Altham Parish Church
Altham Parish Church
The church at Elvetham
The church of Elvetham - or in modern language Altham - standing on the high bank of the Calder where it forms the north east boundary of the parish, has much to offer in the way of Church history and architecture. No record has yet been found which tells when the site was first given over to Christian worship, but a deed ascribed to the reign of Stephen 1135-54 is translated "Be it known to all present and future that I, Henry de Lacy, have given, granted, and by this my present charter have confirmed to Hugh, son of Leofwine, and his heirs in fee and heredity, Elvetham, Clayton and Akerington, and a moiety of Bylington, with the gift of the monastery of Elvetham, and with all liberties pertaining to the aforesaid land' to be held of me and my heirs freely and quietly, honourably and fully in wood, in tilled land, in pastures, in fields, in waters, fisheries, mills, and hunting, in all the aforesaid lands. By rendering to us and to our heirs half a knight's service for all services pertaining to us." This provides clear evidence of a church in Norman times and a strong possibility of one earlier in the Saxon period.
It may be necessary to explain the use of the word "monastery" (in the Latin deed "monasterii") as nothing suggests a monastic institution at Altham like that established at nearby Whalley a century and a half later. Had the writer of the deed wished to record a monastery such as is generally known he would surely have written "monasterium". The Anglo-Saxon term for a large or important church was "mynstre" and this is probably what was meant when he used the word "monasterii."
The choice of the site for the church at Altham can be attributed to its geographical situation. From earliest times, and certainly pre-Roman, the ancient trackway (which can still be followed) came out of Rossendale via Haslingden, Hameldon Moor, Huncoat, the ford at Altham and went through Simonstone and Sabden to Clitheroe, a natural strong-point. In Norman times Clitheroe Castle was the administrative centre of north east Lancashire. The manor house of Altham stood astride this ancient trackway on high ground above the Calder crossing. And overlooked the eeses. This was a position strategically important and vital to the defence of the De Lacy territory.
Similar sites, all on the Calder, can be seen at Gawthorpe, Martholme and Hacking, the latter two like Altham being moated. Hugh, son of Leofwine the Saxon thane, a christian, was recognised by De Lacy as being worthy and competent to continue in his Saxon inheritance and render service to the Norman overlord His settlement at Altham controlled the river crossing and his church was only a stones-throw from his dwelling.
The importance of the church at Altham may be inferred from its endowment when compared with other churches in Whalley parish in the year 1284. Clitheroe had 2 oxgangs or 38 acres, Burnley 2 oxgangs or 38 acres, Altham 4 oxgangs or 60 acres, Downham 2 oxgangs or 36 acres, Colne 2 2 oxgangs or 38 acres, Church Kirk 2 oxgangs or 32 acres, and Haslingden 1 oxgangs or 15 acres. With its superior benefice Altham obtained for itself a large measure of independence and claimed parish church status in its own right. Certainly there were burials here and probably baptisms as well. In 1249 this claim was disputed by Peter, rector of Whalley, and an Oxford Court appointed by the pope to adjudicate, ruled that Altham continued to maintain the validity of its claim, and this to some extent was admitted in 1301, because Simon de Altham then received £20 for the resignation of his rights to the Abbot of Whalley, and 300 shillings for legal costs incurred at Lichfield, Canterbury and Rome.
Altham remained a chapel until it became a parish in 1867.
In 1512 the church was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style, with nave and aisles of three bays with octagonal piers and double chamfered arches. The east window of the north aisle is Decorated gothic, having survived from the earlier building A piscina of the same period, formerly in the south aisle chantry chapel, now occupies a place, wrongly, in the north wall of the chancel. The font, perpendicular in style, is said to be the gift of the patron John Paslew, Abbot of Whalley 1507-1537. This may account for the Norman font having been made unusable and relegated to the porch. Carved on Paslew's font are emblems of the passion, the Greek letter Tau a symbol of peace, and amongst other sacred monograms is M R - Maria Regina. Set in the wall in the vestry is a stone with the date 1512 cut in relief, also M - Mary. These two inscriptions support the belief that the church at one time was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The chancel arch, double chamfered and rampant, bears the distinct traces of having supported a rood. The aisle and clerestory windows of local millstone grit are straight-headed with three round arched uncusped lights. On the hood-ould stops of the east window of the south aisle are the arms of the De Altham and Townley families.
Many interments have taken place inside the church, especially in the chancel. This practice was probably the reason for the necessity to rebuild the chancel in 1819 and again in 1859. Gravestones of the Banastre and Lomax families have been taken up from the chancel floor and placed outside, north and east of the church.
In 1859 major renovations were carried out by the Revd. William Sharpe, Vicar of Altham 1848-1891. He rebuilt the chancel and added the tower and belfry replacing the bell cote on the west gable. The flat ceiling of the nave was removed and the roof timbers exposed. A gallery which covered a third of the nave was taken down. The three-decker pulpit was replaced by a single space pulpit and a separate clerk's pew. The old box pews, which varied in height and seating according to the size of the owner's family, were cleared away to make room for uniform pews with doors, and poppyheads of cast iron.
The church possesses three memorial brasses - Cunliffe + 1662, Walmsley + 1761 and Royston + 1802. There are alabaster memorials of the Lonsdale and Aspinall families in the nave, and in the chancel Lomax of Clayton Hall. Memorial tablets of three members of the Roe-Walton family + 1845/51 are on the wall of the south aisle where they are interred. They were the last holders of the Manor of Altham who were descendants by blood from Leofwine the Saxon. The four hatchments between the clerestory windows commemorate Richard Fort + 1829, John Fort + 1842, Richard Fort + 1808 and Richard Thomas Roe-Walton + 1845. A memorial board in the baptistry with the arms of Lonsdale and Cowper commemorates Elizabeth Cowper nee Lonsdale + 1728 of Hough Green, near Chester, and formerly of High Riley in Accrington.
Amongst the church plate is a rare Tudor communion cup with chased band below the rim. There are two pewter flagon inscribed "Altham Chapell 1745."
The pulpit, desk and chancel furnishings, all in oak, were installed 1928-31. They were carved to the design of Mr Haworth Aspden of Accrington. There were also two oak 17th century Yorkshire chairs. In 1937 a ring of eight bells from the Loughborough foundry was installed. The single bell they replaced was given to St. James' Clayton-le-Moors.
The registers of Altham Church commence 1596, and up to 1695 they have been printed by the Lancashire Parish register Society, Vol 36. Register book No.2 (1671-1748) contains Baptisms, Marriages and Burials up to May 1786 when Accrington entries commence. In this book the left hand page lists the Accrington entries and the right hand right hand page lists the Altham entries. Thus there are two registers in one book, and these have therefore been separated. Only the Altham entries are in this volume. The Accrington entries are in the Accrington volume.
Local writings have referred to the Churchwarden's accounts as starting in 1732 and details of items in the 1730s have been quoted, but a recent search in 1977 revealed the earliest now held to be 1843. These, and other church records, together with the registers, have now been deposited in the County Record Office, Preston.
Acknowledgements are made gratefully to :