St Leonard’s History

Welcome to the Website of the Parish Church of Saint Leonard Loftus and Thank you for your Interest in our History

This page offers some insight into the history of Christian worship on this ancient site and seeks to interpret some of the rich symbolism within the church interior

Saint Leonard

The Icon of St Leonard
The Icon of St Leonard Loftus

Loftus Parish Church is dedicated to Saint Leonard who is venerated as the Patron Saint of prisoners, captives, and pregnant women.  According to legend, Leonard was born in France in the sixth-century, the son of an official in the court of King Clovis (482-511). Following Leonard’s conversion to Christianity, he devoted himself to visiting prisoners, and for many of them he interceded with the king, paying their ransom himself.  He later abandoned the royal court to live in a forest near Limoges.  He is usually represented as a Deacon of the Church, generally bearing broken iron fetters in this hand.

The Building – 1811 to the present

The Saint Leonard’s Church we know and love today is only the most recent of a very long tradition of Christian worship on this site.  The present Grade II* listed building standing dates from the first and last decades of the nineteenth century, but it is thought that a church has existed here since before the Norman Conquest.

Major remodelling was last initiated in 1897 when Churchwardens and parishioners decided to rebuild the 1811 Church in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  According to the Whitby Gazette, on the occasion of consecration and rededication by the Lord Bishop of Beverley on 22 January 1902, the new design (by Messrs Clark and Moscrop) added a 33 foot oak panelled chancel with organ chamber, heightened the roof, lengthened the nave, added a north aisle, and added new fixed open pews.  The seating “of comfortable proportions…succeeded their familiar high straight-backed and rigid looking predecessors” according to the Loftus Advertiser that same week.  The builders, Bastiman Bros of Middlesbrough, provided Loftus with a hugely improved building, part funded by the Parish and supplemented by a donation of £1000 plus suitable building stone from the Marquis of Zetland himself.

The 1811 Church

The Church Interior of the 1811 Parish Church Loftus

The earlier church was built in 1811 to a design by the well-known Italian architect, Ignatius Bonomi, on the site of a medieval building.   It was funded by Lord of the Manor of Loftus, Sir Robert Dundas (1780-1846) and had been described as “poor and barn like in appearance”, comprising a simple oblong building with flat plastered ceiling, small east end altar recess, with a musician’s gallery for instrumentalists and singers.

Apart from some portions of the west and south walls, the tower is all that remains of this earlier Church building.  We can only offer conjecture as to how the pre-1811 buildings looked.  It could even have been of largely wooden structure as it is thought a fire destroyed the building, but whatever the appearance of the earlier church(es), there is much evidence of the importance of a thriving medieval Loftus, with the Parish Church undoubtedly at the heart of the community.

Before 1811 

The icon of St Hilda of Whitby, our local saint
The icon of St Hilda of Whitby, our local saint

Loftus (also known as Lofthouse) sits in the heart of the saintly kingdom of Northumbria – home of the Venerable Bede, Saint Aidan and Saint Hilda – and on the coastal road midway between the important abbey sites of Hartlepool and Whitby.  It was within the parish the Bed Burial of an Anglo-Saxon Princess was excavated in 2006.

The earliest written evidence of a church in Loftus is in 1275 when the church at Loftus was given to the Priory and Convent of Guisborough by William de Sauchay, then Lord of the Manor of Loftus, with the next reference occurring when Walter de Loftus was instituted as Rector.  The living continued under the patronage of the Priory until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 (when patronage reverted to the Crown) and references to Loftus appear in the Priory records over the centuries – the usual clergy arrivals and departures, disputes with Whitby Abbey over lands owned and even an alleged homicide by Walter de Bolleby, clerk, in 1302.

More interestingly, Thomas Franke (Rector from 1521) was deeply involved in the rising of the Northern Barons which led to the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 but he escaped any penalty.  However, this may explain why the Crown retained the appointment of all future Rectors of Loftus!

The church register begins in 1697 (according to volumes now held in the Borthwick Institute in York) and some rebuilding of the church took place at around this time when Thomas Burton MA was Rector.

Saint Leonard’s Parish Church Today 

St Leonard's Church Loftus today
St Leonard’s Church Loftus today

The main door to the church is at the West End of the building, but the door itself faces the south side. The earliest recorded burials in the churchyard date back to 1705.  The small porch (part of the early nineteenth-century church by Ignatius Bonomi) contains a staircase providing access to the bell tower and roof.  The tower houses two bells (worked    electronically since 1985) and would appear to have been cast at the Whitechapel Foundry by Thomas Mears the Younger, and date from the 1811 remodelling as one appears to carry the coat of arms of Sir Robert Dundas.  The tenor bell was recast from the fourteenth-century bell as it still bears the personal trade shield of John Copgrove of Yorkshire with the words JOHANES COPGRV ME FACIT, as on the treble bell at Ingleby Greenhow.  A small drum shaped font in the porch could be pre-Norman and is probably the only tangible link to the early church in the building.  A nineteenth-century wooden wall panel refers to Parish lands some miles away at Ugthorpe and for which annual dues are still collected.

