift by the Fellowship of the White Boar, which later developed into the Richard III Society.  As John Saunders reports, “One of the aims of the Fellowship was to sponsor a memorial to Richard III, the only English monarch without an extant tomb, a sad state of affairs which a modern memorial would help put right” [18].  As the church had a close association with Richard and his residence of Middleham Castle it was decided that it would make the ideal site for a memorial, which was to be in the form of a stained glass window.  The resulting window is in a medieval style. It was installed near the church’s main door, replacing a plain glass window.  The design shows St Richard of Chichester, with his emblem of an ox, on the upper left hand.  On the upper right hand is St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read.  Beneath these figures are small panels, on the left King Richard on his son Edward kneeling at a prie-dieu and on the right facing them Queen Anne Neville.  The legend reads: “Ad Dei gloriam et in piam memoriam Ricardi tercii Regis Anglie qui hanc Collegiam fieri fecit Anno domini MCCCLXXVIII” (To God’s glory and in faithful memory to Richard III King of the English, who founded this college in 1478 AD [own translation]).  The window was dedicated on 20 April 1934 (you can view a photo of the window here).

On display in the church is also a replica of the Middleham Jewel. The original jewel was found in September 1985 near Middleham Castle and can be seen at the Yorkshire Museum in York [19].  The Church is also the burial place of Caroline Halsted, author of Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England (1844) [20].


1.    Topham
2.    VCH
3.   Jervaulx Churches
4.    Melhuish, p.4
5.    Ross, pp. 129-130
6.    Melhuish, pp.1-2
7.    Ross, pp.130-135
8.    The following paragraphs, including the quote, are from Melhuish, pp.6-8
9.   VCH
10.    Melhuish, p.9
11.    Melhuish, p.8
12.    Melhuish, p.10
13.    Melhuish, p.10
14.    Ross, p.58, p.132 and p.144
15.    Melhuish, p.2
16.    Topham
17.    “Ricardian Sites:  Middleham” and “Ricardian Churches Restoration Fund:  Middleham”
18.    Quote and the following paragraph is based on Saunders
19.    “Society Archive 2001:  The Middleham Jewel”

20.    “Ricardian Sites:  Middleham”.  You can find the text of Caroline Halsted’s book here.


Anon., “Church of St Mary and St Alkelda”, Mysterious Britain & Ireland, accessed 3 November 2010

Anon., “Middleham Parish”, Jervaulx Churches, accessed 24 October 2010

Anon., “Ricardian Churches Restoration Fund:  Middleham”, Richard III Society, accessed 1 November 2010

Anon., “Ricardian Sites:  Middleham”, Richard III Society, accessed 1 November 2010

Anon., “Society Archive 2001:  The Middleham Jewel”, Richard III Society, accessed 3 November 2010

JM Melhuish, The College of King Richard III Middleham.  Richard III Society, London (undated)

Charles Ross, Richard III.  Yale English Monarchs, Yale University Press, 1999, Reprinted 2005.  ISBN 0 300 07979-6 (pbk)

John Saunders, “The Middleham Window”, Ricardian Bulletin, Spring 2004, pp.34-37

Ian Topham, “Middleham Collegiate Church”, Britannia.com, accessed 27 March 2010

Victoria County History (VCH), “Parishes: Middleham”, A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 1 (1914), pp. 251-257, accessed 1 November 2010

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 5th, 2010 at 0:01 and is filed under Ricardian Places. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » John Rous on Richard III as Builder    Nov 22 2010 / 7am:

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  2. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » 21 February 1478    Feb 21 2011 / 12am:

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    […] Church of St Mary and St Alkelda in Middleham, North Yorkshire, was elevated by Richard, when still Duke of Gloucester, to the […]

  4. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » Richard III and Learning. Part 2: Richard III as the Founder of Collegiate Churches    May 05 2012 / 12am:

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