Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Collegiate Church

By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant

To celebrate King Richard III’s connections with Middleham, North Yorkshire, we are featuring a range of items held here at the North Yorkshire County Record Office. In this first post of a three-part blog, we look at the history of the church of St Mary and St Alkelda at Middleham and its foundation in 1478 as a collegiate church by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III (1452-1485). The Middleham Collegiate Church collection in our custody contains a number of original, 15th century documents bearing Richard’s signature.

Richard Plantagenet, who was Duke of Gloucester before becoming King Richard III in 1483 (r.1483-1485), was the last King of the House of York. He had close connections with North Yorkshire, spending part of his childhood living at Middleham Castle, which later became one of his royal homes. More about Middleham Castle and associated archive material can be found in the next post of this blog.

These blog posts have been inspired by the world-famous, late-16th century portrait of Richard III, on display this summer at the Yorkshire Museum, York alongside a selection of objects associated with the King from the Yorkshire Museum’s collections, including the Middleham Jewel. The portrait is on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London as part of their ‘Coming Home’ project, enabling communities to celebrate their local heroes.

NPG 148 Portrait of Richard III by unknown artist, late 16th century, © National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

YORYM : 1991.43 The Middleham Jewel, Medieval, gold lozenge-shaped pendant with a sapphire found near Middleham Castle in 1985. Engraved with religious subjects and an inscription, dating to c. 1475-1499. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: :: CC BY-SA 4.0

These items are on display at the Yorkshire Museum, York as part of the Richard III exhibition from 9th July – 31 October 2021, they are not items in the NYCRO collections.

ZRC (17496)  ‘R Gloucestre’, the signature of Richard, Duke of Gloucester endorsing the foundation deed of Middleham College, dated 4th July 1478.

The Record Office has a number of 15th century documents in its custody, which bear the signature of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. These date to the 1470s, in the period before he became King Richard III. A number of these documents are held within the collection of deeds of Middleham Collegiate Church [NYCRO ZRC]. Others may be found within the Lawson family of Brough archive [NYCRO ZRL], which are explored in the third post of this blog.

Middleham Collegiate Church: St Mary & St Alkelda

The parish church of Middleham is dedicated to St Mary and St Alkelda. A Grade I listed building, the fabric of the present church dates from the 14th century, although fragments of Saxon sculpture and the dedication to St Alkelda, an Anglo-Saxon saint, suggest an earlier origin. The name Alkelda may be derived from the Old English words for holy well.

After the death of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick during the Wars of the Roses at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, the lordship of Middleham was granted to Richard, Duke of Gloucester by his brother King Edward IV. This included the parish church, for which Richard held the right of advowson (e.g. to appoint clergy to office), and which he subsequently elevated to collegiate status several years later.

Richard created a total of ten chantry or college foundations, whose purpose was to pray for him and his close relatives. A chantry was an altar with an endowment for one or more priests to say Mass in perpetuity for the founder whilst living and for their soul after death. This could be a side altar in an existing parish church, or a separate chapel built specifically for that purpose. A wealthy and influential founder might seek the licence of the King and the Archbishop of the Province to convert an existing church into a college, with several priests and choristers. There is evidence within the collection of Middleham Collegiate Church deeds [ZRC] of just such a process being followed in the foundation of the college at Middleham.

On 21st February 1478, a licence was issued by Edward IV to his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester to found a college at Middleham in honour of Jesus, the blessed virgin Mary and St Alkelda. This consisted of a dean, six chaplains, four clerks, six choristers and a clerk to perform divine services and offices for the health of the king and queen and his brother and wife and their heirs and their souls of all faithful dead [ZRC (17484)]. This licence comprises a parchment document with a large fragment of the pendant seal still attached, which is the great seal of Edward IV.

ZRC (17484) Licence issued by King Edward IV to Richard, Duke of Gloucester to found a college at Middleham, 21st February 1478 and inset detail of the great seal (fragmentary) of Edward IV.

Foundation deed and statutes of Middleham College, 4 July 1478

The foundation deed of Middleham College was issued on 4th July 1478 [ZRC (17496)]. This comprises three membranes of parchment folded together at the foot and laced through. The first membrane is illustrated below; from this you can see how the text was written before the manuscript was decorated. The content of the document has been laid out to receive an elaborated or illuminated initial ‘R’ at the beginning of the text, but this has never been filled and so the first line starts with ‘ichard’. Similarly, the borders are undecorated. In the top left corner, the document is endorsed ‘R Gloucestre’.

The deed is written partly in English and partly in Latin and Richard himself may have had a hand in the drafting of the content, which sets out the statutes of the College.  

