A Castle, A Church and the Ringing of Church Bells

“Grasp the Sally and pull down. Don’t forget to let go.” “Grasp the what?”

Dateline: Thursday, 3 May 2007, outside of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, 18:15 local time.

My fourth cousin once removed, Phil and his wife Margaret picked me up at my hotel. Our destinations Sandal Magna Castle and the Church of Sandal Magna, known as Saint Helen’s Sandal. The castle and the church are about a half mile apart by road. A note about the photographs in this post: I had taken the memory card out of my camera to load photographs to my laptop from earlier in the day and forgot to put it back in the camera. Consequently the photographs in this post were taken several days later.

Our last stop of the evening was Sandal Magna Castle. Steeped in history all that remains is part of one wall.

Castle Ruiens
The castle was probably built in the early 12th–century as a motte-and-bailey castle by William de Warenne, the 2nd Earl of Surrey.1 “The Domesday book2 compiled in 1086 records Sandal as a berewic (a place where barley is grown).3 A number of  battles were fought during the Wars of the Roses. One of those battles was The Battle of Wakefield in 1460. It was fought at Sandal Magna Castle. During the fighting  the Duke of York was killed between the castle and the church. Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3 takes place at Sandal Castle. The township of Sandal was a Royalist holdout and in 1645 Cromwell destroyed the castle with cannon fire.4

View towards Sandal Magna Church

View of the Bell tower
Sandal Magna Church’s bell tower is in the circle. 

Walking the perimeter of the castle grounds was quite thrilling. The view from the lookout stunning. To the north and west you can see the River Calder where in 1846 my 3x great-grandfather Thomas Eccles plied his trade as a boatman. Thomas married his wife Eliza Heywood less than a half mile away at the Church of Sandal Magna. I could not help but think he had walked these same grounds.


Aerial view of Sandal Castle5
Arial Sandal Magna Castle-2
Clicking on the image will take you to Google Earth where you can virtually explore Sandal Magna Castle.

Earlier in the day, while at the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield, Margaret and I found the marriage records for my 3x great-grandparents Thomas Eccles and Eliza Heywood. They were officially married 1 March 1833 at the Church of Sandal Magna.6 The marriage banns had been read on three consecutive Sundays beginning on 20 January 1833.7

Thomas Eccles and Eliza Heywood Marriage Records
Thomas Eccles & Eliza Heywood marriage

The Church of Sandal Magna has been in existence since before the compilation of the Domesday Book8 and has under gone a number of restorations and rebuilds since its beginning. The last major rebuild was in 1872.9

As we approached the entrance of the church a woman came out to great us. She had heard our voices and recognized that one of them was not British. I wonder who’s that was? During our conversation I explained that my 3x great-grandparents were married here. “After you have walked the churchyard, we should be done with choir practice. You are more than welcome to come inside and see the inside of the church.”

Sandal Magna Church
Sandal Magna Church

Sandal Magna’s churchyard is one of the few remaining in the Wakefield area where the tombstones have not been laid down and turned into walkways. As we walked along the stone walkway towards the rear of the churchyard a stillness and a sense of peace begins to surround you like a warm blanket. Just around the bend as the stone walkway transitions to a well worn path you feel as though you have been transported to another time and place. An explosion of wild flowers and overgrown vegetation surrounding the tombstones is a delight for the senses.

Sandal Magna Churchyard.

After our walk through the churchyard we entered the church and were greeted by the woman who we first met when we arrived. It turned out she was the wife of the Vicar. He came over and introduced himself and started to tell the history of the church. I have always wondered what happened to the Catholic priests at the time of the Reformation in the 16th–century. So I asked. “I don’t know? That’s a very good question.” He took me over to a plaque on the wall which listed all the Vicar’s from the 1100’s with no breaks for the reformation. It looks like some of the Priest’s may have converted at the time of the reformation.

Our tour of the church’s interior ended in the parish office. “Has the churchyard been recorded?” “Yes. What names are you interested in?” “Eccles.” Upon opening the index three Eccles were found, Eliza, Francis and Ann buried in section A grave 10. At first he could not figure out where section A was located. He had only dealt with sections that were labeled by number. We eventually found section A. It is located at the front of the church. When I took my camera out to photograph the stones I got an error. I had forgotten to replace the memory card! I would have to come back on another day to photograph the stones and the church. Once we had found and examined the gravestones, the Vicar asked, “Would you like to go up to the bell tower?” “Yes.”

