All Saints' Church, Gresford

Our History

The earliest mention of a church at Gresford is in Domesday Book AD 1086, which records that there was a church and a priest at “Gretford in Extan hundred”. This spelling has given rise to a theory that the name Gresford does not derive, as is generally believed, from the Welsh Croesffordd (crossroads) but from the ford on the river Alyn on the road from Holt to Caergwrle, and that the original name is either Gretford or Gritford. It is not known whether the church mentioned in the Domesday Book was on the site of the present church; possibly it was at Marford, on or near the site of the early British camp which was destroyed by the gravel workings; possibly it was the Chapel of St Leonard in the Alyn valley. The only trace of this chapel is to be found in the name Pontycapel for the lane which led to it.

The first reference to a church on the present site is in a document (now lost) to which the great local historian A.N. Palmer (1847-1915) refers. It relates that at a jury or inquisition held at Gresford at the Feast of St Michael in 1333 It was declared that the church at Gresford was founded by Trahaearn ap Ithel ap Eunydd and his five brothers who endowed it with glebe land.

This late 13th century church was built in stone. In the angle formed by the tower and the exterior of the north aisle is a buttress considered by some to be Early English; this, with the interior (east) wall of the tower, is the only visible relic of that church. The pitch of its roof can be traced above the opening into the tower, inside the present church, but since the recent cleaning of the stonework this is no longer so easy to see. It extended as far as the present screen. The nave was narrower than the present nave, being only 18’4″ wide.

In the 14th century an aisle was added on the south side; the window in the Decorated style at the west end of the south aisle remains from this period. At the same time the chancel was extended eastward as far as the present altar rail, and a vaulted crypt was built under it. This crypt was the same width as the chancel (18’4″) and had small openings with iron grilles on the north and south sides, so it is clear that the new south aisle did not extend further than the earlier east wall. A plain, low tower was added at the west end and an arched opening was made from the nave into the tower.

In the late 15th century the earlier church was almost entirely demolished and the fine church which we now see was built in the perpendicular style. Only the tower and part of the west wall and part of the east wall were retained.

Historic Image of Gresford Church

Why was such a splendid church built in a small village in which, a hundred years later in 1589, there were only twenty houses? It must have been a marvel to the inhabitants of these houses of timber and nettle and daub, surrounded as they were by woods with narrow dark tracks, to see the building of this great stone church. The large windows, so different from the small windows, covered by linen, in their own houses, must have seemed, as F.C. Crossley said, like a coloured lantern. It has been described as the perfect Cheshire church in Wales, but no Cheshire church contains all the features which make Gresford Church so remarkable.

The parish of Gresford was large, covering 30 square miles. It extended beyond the parish of Wrexham and once included Erthigand, the chapelries of Holt and Isycoed. In the 19th century three new parishes were created out of it: Rossett, Gwersyllt and Llay, but the parish, though extensive, contained no great source of wealth. Canon Fishbourne, who was Vicar of Gresford from 1897-1916, believed that the church was a place of pilgrimage, and that it contained some object of veneration which brought pilgrims from afar, and that their gifts financed the building of the 15th century church. In support of this theory, he quotes a document of 1543, a lease of the old vicarage house to Bishop Parfew who apparently lived in great state, mostly at Denbigh or Wrexham, hardly ever at St Asaph. He appealed to Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell “to obtayne my lycence for to remove my See or Cathedral Church to Wrexham”. He proposed to live at the vicarage in Gresford, and the preamble to the lease of the vicarage states that “… of late time many and divers oblations, offerings … profits … and advantages were yearly from divers parts of this Realm brought, given and offered at and in the said church of Gresford … by reason whereof … the Church of the said parish was strongly and beautifully made erect and builded, as also all manner of ornaments and other necessaries requisite for the replenishing and furniture of the same were brought and provided and the inhabitants of the … parish … were not a little aided and succoured towards the better sustentation of the living … In the event, Bishop Parfew’s plan came to nothing, and the lease was never executed.

