Like many churches dedicated to St Michael, Hawkshead’s St Michael and All Angels crowns a hill. This heavenly vantage point overlooks the chimneys and rooftops of this idyllic Lakeland village, with Ambleside’s Central Fells forming a glorious backdrop.
There are five entrances to the churchyard. Three come from The Square, while a fourth leads up from the Grammar School Museum. The most picturesque route is from the public footpath from Roger Ground.
This idyllic right of way, lined with a stone flag fence, heads towards what Pevsner described in his Buildings of England as, “one of the best Lake District Churches”.
Originally, a Norse chapel stood here, built in the early 12th century by monks from nearby Hawkshead Hall. The village’s name is a corruption of Haukr’s saetr, whereby Haukr is Norse for “settler on the land”, and saetr means the “summer grazing about his seasonal dwelling”.
The village and surrounding land was owned by Furness Abbey, once the second wealthiest and powerful Cistercian Abbey in the country, who used this wealth to extend the chapel about a century later. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century when St Michael and All Angels took the shape we can see today.
Reputedly, the locals built this Grade I listed building by eye, rather than from any official plan. And it underwent a considerable transformation, with the addition of north and south aisles, a private chapel, and a raised roof.
However, it’s the interior of St Michael and All Angels that marks this building as special. Step inside and the uniqueness is immediately apparent.
Unusual, low-profiled Romanesque-style arches separate the nave from its north and south aisles. These are unique, for no other church in England of this period has anything similar. They squat on solid circular pillars and are often mistaken for much older Norman arches.
Much of what visitors and worshippers see today is down to one man. Born in Hawkshead in 1519, Edwin Sandys grew up to become the Archbishop of York.
As a chapelry, St Michael and All Angels came under the jurisdiction of Furness Abbey, over twenty miles away, near Barrow-in-Furness. But it was Sandys who granted Hawkshead its own parish status in 1578.
None of the church’s development, nor much of Hawkshead’s, may have taken place had Sandys’ life played out differently. In 1534, he fled the country, having escaped from prison. The Duke of Northumberland had raised an army intending to incite a rebellion preventing the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor from becoming Queen. Sandys was arrested for preaching to this Protestant army as they prepared for battle.
He returned to England in 1558, on the ascension of Elizabeth I, when she also became Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The following year, Sandys became the Bishop of Worcester, a position he held for eleven years, after which he became the Bishop of London. In 1576, he was appointed Archbishop of York.
Sandys never forgot his roots, and in 1585, he made some investments in the village. First, he added a private chapel in the north-east corner of the church in memory of his parents, Margaret Dixon and William Sandys. Their effigies lay on an intricately carved table tomb. His mother appears in a long gown, while his father is kitted out in full battle armour. There’s even a lion at his feet.
Within the private chapel, still used by the Sandys family today, there’s also a life-size effigy of Col. Thomas Myers Sandys, who died in 1911 shortly after stepping down as the Member of Parliament for Bootle.
At the same time, the church’s roof was raised and eight clerestory windows were added, four on each side. The north side still has its original Elizabethan oak frames, but the southern-side frames perished after fifty years and were replaced with stone.
It is the whitewashed walls that draw visitors’ eyes. They remain decorated with a dogtooth border around the arcade arches, along with several large paintings containing biblical quotes and sayings. James Addison of Hornby created these in 1680, when he was invited to “peint 26 Sentances of Scripture … and to border and flourish them.”
This type of interior decoration was not uncommon in the southern Lakes. Churches in Grasmere and Windermere also boasted such colourful walls. Sadly, theirs were subsequently painted over during 19th century refurbishments, which only makes St Michael and All Angels even more special.
About thirty years later, William Mackerath, a local man, restored some of the paintings and also added a few of his own, including one misquote from the Bible. Above the arch nearest the pulpit, Mackerath painted the first verse of John 1. However, instead of ending the verse with the words “And the Word was God,” he used his local dialect and painted, “and t’Word was God.”
More of Mackerath’s work can still be seen on the west wall, between the main door and the font, where he added the names of the four volunteer churchwardens.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the church underwent further repairs and restoration, which included the installation of the current font. This angered the congregation at the time, who were so annoyed they buried the old font somewhere in the churchyard. Unfortunately, nobody knows where.
Edwin Sandys’ second investment in the village was Hawkshead Grammar School, which was built on land immediately next to the churchyard.
Its most famous student, William Wordsworth, frequently attended church services at St Michael’s. The building often appears in several of his poems, including The Prelude, where he writes:
“I saw the snow-white church upon her hill,
Sit like a thronèd Lady, sending out
A gracious look all over her domain.”
At the time, the exterior of the church was also painted white, hence its snow-white description.
The Prelude is also where Wordsworth writes of the joyful summer evenings he spent near the top of the churchyard, in silent meditation, overlooking the view.
In addition to having witnessed some 25,000 burials in its lifetime, the churchyard is also home to the town’s war memorial. William Gershom Collingwood, who moved to the Lake District after his academic career in Oxford, where he’d been a pupil of John Ruskin, designed it.
Ruskin and William Morris heavily influenced Collingwood, and he also had a lifelong interest in Scandinavian art. When commissioned to create Hawkshead’s war memorial, he took inspiration from the Viking Cross at St Mary’s, Gosforth, 24 miles away on the Cumbrian coast.
The east face of the sandstone Celtic cross depicts St Michael treading down evil snakes, along with the names of those who lost their lives during the First World War. The west face bears the inscriptions of those lost in the Second World War.
For those seeking to follow in Wordsworth’s footsteps, the best time to explore St Michael and All Angels is in the evening, when Hawkshead’s tourists have gone home for the day. Catch it on a sunny evening, and there’s no better place to watch the light fade on the surrounding fells, as Wordsworth so often did, when he worshipped here.
St Michael and All Angels Church, Main St, Hawkshead, Ambleside LA22 0PQ
(c) Simon Whaley