Bell Tower

The stairs to the tower were narrow and the top of my head was a mer inch from the ceiling. Both Phil and Margaret had to stoop to climb the stairs. I wondered what the space would be like at the top. We climbed all the way up to the top where the bells are housed. Our guide one of the bell ringers had been ringing for over 55 years. She explained how the bells worked and what all the parts were. We descended back to the ringing room. It was large, bright and airy with whitewashed walls. Old high back wooden benches line the walls. Arched windows let in the light, their ledges about two feet deep. You can clearly see the outline of the stone blocks used in the construction of the tower. The walls were adorned with old photographs of bell ringers, newspaper articles and other memorabilia. “Would you like to ring the bells?” “Really?” “Sure.” “Grasp the Sally and pull down. Don’t forget to let go.” “Grasp the what?” The thicker, fluffy part of the rope is stripped red, white and blue this section is called the Sally. And no I don’t really know why. I have no pictures other than those in my minds eye of this incredible experience. The feelings of joy and wonderment of ringing the church bells in the church where my 3x great-grandparents were married, the same bells they heard, will always be with me. It truly was a genealogical serendipitous moment.

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Sandal Castle,” rev. 15:34, 4 February 2018. 
  2. “The Domesday Book is a manuscript of the ‘Great Survey’ of much of England and parts of Wales.” It contains a listing of land and resources eligible for taxation. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Domesday Book,” rev. 02:45, 23 April 2018. 
  3. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Sandal Magna,” rev. 05:38, 26 April 2018. 
  4. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Sandal Castle,” rev. 15:34, 4 February 2018. 
  5. “Sandal Castle,” 53°39’’33” N 1°29’27” W, Google Earth (http://earthgoogle.com : accessed 9 May 2018). 
  6. Saint Helen Church, (Sandal Magna, England), Parish Marriage Register (1833), p. 13, no. 39, entry for Thomas Eccles and Eliza Heywood,1 March 1833; West Yorkshire Archive Service microfilm WDP 20/16, Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. 
  7. Saint Helen Church (Sandal Magna, Yorkshire, England), Parish Marriage Register (1833), p. 88, no. 441, entry for Thomas Eccles and Eliza Heywood,1 March 1833; West Yorkshire Archive Service microfilm WDP 20/38, Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eccles and Eliza Haywood of Dirtcarr [Durkar]. 
  8. Harold II was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. He died during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated his army. Among the crowns possessions was the Sandal Magna Church. Sandal Magna (http://sandalmagna.com : accessed 10 May 2018), “History of St. Helen’s.” St. Helen’s Sandal > History of St. Helen’s. The manor of Wakefield is recorded as having three priests and two churches. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Domesday Book,” rev. 02:45, 23 April 2018. 
  9. Sandal Magna (http://sandalmagna.com : accessed 10 May 2018), “History of St. Helen’s.” St. Helen’s Sandal > History of St. Helen’s. 

8 thoughts on “A Castle, A Church and the Ringing of Church Bells

  1. >> The feelings of joy and wonderment of ringing the church bells in the church where my 3X great-grandparents were married, the same bells they heard, …<<<

    What a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable story, Ann. Thanks. I envy you your opportunity to touch the past shared with your grandparents.

    Is the Church of Sandal Magna an Anglican church or Roman Catholic? It wasn't Protestant. The Protestant Reformation had little religious effect on England. Among the titles bestowed by the Pope on Henry VIII was "Defender of the Faith" in recognition of Henry's fight with Protestantism. It wasn't until 1534 when Parliament declared Henry the supreme head of the church in England that England spun off the Anglican communion from Rome, thus clearing the way for annulment of Henry's marriage to Cath. of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. The Anglican church retained many of the Roman Catholic articles of faith and rituals, until Cromwell embarked on campaign to purify the church of all things Roman Catholic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. agilchrest

      Dan once again you have stirred my memory! If I remember what the Vicar told me correctly, the church was originally Catholic and after Cromwell it became Anglican. I was curious about both the reformation and Cromwell’s purge. I now remember the Vicar saying that after Cromwell the Catholic priests were given a choice to convert or die.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tschwartz1935wowwaycom

    You did a great job of describing the experience and your reaction to it. I felt as though I was alongside you.


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