Historic Tour In Words and Pictures
The oldest part of the church (c1120) is the two easternmost bays of the NAVE.
The population of the parish in the early C13 was presumably expanding since an extra western bay was added c1220.
The CHANCEL and SIDE CHAPELS were added soon afterwards. At least one of the chapels was a CHANTRY; land was given in 1235 to pay for a Priest to offer Mass for the dead and for a lamp to burn before the statue of Our Lady.
The clerestorey and battlements were built c1500 and a low-pitched roof replaced the original steep-pitched one.
In the Sanctuary is an incomplete brass (c1470) of an unknown couple, their three daughters and six sons.
In the floor near the N.door is the GRAVE COVER of a man, made of Frosterley marble (c1250).
Cuthbert Carre who is buried in the Sanctuary (1697) was Squire of St. Helen's Hall, the magnificent building East of the church. He was a staunch defender of Charles I and the City of Newcastle in the Civil War. Captain Carre was hero of the siege of Newcastle against the Scots in 1644.
Over the Porch is a PRIEST'S ROOM originally with an extra storey, but rebuilt in 1866. In the later Middle Ages, St. Helen's was served by priests from the collegiate church of St. Andrew, Auckland (at South Church) where there is another "domus inclusa" - the only other of its kind in England. The original stairway to the room can be seen jutting out from the S.wall of the Nave, near the font.
Most of the woodwork is Victorian, though some, notably the carved panels in the CHANCEL STALLS is C17. Donor and date are carved on some panelling near the organ, "RALPH 1629 EDEN". The Eden family, forebears of the late Prime Minister, Lord Avon lived at West Auckland Manor and some of their monuments are outside the E. window.
The entrance is the original door of the church and, therefore, one of the oldest doors in England.
The most notorious of the INCUMBENTS is John Vaux, instituted in 1616. In the 1630's he was deprived of his living for selling horoscopes at the Altar (!) and allegedly using astrological means to recover stolen property. He was, however, later reinstated, and was buried here in 1651.
The Victorian glass in the C13 window is a memorial to Dr. Kilburn, the surgeon who examined the bodies of some of the children said to have been poisoned by Mary Ann Cotton, the notorious mass-murderess. Her last murders took place at West Auckland and she was executed at Durham Prison in 1873.
The E.WINDOW is a memorial to the Chester family. Matthew Chester was Vicar here for almost 50 years in the C19. The glass was designed and made by Kemp.
Of the two BELLS, one is early Victorian, the other medieval with an inscription: SANCTA HELENA ORA PRO NOBIS (SAINT HELEN PRAY FOR US).
The SITING of the church here, rather than in the larger settlement of West Auckland is curious, particularly since the parish used to extend, prior to 1832, much further westwards than it does today. A possible reason is the Christianisation of a pagan sacred place. Early St. Helen dedications are thought by some, to be connected with the Celtic water-goddess Elin - witness to many St. Helen's springs and wells.
Whatever the truth of this, PRAYER and WORSHIP have been offered in this place for over 800 years, as they still are today. The white light in the Lady Chapel indicates the special Presence of Our Lord in the BLESSED SACRAMENT reserved for the Communion of the sick and the devotion of the faithful.
Please pray for us as we pray for you.
|The story of S. Helena|
© 2000 Neil Smith