Historic Image of Gresford Church

We do not know what drew these visitors “from diverse parts of this Realm” or why they brought offerings but there is, in the Lady Chapel, a niche which shows traces of painting, and which now holds a modern statue of the Virgin and Child possibly replacing an earlier lost effigy of the Virgin. There was once an image of All Hallows (the dedication of the church is All Saints). In 1512 John Roden left a bequest of money “… to buy a, yard and a quarter of velvet to make All Hallows a coat and to pay for the making”. These images probably disappeared at the Reformation. If there was indeed a figure which was an object of veneration it seems probable that this was a figure of the Virgin. The windows in the Lady Chapel are devoted to the birth, life and death of the Virgin.

Another possible explanation of the richness of the church is that it was endowed by Thomas Stanley, Carl of Derby, the step-father of King Henry VII. Other churches in the area, notably Mold and Wrexham are late 15th century churches known as Stanley churches. It is known that it was Thomas Stanley who gave the great east window at Gresford, but there are no heraldic emblems of the family, as there are in other churches. Thomas Stanley’s brother, Sir William Stanley, held the lordship and castle of Holt. It was his intervention at the battle of Bosworth which won the battle for Henry Tudor and gained him the throne as Henry VII. Sir William became Lord Chamberlain to Henry VII. Later, he supported the cause of Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be one of the Princes in the Tower, son of King Edward IV and therefore the rightful King. Because of this Sir William Stanley was executed. There is a tradition that the rebuilding of Gresford church was financed by Henry VII to show his regret for the execution of the man who had once served him so well. However, the execution took place in 1495, by which time the rebuilding of the church was almost completed.

The church still drew large congregations after the Reformation. In 1535 two of Thomas Cromwell’s visitors, Dr Adam Becansau and John Vaughan reported that “the people diligently hear sermons and bewail their errors as much as any that I ever saw. At a sermon in Gresford on Sunday last by a B.D. there was near 1000 people”.

The church is built of Cefn stone, a carboniferous sandstone.The roofs of the aisles and nave have embattled parapets. Above the aisle windows runs a string course ornamented with flowers, human faces and scampering animals. The seven windows on each side have four lights under flattened arches, and hood moulds which end in carved heads or strange animals. The downspouts are held by monkeys or grotesque creatures. Above the chancel roof are a cross and two pinnacles.

Historic Image of Gresford Church

The tower has a band of quatrefoil ornamentation which marks the level of the 14th century tower; the part above this was added after 1512, when John Roden left money to be paid” when the steeple shall be new Made”. On each side there are pairs of louvred openings to the bell chamber, with crocketed ogee hood moulds, and above them a frieze of quatrefoils and a panelled parapet. In 1582 John Leach bequeathed ten shillings “towards the erectinge of the pynnacles”. Between the eight pinnacles are eight figures; these are carved in front only, the backs being left plain. They have been variously described as kings, knights, evangelists and pilgrims. The pinnacles have crashed through the roof on at least five occasions.

On the buttresses at the angles of the tower are canopied niches two of which contain statues and, at the south-west angle and at a lower level, a figure that has sometimes been identified, improbably, as Henry VII.

Above the door of the 15th century south porch a small niche with an ogee canopy contains a badly eroded statue of the Virgin.The two stone figures inside the porch were given to the church by the Revd T.C. Puleston, Vicar of Worthenbury . They had been lying for several years at Emral, the seat of the Puleston family, and were believed to have come from Gresford church.Nothing certain, however, seems to be known about them, and it is difficult to discover where their position could have been in the church. The windows in the porch are memorlals to two brothers who were killed in the 1914-1918 war. They contain Italian glass given to the church in the 18th century by a foreign merchant named Tudor who was born in the parish. The gift was not well received at the time, and apparently not used. The glass is quite different in style from the rest of the glass in the church, being painted with large cheerful heads of cherubs. The south porch was converted into a vestry in 1810 and was so used for many years.

The north porch was added in 1921 and was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson in Portland stone as a war memorial. Above the entrance is a figure of St George and the dragon. The eight small windows in this porch contain fragments of old glass which came originally from a window in the north aisle.

Historic Image of Gresford Church