A transcription of the English parts of the document by James Raine is available in Archaeological Journal, vol.14, 1857, pp.160-170, available online via the Archaeology Data Service.

Act for the erection of Middleham Collegiate church, 6th February 1479

Once the constitution of the college was agreed, the next step was to obtain an Act for the erection of the church [ZRC (17498)]. This parchment document is elaborately decorated, using burnished gold leaf and mainly the colours red and blue. The borders have floral patterns, whilst the first initial contains a depiction of the Coat of Arms of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. This comprises a shield with opposing quarters of the three lions in gold on a red background, and three fleur-de-lys in gold on a blue background, with heraldic label.

ZRC (17498) Act of erection of Middleham Collegiate church by Thomas Barow canon and prebendary of York, 6th February 1479.

The statutes specify that the Rector of Middeham, Mr William Beverley, is to be the Dean of the new foundation. Illustrated below are two documents from the collection, endorsed by Richard, providing William Beverley with grants of land in 1479 and 1480 [ZRC (17477) & (17502)].

ZRC (17477) Grant to William Beverley, Dean of Middleham College, 20th December 1479.

“Grant by Richard Duke of Gloucester & the feoffees inter alia of his castle, manor & lordship of Middleham to his use (John Huddleston knight, Jas Tirell knight, Wm Hopton esq, Thos Barow clerk,Thos Middelton esq, Wm Tunstall esq, Richard Ratcliff esq, Richard Middleton esq, Geoffrey Frank & Robt Brakenbury) to William Beverley dean & chaplains of the college of Richard Duke of Gloucester of Middleham, of one acre of meadow parcel of the lordship of Middleham lying between Yore against a place called le Wheynell & a common way below le Westpark de Middleham, together with the advowson of the church of Middleham.  Attornies to deliver seisin: John Kendale, Thos Otter, Michael Wharton”.

ZRC (17502) Grant to William Beverley, Dean of Middleham College, 1st October 1480.

Grant by Richard Duke of Gloucester, John Huddelston kt, Wm Hopton esq & Thos Barowe clerk (feoffees, with John Pilkington kt deceased, of, inter alia, manors or lordships of Estberholt in Suffolk, Weting in Norfolk, Mose Bataylles in Stapelford & Haies in Stowe and the manor or tenement called Skighagh in Essex, to use of Richard) to Wm Beverley dean & chaplains of the college of Richard Duke of Gloucester of Middleham, of the above manors.  Attornies to deliver seisin: Henry Robson, John Vavasour & Wm Mistilbroke.  Witnesses: Wm Boleyn, Geo Hopton, Ralph Willoughby esqs ”.

Middleham college remained outside the control of the normal ecclesiastical authorities, exercising a peculiar jurisdiction. By the mid 16th century, there were over 200 collegiate foundations in England, most of which were subsequently abolished at the Reformation, when Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI issued Acts of Parliament in 1545 and 1547 to appropriate their funds and property for the Crown. Middleham, however, escaped such closure and retained its collegiate status for a further 300 years until the Peculiar and office of Dean were abolished in 1845. At the dissolution of the college, the deeds passed into the custody of the Church Commissioners before subsequent deposition with the Record Office in the 1970s. The reference numbers in brackets refer to those given to the documents by the Church Commissioners.

Middleham Parish Records

The Record Office holds the parish records from the church of St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham, covering the period 1604-1998. This collection contains a variety of material relating to church matters, which can be found listed in our online catalogue [NYCRO PR/MID].

The earliest church records are the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which date from 1604 onwards. The handwriting in the examples above is particularly neat and legible, in an interesting variety of hands and styles.

The edges of the pages of this register have been damaged by damp and mould and subject to an early conservation treatment from the 1940s. Sheets of translucent silk fabric have been used to laminate front and back to strengthen the paper pages, a process called ‘silking’, which have then been rebound. Nowadays, minimal conservation is the preferred approach taken.

Commemoration of Richard III in the 20th Century

Amongst other material in the parish records, we find reference to 20th century commemorations and celebrations of Richard III.

In 1933, a Faculty from the Diocese of Ripon authorised the insertion of a stained glass, two-light memorial window in the south wall of the church [PR/MID 7/22]. This was approved by the Parochial Church Council on 13th October 1933, in accordance with the design of Mr A.G. Moore. The Latin inscription at the foot of the window reads: “Ad dei gloriam et in piam memoriam Ricardi Terci regis angliae qui hanc Collegiam fieri fecit. anno domini MCCCCLXXIX“. In translation this reads: “To the glory of God and in loving memory of Richard III King of England, who made this college in the year of our Lord 1479”.

