Our Beautiful ChurchyardSt Olave's Church has a beautiful, secluded and ecologically important churchyard, surrounded by medieval walls and overlooked by the magnificent ruins of St Mary's Abbey
Explore our beautiful churchyard
St Olave’s Church has a beautiful, secluded and ecologically important churchyard, surrounded by medieval walls and overlooked by magnificent abbey ruins.
St Olave’s Church has been at the heart of Christian worship in the parish since before 1055. Early texts on the history of York provide references to burials at St Olave’s prior to the 15th century, with most being documented from the 16th century onwards. The churchyard was closed to further burials in 1854.
Over the centuries, the churchyard has remained a sacred, undisturbed haven of tranquility in the midst of the city of York. It occupies a unique position, surrounded by medieval walls and overlooked by the magnificent ruins of St Mary’s Abbey.
Those buried include notable, highly talented people alongside less well known parishioners. Each have contributed to the historical, social and cultural history of York.
From ecclesiastical records, George Neville (1432-1475), Archbishop of York and brother of ‘Warwick the Kingmaker,’ granted land, goods and money from the estate of the powerful Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s to St Olave’s, a portion of the grants referring to the creation of a churchyard.
The south door of St Olave’s Church opens on to the churchyard, which holds remarkable stories, some only recently uncovered by extensive research using family history sites, parish records, newspaper and Borthwick archives. Over 150 people have been researched to date. Their stories will be captured in the 2nd edition of a churchyard booklet to be published later this year and which will be available for the congregation and visitors to buy.
Ecologically, the churchyard features a number of beautiful trees, many of which provide a shaded canopy, adding to the sense of seclusion and peace. Native wildflower species, and lesser seen birds such as nuthatch and tree creepers can be seen through the seasons. Insects, including a resident beehive, add to the ecology. Retaining its wild character, sensitive planting has improved parts of the churchyard, which previously harboured debris and dense weeds.
Path and disabled access ramps have also improved access to the churchyard. These are kept in good condition by regular clear-up days. Hopefully (beyond Covid 19 restrictions), we can plan regular open days for parishioners and visitors to appreciate beauty and history of this holy place. After the Covid-19 restrictions, it will be possible to arrange a churchyard tour by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notable Burials at St Olave’s
Siward of Northumbria
Earl Siward ordained that the first church dedicated to St Olave should be established on this site. Siward, of Scandinavian origin, was the powerful ruler of the North of England during 1040-1055. It was usual for such rulers to establish and build churches. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Siward was buried in the grounds of church he founded. Siward was thus the first known burial, somewhere in or around current site of St Olave’s and St Mary’s Abbey.
Some medieval memorials were recorded by York historians and antiquarians but are no longer identifiable. These include:
- John Kilburn – Gatekeeper of St Mary’s Abbey; a monk and probably a chaplain of St Olave’s. He was buried in St Mary’s Abbey and left 20d to fabric of St Olave’s. John Kilburn is identified on the list of St Olave’s chaplains in the year 1390.
- John Coates – Butcher and freeman, who lived in Marygate with his wife Agnes. He was Chamberlain of York in 1461 and Sheriff 1464. He requested burial in the choir of St Olave’s and there is record of a vault and monument dated 1487.
Tyburn gallows – St Olave’s churchyard is the final resting place of four men hanged in the 17th century at York’s infamous Tyburn gallows on the Knaresmire. There are no headstones and the whereabouts of their graves is unknown.
York asylum – Countless burials in the churchyard from the former York asylum reflect a dark period of York’s history. One page of parish records shows at least seven asylum burials at St Olaves in 1811.
Headstones and Monuments
Memorials to those buried include notable, highly talented people alongside less well known parishioners. Each have contributed to the historical, social and cultural history of York. Here are some examples:
- Reverend Daniel Isaac (1780-1834) – celebrated Methodist (Wesleyan) Minister, who publically opposed slavery and was a champion of factory reform. There is a leaflet about Daniel Isaac’s remarkable life at the rear of St Olave’s Church.