The North Aisle

Here we find the mid nineteenth-century font with modern font cover (by Thompson’s of Kilburn) ornamented with dolphins.

The Lady Chapel at St Leonard's Loftus
The Lady Chapel at St Leonard’s Loftus

Behind the font are two highly coloured windows given to the church, respectively, in memory of Jessie Stonehouse and Ellen Knaggs.  On the left is Saint Hilda holding the Gospels and with a serpent at her feet, a reference to the tradition that she drove away snakes from the abbey she founded at Whitby in 657.  Above left is a lily, symbolic of purity, and to the right, a flaming heart symbolic of religious fervour.  The right hand window depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus (Madonna and Child).  She is virtually always represented dressed in garments of blue (depicting heavenly love), and  always with white lilies, symbol of purity and of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she was to give birth to the Son of God. Her cloak is decorated with pearls, again indicating purity.  Significantly the pot contains three lilies (perhaps for the Trinity) and the Christ Child is holding his fingers to offer Blessing.

The Stations of the Cross can be seen on the wall of the north aisle and these continue on the south wall.  The north aisle also contains the icon of Saint Hilda and the icon of Saint Leonard.  At the East end of the North Aisle is the Lady Chapel, which was dedicated in 1996.


The Chancel 

The Rood Screen and Chancel.
The Rood Screen and Chancel St Leonard’s Loftus

The carved oak Perpendicular style Rood Screen was donated to the church in memory of Dame Elizabeth Scott by her husband in 1911 and it is said that it had been offered to Easington Parish Church before its acceptance by Saint Leonard’s.  The screen has particularly light and elegant carving reminiscent of fan vaulting.  At the centre stands Saint Leonard, high above the entrance to the chancel and each of the angels is holding an item symbolic of the Passion of our Lord.  These symbols (from left to right) are scourge, column, ewer, basin, spear, ladder, crown, hammer, pincers, nails.  The chancel has a panelled wagon roof with Tudor rose bosses and is more elaborate than that of the nave.  The oak chancel fittings, choir stalls and pulpit are the work of Gibbs of Darlington and date from 1902.

The 1902 Hopkins Organ

The Organ at St Leonard's Loftus
The Organ at St Leonard’s Loftus

The organ was built by T Hopkins & Son of York and installed during the early part of 1902, and as such is part of the last remodelling of the church.  The earlier buildings were not without music as there are several references to the introduction and enlargement of a musicians’ gallery before 1811, and Sir Robert Dundas also paid for a bellows organ in the early nineteenth-century.  The Hopkins organ heralded a new era and by May 15th 1902, the instrument was complete enough for a Dedication Service.  The Loftus Advertiser reported that Mr Howard Cook presided at the organ which was “very sweet in tone and promises to be a great acquisition and an important factor in rendering more effective the services of the church”. Two days later on the 17th May 1902, the Saltburn Parish organist, H R Woledge FRCO, played the first recital on the new Saint Leonard’s organ.

This acquisition obviously revitalised the music (and presumably the liturgy) of the parish, as a little later that year, on 10th October 1902, the Loftus Advertiser announced forthcoming Harvest and Patronal Festivals where there would be “special music by the choir, which by the way, has recently been considerably augmented in number and much improved by practice under Mr Howard Cook, the organist.”  Two weeks later, the Harvest services were stated to be “of an unusually ornate character.  Holy Communion was celebrated at 8.00 am.  At 10 Matins (plain) and half an hour later Choral Celebration of Holy Communion and sermon by the Rector.  At the evening service, when the Reverend A H Cumming again preached, the building was crowded to inconvenience and many were unable to gain admittance.  Forms and chairs were placed in the aisles for increased accommodation, which compelled the choristers to procession in single file when singing the processional and recessional hymns. The organ accompaniments throughout were played by marked ability by Mr Howard Cook.” 

By the time of the Patronal Festival on 6th November (St Leonard’s Day), the delight of the Parish is practically tangible, with the Loftus Advertiser (and Mr Cook’s publicist) again reporting that “… for the first time during many years, the memory of Saint Leonard, the Patron Saint of this church, was honoured by the holding of a special Patronal Festival.  At 7.00 am there was a choral celebration of Holy Communion by the Rector.  Matins followed at 10 and at 3.30 Mr Howard Cook gave a recital on the new organ at which … selections were played with a skill and intelligence that evoked the imagination of all who were present.”    The organ continues to be played with great skill today.

The Sanctuary and East Window

Part of the East Window

The oak reredos above the high altar dates from 1926 and complements the rood screen with its corniced canopy carved with figures of angels, arches and vine ornament.  Several of the items within the sanctuary are from the workshops of “Mousey” Thompson at Kilburn and carry the familiar mouse mark.

