St Helena


Predating the current church by several hundred years the village of Austerfield was the site for a Church synod in AD 702 or 703. The Council was gathered to debate whether Wilfrid, formerly Bishop of York, should be restored to his lands and office. Wilfrid was supported by King Aethelred of Mercia but faced strong opposition from Berhtwald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Alfrith of Northumbria who successfully prevented his restoration. There is, however, no record of a church at the site during this period – possibly the site was chosen purely for its geographical location between York and Canterbury and within or close to the boundaries of Mercia, where Wilfrid had sheltered in exile.

The current church of St Helena was built in the Norman era. The Reverend John Raine, writing in the 19th century, dates the church to around AD 1180 during the reign of Henry II, and that it was built on the orders of John de Builli (de Busli), the Lord of Bawtry and Austerfield. The south doorway dates to this time, with a carved tympanum of a dragon above it, and also still surviving to this day is the original Norman chancel arch. Less than a century after its construction the north aisle – which has survived thanks to restoration work – was added, and further work continued through the 13th century on the west side.

Soon after its construction, the church and the parish of Austerfield, along with that of nearby Bawtry, were given to the vicars of Blyth, just across the border in Nottinghamshire, on the orders of John de Builli, who was also lord in Blyth. A century later, at Michaelmas 1281, the vicars of Blyth were given the tithes of corn and hay for the parishes. Soon after, in 1287 the vicars of Blyth were given the rest of the tithes from the two parishes, except for grain and mortuaries. This was as part of a deal between the local churches in return for Blyth’s vicars relinquishing its claims to certain other lands around Blyth. In return for the tithes from Austerfield the vicar of Blyth was required to appoint a curate to be responsible for the parish. This may have been an indication that prior to that the vicars of Blyth were neglecting their duties towards their junior parishes or it may just have been a formalisation of existing arrangements.

Little is known about the church of St Helena during the 14th and 15th centuries or if it was much affected by the English Reformation. The church is referenced in a tax survey undertaken by Henry VIII in 1535 which mentions ‘Osterfeld’ as being part of the Blyth Parsonage and talks of the tithes of corn and hay from it. The total tithe value is given as £47 17s but what proportion of that comes from Austerfield is unknown.

The next mention of the church is during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. William Bradford, who became one of the Pilgrim Fathers and later governor of New Plymouth, was born in Austerfield and attended the church there in his early years, although it was in nearby Scrooby that the Pilgrim Fathers would gather. The church itself seems to have fallen into disrepair, with its minister described as careless and inattentive and services only held every other week. Possibly this lack of religious fervour may have helped push the young William Bradford into seeking a more radical branch of the faith.

A survey of 1676 tells us the incumbent vicar of Blyth was Samuel Turner, there were 92 people of age to receive communion, and that one of these was a dissenter.

In 1743 the report for the Archbishop Herring’s Visitation to Austerfield lists the parish as having 30 families, with no dissenters. Matthew Tomlinson, the Curate of Blyth at the time says that services continued to only be performed every other Sunday and gives as a reason that the chapel at Bawtry was close by and had services twice every Sunday.

In 1764 another visitation report was made, this time for Archbishop Drummond, by Robert Pritchard, the vicar of Blyth. Austerfield is mentioned but the lack of detail makes it clear that it was considered secondary to the parishes at Blyth and Bawtry. Austerfield’s curate at the time was William Hunter, who was also the curate for Scrooby.

The church in 1860.

This neglect and disrepair may have continued. Certainly in 1834 when the Reverend John Raine became vicar of Blyth, Bawtry and Austerfield he describes the church as being in a bad condition, with pews out of repair and the wooden floor having completely perished. His predecessor, the Reverend J Rudd, had valued the chapelry at £15 8s 4d in the King’s Book in 1828. Raine restored portions of the church, including adding a new gallery and pews.

The village of Austerfield was growing throughout the 19th century, from 242 inhabitants in 1828 to 389 in 1861. This growth may have led to the decision on 31st July 1858 to separate both Bawtry and Austerfield from Blyth to create a separate parish and benefice called the Perpetual Curacy of Bawtry with Austerfield. The Reverend Augustus Dobree Yarcy became the first vicar of the new parish. Raine lists the tithe rent charge from Austerfield granted to Yarcy at this time as being £9 10s per annum. Raine himself states that he did not support the split, believing it to be unsound economically and likely to place too much hardship on the parishes, although we have no record of whether this proved to be the case.

At the end of the 19th century the church went through another series of renovations and repairs, bringing it to its present condition. The Society of Mayflower Descendants sponsored the original work, aiming to build a new aisle for the church in memory of William Bradford. During the work however, which was led by the architect Hodgson Fowler of Durham, the original Norman built arcade – a row of arches – was found to have survived built into the north wall. This was restored, along with an ancient font that had been used as a drinking trough, and an old carved altar table. These restored items can still be seen at the church today, along with the north aisle built at the time.

In 1912 J E Andrews was the curate. A census of the time tells us that 50 people attended Sunday School at the church and that in the past year there had been seven baptisms but no confirmations. Austerfield remained a joint parish with Bawtry as part of the Bawtry deaconry and letters of the time make little mention of St Helena itself.