- The ‘Littledale’ infants – four infants who died between 1838 and 1842. Their headstones occupy one base against the south wall of the churchyard. The eldest child to die was four; his three siblings all died before they were two years old.
- Joseph Halfpenny (1748-1811) – renowned artist and engraver, who influenced architecture appreciably during his lifetime and beyond.
- William Etty (1787-1849) – York-born Royal Academician, who occupies the most prestigious and well-known grave in the churchyard. Etty achieved wide national and international acclaim during his lifetime. He was involved in the conservation of York Minster and York’s city walls, and campaigned passionately to oppose plans which sought to damage York’s heritage.
- John Camidge (1734-1803) and Matthew Camidge (1764-1844) – organists at York Minster. The Camidge family of York made significant contributions to city’s musical heritage over five generations, and three Camidges were successive organists at York Minster.
- Richard Nicholson (1793-1849) – brother-in-law of George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’. Richard was found drowned soon after the railway speculation bubble burst and George Hudson suffered a catastrophic fall from grace.
Read more in these booklets written and researched by Helen Fields
Copies of the booklets can also be purchased from the back of St Olave’s Church
William Etty’s Tomb
Over the years there has been a considerable deterioration in the stonework of William Etty’s tomb. The Etty Tomb conservation project has been underway since Spring 2019. The consulting Architect has produced a comprehensive report on deteriorating status of the Etty tomb. The estimated cost of conservation is around £12k, taking into account architect fees, VAT etc. The work will involve dismantling the tomb entirely, cleaning the stonework and inscriptions, re-assembling and repairing deteriorating masonry, particularly replacing the rusted iron staples currently holding the tomb together.
It will be painstaking work but the aim is to maintain the ancient character of the tomb. We have received generous donations to date and we are about a third of the way to raising the funds required.
Donations towards the Etty Tomb conservation project are gratefully received. Please email the church treasurer Christine Stanton for details on how you can donate towards the project.
William Etty’s Tomb Inscription
William Etty, Royal Academician
Who in his brilliant works has left an enduring monument of his exalted genius. Earnestly aiming to attain the lofty position on which his highly gifted talents have placed him, he throughout his life exhibited unabated perseverance in his profession, to promote its advancement in his beloved country. He watched the progress of those engaged in its study with the most disinterested kindness. To his elevated and highly poetical mind were united a cheerfulness and sweetness of disposition, with great simplicity and urbanity of manners. He was richly endeared to all who knew him. His piety was unaffected, his faith in Christ sincere and his devotion to God exemplary.
He was born in York March 10th, 1787
And died in his native city November 13th, 1849
Why seek ye the living among the dead? Luke XXIV. V
Trees, Wildflowers, Birds and Bees
These resting places of the dead,How beautiful they lie;The green grass turf above them spread,Beneath a summer sky.
From The Churchyard by John Clare
Ecologically, the churchyard features a number of beautiful trees, many of which provide a shaded canopy, adding to the sense of seclusion and peace. Native wildflower species, and lesser seen birds such as nuthatch and tree creepers can be seen through the seasons. Insects, including a resident beehive, add to the ecology. Retaining its wild character, sensitive planting has improved parts of the churchyard, which previously harboured debris and dense weeds. You can see some of the plants and trees in the Graveyard Gallery below and also by reading Helen Fields’ booklet The Garden and Churchyard of St Olave’s Church.
St Olave’s apiarist, Buff Reid, looks after the churchyard honey bees and produces small quantities of York Churchyard Honey each year. You may be lucky enough to find some to buy after church services – it is delicious!
Graveyard Gallery by Ben Pugh
Click or tap on the images to display large versions
We are fortunate indeed to have such a gifted gardener, Helen Fields, to sensitively tend the churchyard flora. In addition, members of the St Olave’s Church congregation come together every year to clean up the churchyard, keeping the paths safe and clearing dead wood and unwanted plant growth. Here are some photographs taken of the clear-up in early 2020.
Would you like to join us next time?