Wentworth Old Church and the Earl of Strafford

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

Wentworth Old Church, in the village of Wentworth near Barnsley, traces its origins back to the 13th century (the first mention being in 1235) and contains the tombs of many of the Wentworth family and the Earls of Strafford. The tower dates to the 14/15th century and in 1548 Thomas Wentworth bequeathed stonework for Monk Breton Priory that he had bought following the dissolution. The remainder of the current church was rebuilt in 1684 for William Wentworth. Although the majority of the church is now in ruins (the north chapel still intact), it is still clear to see what a magnificent building it must have been in it’s prime.  It was replaced by a new church, which stands immediately to the south in 1877 and the old church fell out of use. It now stands sentient over the churchyard, all faded glory and weathered stone.

Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641) was an advisor to Charles I, High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Lord Deputy of Ireland and the first Earl of Strafford. However, he seems to have fallen from favour and in 1641 was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. Charles I found himself under immense pressure from parliament to sign Wentworth’s death warrant, which he did on 10th May 1641. Wentworth was executed two days later and his body still lies under this church. When Charles I was himself executed eight years later, he seemed to be of the opinion that it was his punishment for allowing the execution of Thomas Wentworth.

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway

The Rich Man and the Needle’s Eye

The Needle's Eye, from the north

The Needle’s Eye, from the north

Up on the ridge, overlooking the old stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse, in a clearing in Lee Wood, stands one of the four follies of the Wentworth estate. A curious, stone built gateway, known as the Needle’s Eye.

The pyramid measures approximately 38 feet in height, with a base of almost 20 feet on each side. The passageway is a little under nine feet wide and contains stone benches on each side, with wheel-stops inside each corner. It is topped by a stone carved funerary urn, rather than a pyramidion.

Surprisingly little is known of its construction date or purpose. Its design is attributed to architect, John Carr. Local legend tells that it was built by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), to win a wager that he could drive a coach and horses through the eye of a needle. Various dates are given for the date of construction, all of which fall within the life-span of the 2nd Marquess, ranging from mid-century to 1780. However, its English Heritage listing states that it is clearly visible on an engraving dating from circa 1730.

Charles Watson-Wentworth is an interesting character. Twice Whig Prime Minister (1765-66 and again from March 1782 until his death in July of that year), and a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, MP for Pontefract and the first Earl of Strafford, executed at the Tower of London by Charles I in 1641 to appease parliament*. At the age of fifteen Charles’ father made him Colonel in charge of a volunteer defense force, against the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  He rode from Wentworth to Carlisle, to join the Duke of Cumberland in his pursuit of Charles Stuart. The nearby Hoober Stand was constructed to celebrate the victory over the ‘Young Pretender’. Charles was responsible for much of the building at the great house and among the grounds. He was buried in the Earl of Strafford’s vault in York Minster and a mausoleum built in Wentworth’s grounds to commemorate him.

There has been a house at Wentworth since Saxon times, the wealth of the subsequent landowners being built on the coal measures of the estate. The pyramid stands at the crossroads of two old (now disused) coaching roads, on the boundary between Wentworth and Rainborough. Near the gate that leads from Coley Lane onto the track, is an ancient stone that looks a little like a miniature cross base. Local lore supposes that it was used as a vinegar stone (in which coins were left in exchange for food by those infected with the plague) and although it looks too small to have once held a wayside cross, due to its position, it could have held a boundary marker of some description. It is possible that the Needle’s Eye was also constructed as a boundary marker, in a grander style befitting the status of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate.

The Needle's Eye, from the south east

The Needle’s Eye, from the south east

The fact that the structure is topped by an urn, rather than the more accustomary pyramidion, could possibly indicate that it was built as a memorial. If the pyramid dates from before 1730, it could be a memorial to Lewis Watson (1655-1724), the MP for Canterbury and confusingly, the third Baron and first Earl of Rockingham.

One other odd feature, which could possibly reveal some of the pyramid’s history, is that on the eastern side there are what appear to be a number of musket ball holes. It has been suggested that these could be the result of an incident of execution by firing squad (possibly of Jacobite rebels). How much truth there is in this I am not sure, as some of the holes look too big to have been caused by musket shot, while others are way above where you would expect fire concentrated on the heart to be. A few similar marks can also be seen on the western face too.

Although the past of this wonderful folly is rather murky, on a stormy evening, with the wind whisking the tree branches, it is easy to imagine the sound of approaching hooves and the rattle of a coach along the ridge. And if another folk tale is to be believed, the possibility of coming face to face with the local padfoot that inhabits the quiet lanes around here, adds a further air of apprehension to this lonely hillside.

 

*Another story for another day!