Headland Benefice

History of St Leonard’s Church


Text by Trevor Sykes Crown Copyright (c) 1987 

Artwork by Andrew Simpson, Christine Halliday and Paul Hancock

Edited by David Hartley (c) 2024

Welcome to our little church. It is one of the smallest churches in Yorkshire, with no aisles, porch or east windows; but note how deep the other windows are; the massive walls. It is thought to have been built originally by the Saxons, was doubtless used by the Danes, and certainly restored by the Normans; and several times since. Note the unusual tiny pagoda-like tower, the Norman chancel arch and the plain Saxon font. 

Inside the sanctuary note also where once no doubt stood a statue (of Our Lady-or the Patron-Saint, Leonard?) and the very unusual stone alms-box adjoining for the offerings of pilgrims. 

Sketch of St Leonards by Terry Thornton

Drawing by Terry Thornton

A Brief History

The church of St. Leonard's at Speeton, which is one of the smallest complete parish churches in Yorkshire, was erected in the early Norman period, not later than 1100. It was probably built on the site of an earlier Saxon church dating from the first days of Christianity in Yorkshire.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the lands of Speeton were bestowed, by various owners, on the Augustinian Priory at Bridlington. Eventually almost the whole of the present parish formed part of the Priories' estates. Speeton church depended upon Bridlington churchmen for religious administration. In 1290, Edward I granted the prior and canons free warren over many manors including Speeton. A parochial chaplain is first mentioned in 1451. 

The gift of so much land is evidence of a great religious devotion on the part of many previous residents of the village. The church is dedicated to St. Leonard, who lived in the sixth century and became the patron saint of prisoners and captives. He ministered to slaves and prisoners in an age when the threat of such a fate hung over everyone. His feast day is November 6th.

Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Speeton church seems to have had a peaceful existence until the reign of Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the Reformation, the churches frescoe of the Crucifixion, stone altar, vestments, votive lights and probably a statue of St. Leonard himself were all removed. 

After the Reformation, Robert Denison became the proprietor of Speeton, his family remaining patrons until Lord Londesborough sold his lands earlier this century. The Chantry of St. Leonard in Speeton Chapel had owned land in other parishes, e.g. Harpham, before the Reformation. The 'Chapel of Speeton' was mentioned in the Parliamentary survey of 1650. It had tithes worth £50 p.a. which were the property of Sir Michael Wharton. The chaplain's salary is recorded as £3. 12s. Od. (£3.60) per annum. At this time the preaching minister was one Richard Broderick, a puritan, who also preached at Bempton. This connection with Bempton church was to continue until 1919, when Speeton was merged with Reighton to form a "United Benefice."


In the eighteenth century big box pews and a three decker pulpit were provided, while the font was moved into the chancel. As with most small churches of the period, the curates were absentees. In the years 1743 to 1764 the curate lived at Hunmanby but this was much closer at hand than was the case with most absentee curates. 

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the incumbents at Flamborough and Bempton often conducted services at Speeton. The fact that the church was often empty at this time has led to the belief that it may have been used by smugglers to store their takings before distribution. Only one service was held every six weeks in 1743.

Charlotte Brontë “the walls green with mould”

In the nineteenth century the church must have presented a somewhat run-down appearance. A visit by the local topographer Reverend Prickett, led him to report in 1831 that, "Speeton Chapel is only an oblong room." The east end of the church was being used as a school. The church was probably the one visited by Charlotte Bronte in 1852, when she tells that, "It was certainly not more than thrice the length of our passage, floored with brick, the walls green with mould, the pews painted white, but the paint almost worn off with time and decay." She also recorded the humorous situation of the choir facing away from the congregation.

Reverend George Alcock, who wrote the history of Speeton Parish and Church in 1936 spoke with many people who remembered the church in the latter half of Victoria's reign. The box pews were occupied by farm labourers from the 1860's until much later, while other pews came to be regarded as belonging to certain farmers and their tenants. Reverend Alcock records, however, that Speeton never indulged in the sin of charging pew rents.

