Today, Fulford is a suburb of York located along the present A19 – originally a Roman road that ran into the city centre – but once it was a separate village. It is remembered by medieval historians as the site of the Battle of Fulford (20 September 1066), the first of three battles fought by claimants to the English throne following the death of Edward the Confessor. (The second was the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September and the third the Battle of Hastings on 14 October.)
The village has two churches: a large Victorian building dating to 1866, and Old St Oswald, declared redundant in 1973 and converted into a private dwelling in the 1980s. Like many English churches, Old St Oswald is a post-Conquest building, but was there an earlier church? One that might have witnessed that hard-fought battle against an invading army led by rival claimants to the throne, Tostig and Harald Hardrada? One that might well have been replaced after the Norman Conquest as part of a campaign of cultural hegemony that led to many an existing church being replaced by Norman versions after 1066? Those earlier churches were probably of timber, which makes finding archaeological evidence all the more difficult – but the Fishergate, Fulford, and Heslington Local History Society (FFH) has risen to the challenge.
To investigate this question, FFH launched a project drawing together the results of various excavations undertaken prior to the conversion of the church into a private house, and supplementing this with a new geophysical survey and landscape study. This work was then presented to a conference on ‘The Historic Mystery of Old St Oswald’s’, held in Fulford on 10 June 2017 with a distinguished panel of archaeologists and speakers. The results have just been published as the paper ‘St Oswald’s Church, Fulford: origins and significance’, by Jon Kenny, Ailsa Mainman, and Christopher Rainger, in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (vol.91, 2019).
One big clue to the possibility of an earlier church was the discovery of part of a stone cross. It was recovered from low down in the north wall of the nave by David Brinklow of the York Archaeological Trust during recording work inside the church at the time of its conversion to a dwelling. The fragment (212mm high by 213mm wide and 170mm deep) was initially dated to the late 10th or early 11th century. But James Lang, in The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture: Vol.3 York and Eastern Yorkshire, gives it an even earlier 10th-century date. He describes it as the lateral arm of a cross, probably painted (it still retains traces of a white, chalk-based pigment), and carved with the head and shoulders of a figure with long hair – similar to figures in baptismal scenes on crosses from Durham. Others have interpreted the carving as a segment of interlace, and have seen parallels with a cross found at St Mary Castlegate in York.
It is always possible that the fragment came from a cross that stood elsewhere, or that stood in isolation rather than in association with a church. But a further tantalising clue was found during archaeological excavation and building recording work undertaken in 1980 and 1984 under the direction of Philip Rahtz, from the Department of Archaeology at York University, and Lorna Watts. They found Mesolithic flint-working remains, a Romano-British ditch containing glass and tile, a Roman sarcophagus lid, a single sherd of stamp-decorated post-Roman pottery, and numerous graves, as well as a cobble-and-clay wall overlying the ditch and partly underlying the later church. Duncan Hawkins, then a student at the Department of Archaeology at York, returned to the site in 1984 to investigate the wall further and get a better idea of its outline and extent. He located what he judged to be the western end of an earlier building, about 6m to the west of the present church tower. Finally, excavations in 1986 and 1987, led by Julie Lockyer, also a York archaeology undergraduate, found further parts of the same feature, which all agree was probably the foundation wall for a timber church pre-dating the present building.
Setting the scene
Old St Oswald stands on a slight elevation above the River Ouse, where it forms a prominent feature in the landscape, especially for those travelling up and down the river. It is reached by St Oswald’s Road (formerly Church Lane), a minor road running at right angles to the main A19 Fulford Road. This continues past the church and down to the river and, conceivably, to the site of an ancient crossing. The river was tidal until the 18th century and, at low tide, was shallow and easy to cross. The name ‘Fulford’ suggests that it was fordable (the ‘ful’ element perhaps meaning ‘muddy’ rather than ‘foul’), although another possible location for the ford is Germany Beck at the south end of the village, which is also thought to be the site of the 1066 battle.
On the opposite (western) bank of the Ouse, the route continues as Cherry Lane to the village (now suburb) of Dringhouses, where it joins the Tadcaster road at St Helen’s Chapel (now demolished). Two medieval crosses – the Maydale Cross and the Staffhead Cross – are recorded as having stood along the route, which leads towards Heslington village in the opposite direction.
A dwelling known as Well House once stood close to St Oswald’s Church, occupying land between the church and the lychgate. In 1832, a lion’s head was installed to disgorge water from the well, which was probably fed by one of three springs known to have existed along the course of the Ouse between York and Fulford. The site of the well was lost in 1869, however, when the churchyard was extended to accommodate the graves of a growing suburban population.
Perhaps it was this natural spring and the river crossing that drew people to the place and served the area’s prehistoric and Romano-British communities – for there is sporadic evidence for settlements during these periods on both sides of Fulford Road, along with Roman burials in stone sarcophagi and gypsum.
Details in the dedication
Continuity of settlement into the sub-Roman and later period is difficult to demonstrate, however, and the single sherd of 6th-/7th-century pottery found during the 1980s excavations stratigraphically pre-dates, and is probably unconnected with, any later church. But the dedication to St Oswald is suggestive. The best candidate for this namesake is Oswald, King of Northumbria, who reigned from AD 634 to 642. His predecessor Edwin (r. 616-633) had brought Paulinus north to convert his kingdom to Christianity. Edwin’s baptism in 627 was a key event in this process, and served to establish the church of St Peter the Apostle (later York Minster) in York.
Following the death of Edwin, the kingdom briefly reverted to paganism, and it was Oswald who re-established Christianity and completed the building of St Peter’s church before he was killed in a battle against the Mercian King Penda in 642. Oswald was venerated as a saint and martyr, with his relics distributed to religious houses across Northumbria, including Durham Cathedral. From its outset, the cult of St Oswald was associated with springs: a significant number of churches dedicated to St Oswald in the north of England have sacred wells close by. So while there is nothing to link St Oswald’s Church with the well at Well House, it is possible that there had been a former association.
The Earls of Northumbria owned estates at Fulford, which might explain the dedication to St Oswald. Moreover, Fulford church was subservient to St Olave’s Church, in Marygate, York, until it gained full parochial status after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. St Olave’s Church was founded by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, who was buried there in 1055, although local legend has it that he was buried under Siward’s Howe, also known as Heslington Hill, a prominent landmark close to Fulford.
As is so often the case, then, landscape evidence, archaeology, history, and hagiography throw up all sorts of hints that cannot be nailed down conclusively. As there were two other known isolated crosses located nearby, it is possible that a free-standing cross once stood here, prominent on the elevated site, its painted scenes visible to those travelling along, or across, the river. Conceivably the well at Well House may have served as a place of baptism, its location marked by the cross and a 10th-century timber church. Alternatively, the cross might have been unconnected with the well, standing alone or adjacent to a church dedicated to St Oswald, the revered Northumbrian king.
On the basis of rather scant evidence, there is no reason why the church could not have been built earlier, but it is more likely to belong to the later 10th or 11th century, when there was active church-building elsewhere in and around the city of York. This date also equates with a resurgence of interest in Oswald, the warrior king and Christian martyr. But it might have begun life as Earl Siward’s private chapel, built on his Fulford estate which, as political events unfolded, passed from ownership by the defeated Earls of Northumbria to new Norman overlords.
Further information Copies of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal article are available via the website for £5 (https://ffhyork.weebly.com). Pandemic permitting, York Archaeological Trust will hold its ‘Archaeology Live’ event in August 2021 at Old St Oswald. See the FFH website for further information