Tea With a Martyr at St Crux

Between York’s historic Shambles shopping streets and the curiously named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, sits an unassuming church hall with the name of ‘St Crux’. I must have walked past the building on several trips to York before torrential rain and a Marie Curie coffee morning pulled me into the shelter of St Crux.

There are few things in life I love more than a good church, a good grave, a cuppa and a slice of cake. And St Crux supplied them all. As I sat with my friend, sheltering from the downpour, we sipped our drinks beside one of the grandest effigy tombs I’ve seen in recent years. For such a small building, each wall of the hall was decorated with grand memorial plaques, somewhat at odds with the overall modesty of the structure. So how on earth did this strange, grand building come to be?

Despite what the name may suggest, St Crux isn’t a standalone church. It is a parish hall constructed from the remains of far earlier churches, including a Medieval structure. A church named ‘St Crux’ has been registered on the site since the Domesday Book, where it was a private chapel before falling under the ownership of St Mary’s Abbey.

The first architectural rebuild happened between 1402 and 1424, with the tower being wholly rebuilt in 1697. In its prime, the church was admired by the great and good, and was regarded as a handsome addition to the city centre. However, after centuries of usage and celebration, by the 19th century, the church was in a sorry state and closed to services around 1880. Over time, the tower decorations had fallen, and at one point the cupola had fully collapsed, leaving the church greatly exposed to the elements.

In the 19th century, the shabby church was deemed an eyesore by city authorities and plans were made to have it demolished. The parish was moved within All Saints’ Church and the pushback against demolition began from all sides. While deemed unsafe for general use, proposed plans to restore the church were dismissed, despite the protestations of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. 

The 17th century Italianate tower that had pleased architects and tourists alike was supposed to be irreparable and a danger to the public, but proved to be so sturdy that it was only reduced to rubble after the use of large amounts of dynamite. The demolition process ultimately took three long years, as works were repeatedly paused as more proposals were made for ways to save the building, but all was to no avail and St Crux was fully destroyed by 1887.

The year later, in 1888, a simple parish hall was built on the site from the rubble of the previous, grander church. This new building included a perpendicular window, much of the north wall, and many features, such as memorials, from the old church.

Some of these memorials relate to city officials such as Thomas Bowes and Robert Welles, who were both Lord Mayor of the City.  Others commemorate court officials such as Sir Thomas Herbert, a gentleman of the bedchamber to the ill-fated monarch, Charles I.

However, the grandest of all memorials was that which kept us company – Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland (1528-1572). It’s not very often that you can enjoy tea and cake sat beside a Catholic martyr, but St Crux’s can offer you just that.

Thomas Percy was from a long line of powerful Catholic noblemen, and would lead the Rising of the North in 1569, being an attempt to depose Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. As you can imagine, it didn’t end well.

Thomas Percy was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Percy who was executed at Tyburn when his son was only 8 years old. Thomas Snr’s crime was taking part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was a revolt against Henry VIII’s division from the Catholic church. Large numbers of the pilgrimage were publicly executed, including many monks, priests and Abbotts. Their sacrifice for their faith has led to many of the executed men being regarded as martyrs, including Thomas Snr.

In 1549, an act ‘for the restitution in blood of Mr Thomas Percy’ was passed, leading to young Thomas Percy being knighted. Soon afterwards, he received his ancestral lands and honours and became a member of Parliament under the reign of (bloody) Mary I. His life as a nobleman was filled with castle sieges and war between the English and the Scots, all against a background of rising anti-Catholic sentiment. By 1569, the Northern Catholic gentry started to plan how they would depose Elizabeth and liberate her exiled sister, believing that Elizabeth was on the brink of being excommunicated herself.

The noblemen joined forces and led the Rising of the North, believing that in doing so, a Catholic monarch would accede to the throne and they would gain freedom of worship. Instead, their efforts failed and Thomas fled north of the border to Scotland. It wasn’t long before he was captured by Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Morton, who held him at Lochleven Castle for three years. After these three years in the Earl’s company, he was sold to the English government for £2000 where his fate was to be bloody and swift.

Government forces took Thomas to York where, on 22nd August 1572, he was publicly executed at Pavement, close to the space occupied by St Crux today. He was told that his life would be spared if he would simply renounce his faith, but he refused.

Thomas Percy was executed and his headless body was buried inside the original St Crux church in an elaborate memorial.

However, Thomas lived on in Catholic memory, as in 1895, Pope Leo XIII beatified the headless nobleman, making him not just a martyr, but a saint.

Not a bad turnout, ay?

So next time you’re in York, why not pop in, visit a martyr and get yourself a hefty slice of cake.


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