PR/MID 7/22  Faculty authorising the insertion of stained glass, dated 9th November 1933.

In an undated, but contemporary booklet about the church from the 1930s, we find a description and image of this window [PR/MID 15/9].

The design of the window, the most westerly window in the south aisle, is in accordance with the style of the late fifteenth-century York artists, and is intended to represent such a window as the people of Middleham might have erected to the memory of their benefactor…. The left-hand light represents St. Richard of Chichester with figures of King Richard III and his son Edward, Prince of Wales, beneath…. The right-hand light represents St Anne teaching her daughter, the Virgin Mary, to read and beneath is the kneeling figure of Queen Anne (Neville) wearing an emblazoned mantle displaying the alliances of her illustrious house, for she was the daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, and grand-daughter of Richard Beauchamp. In the quarries may be seen the White Boar of Richard, the Bear and Ragged Staff of Warwick, the Sun in Splendour of the Yorkists and other badges”.

The window was unveiled and dedicated on 20th April 1934, at a service held in the church on the 450th anniversary of the death in Middleham Castle of Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Richard III.

PR/MID 14/9  Order of Service for the unveiling and dedication of the Richard III memorial window in Middleham church, dated 20th April 1934.

The order of service includes hymns, readings and prayers, as well as a note at the end which reads: “Weather permitting, at the conclusion of the service, the choir and clergy, followed by members of the Fellowship of the White Boar and the congregation, will move in procession to the castle where the Last Post and Reveille will be sounded at the Drum Tower in which the Prince of Wales died” [PR/MID 14/9].

NYCRO Bronze seal matrix of Edward Place, Dean of Middleham, 1742.

The front of the order of service includes an image of the seal matrix of Edward Place, Dean of Middleham, 1742 [NYCRO]. This bronze seal matrix is held at the Record Office and measures 5.8cm by 6.8cm by 1.1cm in size. It bears the Coat of Arms of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (similar to that depicted on the 1479 Act for the erection of the College pictured above [ZRC (17498)]) and the surrounding inscription reads: “MIDDLEHAM . DEANERY . FOUNDED . BY . RIC . DUKE . OF . GLOSTER . ED . PLACE . A . M . DEAN 1742”.

This seal matrix was used to authenticate documents by making an impression in wax. The design is cut in intaglio, below the flat surface of the metal. The imprint it makes is in relief, and the mirror image of the engraved design.

From the first week in July 1983, the parish record collection contains a programme for the week-long celebrations held in the Church on the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Richard III on 6th July 1483 [PR/MID 29/4]. Events included a lecture on ‘The Real Richard III’ and a concert given in Middleham by Richmond Parish Church entitled ‘A King’s Music’. A solemn coronation mass was also held, including a procession from the Castle to the church. Throughout the festival there were displays of artistic and historical material in both Middleham and Coverham churches.

PR/MID 29/4  Programme for Richard III Coronation celebrations held in Middleham Parish Church, 2nd to 10th July 1983

Next time, in Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Castle, we feature archive material associated with Middleham Castle.

Find out more:

Details, and some transcriptions, of documents from the Middleham Collegiate Church collection [ZRC] are to be found in the following Record Office publication: ‘Monastic Charters and other documents relating to Medieval Piety in the North Yorkshire County Record Office’, edited by M.Y. Ashcroft & E.A. Jones, 2009, North Yorkshire County Council.

Further details about the Record Office collections can be found in our online catalogue

The portrait of Richard III and an associated exhibition of related objects, including the Middleham Jewel, will be on display at the Yorkshire Museum in York from 9 July – 31 October 2021.


National Portrait Gallery 

The Richard III Society 

Further Reading:

Documents Relating to the Foundation and Antiquities of the Collegiate Church of Middleham, in the Country of York’ by William Atthill, 1847, Camden Society.

‘The Religious Life of Richard III: Piety and Prayer in the North of England’ by Jonathan Hughes, 1997, Sutton Publishing.

‘The College of King Richard III, Middleham’ by J.M. Melhuish, n.d., Richard III Society.

2 thoughts on “Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Collegiate Church

  1. Hi all and congrats for this blog. It is absolutely interesting and I am fond of Middleham and of course, a Ricardian. I have a question for you. Do you know if there was a crypt in St Mary and St Alkelda Church? I tried to know but I couldn’t find a lot due to the pandemic that prevented me to access some documents in several archives. Thank you for your reply.

    1. Many thanks for your comments, we’re pleased you enjoyed our blog and hope that you enjoy the next two posts on Middleham. As for whether there is a crypt in the church, we’ve not come across mention of one in our records, but perhaps someone locally may know more?

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