I WAS delighted when one of our moorland churches received support from the Small Scale Enhancements Scheme (SSE) that is funded by the North York Moors, Coast and Hill Leader programme. This provides support for small conservation and heritage projects.

The church is the 19th century Mortuary Chapel at Egton, which is half a mile along the road to Glaisdale. The graveyard adjoins it and is the resting place of some of my ancestors. To the south-west there are extensive views over Egton Banks towards Glaisdale and beyond.

It is indeed a tranquil place – with a turbulent history.

Its new information board is rather brief – it says the chapel stands on the site of the original St Hilda’s Church dedicated by the Bishop of Damascus in 1349. How he became involved is a mystery. The board adds that the old church was built much earlier and eventually “fell into disrepair” to be demolished in 1878.

However, Papal records show that an indulgence was granted as early as 1291 to penitents who came to this church and its Catholic origins are not in doubt. In its early days, it comprised a chancel, nave with a south aisle, a west tower and south porch.

There were also six pillars on square bases and its windows were thought to date from the 15th century.

When it was pulled down in 1878 to make way for the Mortuary Chapel, signs of deliberate damage were evident. Pillars had been mutilated and there were signs of its interior being smothered in plaster and whitewash. The font was thrown down the hillside, but later recovered to find sanctuary in Goathland church. There was other damage and vandalism inside and out.

So what had happened to this proud old church? A clue lies in that extensive view towards Glaisdale.

The actions of King Henry VIII are widely known but although he separated the English Church from Rome, he continued to worship in Catholic style. This did not please Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. He intended to impose the new faith upon the nation and his opportunity came with Henry’s death in January 1547.

Henry’s successor was his son, Edward VI – but he was only nine years old. In his determination to eradicate Catholic worship, Cranmer suggested the new King undertook a nationwide “Visitation” to ensure the new faith was being practised. The child-King agreed and so the Edwardine Visitations began.

England was divided into six regions and 36 commissioners were appointed to enforce the King’s orders. Every Catholic artefact within a church would be ripped out or covered up, and it was the duty of the churchwardens to ensure it happened.

The commissioners expected the churches to be emptied of things like statues, the rood screen, the altar stone, stained glass windows, images of saints and biblical scenes or prayers painted on walls. Altar stones would be smashed, pilgrimages were banned and even the use of candles was restricted. People were fined or had their property confiscated if they did not attend C of E church services.

This led to the ransacking of England’s ancient former Catholic churches and evidence of those actions can be seen in many of them, such as remnants of smashed altar stones, headless images of saints and white-washed walls.

However, that little church at Egton was at the forefront of Catholic devotion and the view towards Glaisdale contains houses and farms that featured in Recusants Returns of the 17th century.

Despite persecution, the ancient Catholic faith flourished in Egton and that hilly area became known as a Bishopric of Papists.

As State persecution continued, a leader emerged. He was Father Nicholas Postgate, the martyr of the moors whose defence of his faith led to his execution at York. His parents lived at Kirkdale Banks opposite Rake Farm, Glaisdale, and in the 17th century, this area was known as Kirkdale. That battered little kirk had nurtured the faith that made Egton famous.

There is more history. After the Reformation, English law stipulated that everyone must be buried with a Church of England service but a religious census of 1851 showed the number of Anglicans attending church was only marginally higher than the total following other faiths.

This prompted demands to change the burial laws so that Non-conformists could use their own rituals, initially in Church of England graveyards.

A change in the law occurred on September 7, 1880, and the first to take advantage only two days later was a Non-conformist burial at Beckenham in Kent.

The country’s first Catholic burial after the amendment was that of 16- year-old Maria Ripley from Egton Bridge. Her funeral was on September 13, 1880, in that historic Egton churchyard with a service in Latin before interested onlookers.