A Sketch of St Leonards Chancel Arch

During the period 1865-70 the chancel was used, once again, as a school. The average daily attendance in 1865 was twelve. In this year the Minister stated that "nearly all the inhabitants attented both church and chapel." Some attended on alternate Sundays which perhaps explains the co-operation between the religious houses concerning the harmonium, which was used at the church for one service and then moved to the chapel for the next. This seems to have become an established tradition by the early years of this century.

Nags Head Refreshments!

The lack of burial ground meant that coffins were often carried by the pall bearers to Bridlington Priory. It was customary for the bearers to refresh themselves at the Nags Head near the Priory, at the end of their arduous journey and if time allowed, to call there again before starting back to the village. This custom continued to almost within living memory and a well worn track once existed to mark the funeral route. When the railway was constructed, a new road was built and the old track gradually fell into disuse. 

In the later years of the nineteenth century, continuing into Edwardian times, the farmers occupying the three neighbouring farms made themselves responsible for the churches upkeep. This system, which worked in rotation, was so successful that collections for church expenses were unknown before 1906.

20th Century Restorations

A Cutaway Sketch of St Leonards

The dilapidated condition of the church remained a problem, however with plaster falling from the roof, even during services. Reverend John Wilkinson Vicar of Bempton and Speeton in 1905-14 undertook to restore the building. A bazaar was held at Millholm Farm, a new organ was bought, the box pews, pulpit and plaster ceiling were removed. Smaller pine pews were built and erected on the spot. 

The new pulpit was part of a stall given to St. Mary's Bridlington by Mrs. Greenwood Clayton. The tiles were replaced by a brick floor and two lancet windows were made in the west wall on either side of the tower. The font was moved from the chancel to the west end and an altar cross set up on the altar. Most of this occurred in 1911.

Stone Carvings at St Leonards

In 1965 restoration took place and an Agnus Dei (1), which is a figure of a lamb bearing a cross, of about 1120-25 was found over the south door and reset inside the church. The present building consists of a nave, chancel and tower. The plain circular font (2) dates from Saxon times. Let into the North wall is a stone bearing a circular cross (3). This was discovered in 1910 and is most likely the original consecration cross of the church. There are two trefoil headed recesses on the North wall (4), the second with a carving of a Maltese Cross. 

Recesses at St Leonards

On the east wall there are the remains of a niche and canopy (5). These may have supported a statue of the Saint before the 1530's. Next to it is a projecting stone box which could have been used for the offerings of early pilgrims, or as a tabernacle (6). On the South side of the chancel arch is an oak crucifix given by Reverend Alcock in memory of his father. Speeton has an "English" altar with candle sconces made by Herbert Moon the village blacksmith. The tapestry banner is of white damask and aquamarine velvet. Plaques on Stone Bearing Circular Cross (3) the south wall commemorate the restorations of 1911 and 1965. On the outside of this wall can be seen the scratch dial or mass clock, barely visible at first glance. 

The Ships’ Bell

The church is built of stone with a little chalk. It is surrounded by a low stone wall which has replaced the earlier Victorian iron railings but there is still no churchyard. The narrow tower is in three tiers with a pyramidal roof containing only one bell, which is a ships bell with a distinctive tone. The most recent restoration was carried out in 1976/77. Full details are given on a large painted notice on the North Wall (7). 

The pine pews were replaced by those made of oak and matching oak rails were installed, as a memorial to Elizabeth Coleman, church organist for over twenty five years. The pulpit was removed and a lectern, built by a local joiner and inscribed in memory of Mary Brompton, now serves this function. The oak door, dedicated to the memory of Judy Morrell was added in 1983.

The road to the church car park, post and rail fencing and several trees were provided in the early 1970's by members of the Coleman family, whose farm stands adjacent to the church. There is no present incumbent at the time of writing, reliance being placed on part time priests, for religious services which nevertheless still take place every Sunday. How long the unbroken history of the church stretches back in time it is impossible to say but there is no doubt that it has provided a place of worship for many generations of Speeton people.

Produced by the Heritage Coast Project. 

Published by St. Leonard's Parochial Church Council. 


The Flamborough Headland Heritage Coast Project was set up by four local authorities and the Countryside Commission. As well as co-operating with the Speeton Parochial Church Council to produce this leaflet, the Project is also producing other information on the natural and local history of the Headland. 

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