Above the reredos, the East Window dates from the early part of the twentieth century and is reputedly the work of C E Kempe & Co (1907-1934).  It comprises five lancets with main panels depicting (left to right) Saint Leonard with chains and Holy Scriptures, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John, and Saint Peter (Patron of the Diocese of York) holding keys.  In the background is a representation of Jerusalem as a walled city, and the Latin text “Spes Unica” (The One & Only Hope.)  At the top of the  window, four smaller insets depict the symbols of the Passion – (ladders, nails, hammer & pincers and seamless garment) – with the emblem of Saint George, the Patron of England at the centre.  Below this can be found the Sun and the Moon centrally (often represented in scenes of the Crucifixion to indicate the sorrow of all creation at the death of Christ), White Roses of Yorkshire to the edge and other insets with angelic host.  Traditionally the colours of angels (messengers) will differ dependent on their position in the hierarchy or level of importance (e.g. Seraphim and Cherubim are red, the colour of Divine Love, whereas the next category, Principalities, Power and Dominions, representing Knowledge, are portrayed in blue or yellow).

Within the chancel are a number of memorial tablets including that of Sir Robert Dundas, benefactor to both church and town.

The Windows of the South Wall

The four large windows on the south wall of the Nave were filled with modern stained glass in the 1950’s as memorials for several Loftus families.  They are filled with vibrant colours and radiating rays on a circular theme and, viewed as a group, three of the windows refer to Christ’s earthly existence, whilst Christ Ascending appears in the last, nearest the door.


1. The Nativity IMG_0268

(To replace a window given by Mary Ann Harrison in 1926 in memory of her father, mother, brothers and sisters.)

On the right stands a modern yet demure Blessed Virgin Mary, depicted in the traditional blue and holding the lily, but the style is quite different to that of the Baptistery window at the other side of the church, and she is surrounded by an eight pointed star.  To the left is a young shepherd with a lamb, in the distance the Three Magi (the Wise Men) hinting at the Epiphany to come, and at the bottom, a manger with the Infant Jesus. On one level, this window is a clear depiction of the Nativity at Christmas, but it includes other potent Christian symbols.  Jesus Christ will become the Shepherd of Men, and many scriptural passages give credence for this symbolism.  Mary is standing on a rising sun, yet again    symbolic of Christ being based on the prophecy of Malachi 4 “But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in this wings.”  The manger is surrounded by the flames of the Holy Spirit and the harsh metal of the manger with rope and shackle, seems to hint, in the earliest hours of the Christ Child’s life, his brutal death on the cross.


2. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven IMG_0270

(Given by grateful children in memory of Henry & Alice Knaggs 1957).

Here is a very benign figure of Christ, dressed in vestments, holding a small boy and facing three other youngsters.  Surrounded as they are by a carpet of flowers, the scene aptly sums up the text “For such is the kingdom of heaven” in Mark 10:14.

The flowers have been well-chosen too; anemone (reputedly springing up on Calvary the evening of the crucifixion) lily of the valley (symbolising the Advent of Christ), narcissus (the triumph of divine love, sacrifice and eternal life over death, selfishness and sin).  At the base, the Holy Spirit is depicted as two fluttering doves.


3. Christ the Good Shepherd IMG_0272

(Given by their daughter in memory of Thomas and Jane Harrison)

Here is we see Christ as Shepherd with crook with two lambs alongside what could be a very traditional Yorkshire gate.  This picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd relates to John 10:1-16 where Christ tells the disciples that anyone not entering the sheepfold by the gate is a thief and a robber.  The shepherd enters by the gate, calls his sheep and they follow him.  The disciples are mystified, but He is alluding to His impending death and resurrection. He is the gate for his sheep and whoever enters by Him will be saved as the Good Shepherd will lay down his life for his flock.  Jesus also appears to the disciples after the Crucifixion, standing on the shore just after daybreak and reminds them to Feed my sheep (John 21 4:17) so one wonders if the backdrop of stars, waves and sunburst reflects this reminder to them.


IMG_02754. Christ Ascending into Heaven

This representation of Christ is (unlike the previous three) comes after the Crucifixion, as the wounds from the cross are clearly shown, with the halo in solid red and His right hand points heavenward.

Jesus stands before a background of rainbow and eight pointed star, and below His feet are items symbolic of the Resurrection: a cross casting shadow across the land with a crown of thorns, the chalice and host in memory of the Last Supper, and the Greek Alpha and Omega, signifying the very basis of the Christian message – that he is the beginning and the end, infinite and omniscient.

The West Wall

On the plain west wall of the church is faint evidence of the earlier Ignatius Bonomi windows and three oak wall-boards.  Two of these commemorate the ultimate sacrifice of the fallen of both World Wars, whilst the second, carved by Thompson’s of Kilburn, lists the Priests who have served the Parish as Rector for over seven hundred years.

This information was researched and provided to Saint Leonard’s Parish Church Loftus by Moira Richardson in August 2004