This description of the church has been reproduced from 'A History of Barnburgh' by J Stanley Large 1952
The Church is dedicated to St. Peter and consists of a tower of four stages, surmounted by a peculiar little spire, a Nave with North and South Aisles and a South Porch; and a Chancel with a North Aisle or Chapel.
From a close examination of the fabric it would appear that the Church passed through the following main changes.
The first Norman Church was built about 1150 and would have a tower of three stages (lower than the existing tower) an aisleless nave and a small Chancel, probably apsidal (i.e. semi-circular at the East end).
Barnburgh would be one of very few places in this district where the original church had a tower, the usual Norman construction was without a tower.
The first enlargement was some fifty years later in the Transitional Norman period, when a North Aisle was added to the Nave. It is invariably found that the first enlargements to our churches were made on the North side. This was done because there would be fewer graves to disturb, it being remembered that the people of those days, steeped as they were in superstition, avoided being buried on the North side where the shadow of the church would fall upon them.
The Chancel built by the Normans would, no doubt, as I have said, be small and as the ritual of the church became more elaborate the need for extension would arise. Furthermore there were two great families in the district at that time (the Cresacres and the Bella Aqua's or Bellews) and instead of founding monasteries as in earlier times, the idea had sprung up among many of these great families to institute Chantries. These usually took the form of little chapels inside the church but screened off, where a priest was maintained to pray for the soul of the founder and his family. Chantry certificates show that two chantries were founded in Barnburgh Church, of which more later.
All appearances therefore suggest that about 1330 the church underwent what was almost a rebuilding, and practically only the bottom two stages of the tower remained of the original church. These alterations would include the addition of the South Aisle and Porch, enlargement of the North Aisle, and the rebuilding of the Chancel with the addition of the North Chapel, and also the top two stages of the tower with the little spire. With the raising of the tower the corner buttresses would be built.
At this period there was a famous church architect, Henry de Eynsham, living at Bolton-upon-Dearne and it is probably he who planned the rebuilding. The greater part of the cost would no doubt be borne by the two ruling families of the neighbourhood, and the arms of the Cresacres were placed on the South side and those of the Bella Aqua's on the East side of the tower at the rebuilding.
As the church was then, it would be rather dark in the Nave somewhat similar to what Hickleton is to this day and so it was that about 1410 the earlier 'Decorated' style windows of the Aisles, with one exception, were replaced by the larger ones of the "perpendicular" style, the roof and walls of the Nave were made higher, and the clerestory windows inserted to give extra light. The original pitch of the roof can still be seen low down in the East wall of the tower.
From that date there has been little alteration to the appearance of the church. There have, of course, been restorations, for instance in 1859 part of the top storey of the tower was taken down and rebuilt, and it will also be noted that the windows of the Chancel, including the great East window, are modern, but are no doubt careful reproductions of the originals. This work would probably be done during the restoration of 1869, the cost of which was borne by John Hartop.
Whilst looking round the exterior of the church you will notice other features; the Priest's Door in the South of the Chancel, which is of the 'Decorated period', and on the North side, two blocked up doorways. The one which gave entrance to the North Chapel is of the Perpendicular period and no doubt, was constructed during the last alterations to the Church. This entrance would be used solely by the Cresacre family and their Chantry Priest. The other built-up door near the tower was the "Devil's Door" and would be disused after the Reformation. When in existence it would be opened during baptisms and similar ceremonies, to let the Devil out.
And so we come back to the Porch, which is of 'Decorated' style, with a ribbed and slabbed room. Notice on the spring of the innermost arch on the right hand side, the Mason's mark chiselled in stone : This was his signature to his work.
Notice also the stone benches on either side which remind us of the days when the Church Porch was a very important place, used for many purposes. Here it was that official notices were published (and indeed still are), here that the Coroner held his court, and here that people found guilty of breaking the religious laws had to do penance. Porches were used for many other purposes such as the sale of merchandise, the arranging of fairs, the ratifying of bargains and deals, and sometimes a plough was kept there for Plough Monday which was the Monday after Epiphany when ploughing and rustic toil was restarted.
On entering the church we first notice the font which appears to be of the Transitional Norman period, dating to the latter half of the twelfth century, and as such is most probably the original font.
At the other side of the main entrance is the South Chapel, which, at the Reformation was bereft of its altar, but the mutilated piscina still remains to remind us of its original use for rinsing the sacred vessels at Mass in the days when this was the private Chantry Chapel of the Bella Aqua family.
Returning to the tower we quickly see the indications of the first church in the lower two storeys of the tower which are of a fine type of masonry of the late Norman era, and there is a good example of a deeply splayed Norman window, now blocked up, probably to give added strength when the tower was raised.
The Tower Arch and Chancel Arch are unmistakably the result of the great rebuilding in about 1330 and are of this period.
Looking down the church from under the tower there are a number of features which catch the eye. The fine roofs of the Nave and of the Chancel should be noticed, and although there do not seem to be any marks which give any guide to dates, I have no doubt that this was the roof installed in the fifteenth century when the walls of the Nave were made higher. The massive tie beams each with a different carved boss show unmistakable signs of great age.
Some years ago it was found that some of the ends were rotting and a kind of wall plate was inserted on the South wall and stone corbels were placed here and there without any attempt at uniformity. A piece of one of the tie beams was taken out and may now be seen in a corner of the Chancel doing duty as a table. An examination of this shows the finely moulded carving of which the earlier woodworkers were capable.
A puzzling feature to be noticed from the tower arch is the clerestory which is of perpendicular style and was made in 1410 (or thereabouts) when the roof was lifted. Although the clerestory windows on both sides were inserted at the same time it will be seen that those on the South are two light windows and those on the North three light.
Why was this unusual procedure adopted? Could it be that the two wealthy families who then owned Barnburgh and who would most likely bear most of the expense of the alterations, differed as to the style and finally decided each to have its own way on its own side. It will also be noticed (but more distinctly from the Chancel) that when the clerestory windows were put in they used as lintels, tomb slabs, probably taken from the church floor. This ruthless despoiling of graves can be seen in a number of churches. It has been suggested that they were brought here from the demolished St. Helen's chapel, but I cannot agree with this as it is more than likely that St. Helen's was still in use when the clerestory of St. Peter's was built.
The next thing which draws our attention from under the Tower Arch is the beautiful screenwork for which Barnburgh church is noted, for though it as been damaged much of it remains as it was in pre-Reformation days. In most churches such woodwork as this was utterly destroyed during the Reformation and we at Barnburgh should feel thankful that we have some that escaped this wanton destruction. The entire screenwork of the South Chapel remains and also that at the North end of the Cresacre Chapel, with its original door still doing service.
The woodwork under the Chancel Arch which now forms a screen about four feet high is all that remains of the rood screen. Try to visualise this screen as it was before it was destroyed about four hundred years ago. It would almost entirely fill the arch and high up in the screen would be the Rood Loft or gallery from which certain parts of the services would be conducted. On this Rood Loft would be the great crucifix and a number of beautifully coloured statues. The rood screen in most churches was a thing of beauty and it is little wonder that special windows were inserted and existing ones enlarged to throw more light on the screen.
Fairly high in the walls on both sides of the Chancel Arch (which, by the way, is much wider than is usual in a church such as Barnburgh) can be traced signs of stones having been cut away in order to provide support for the floor beams of the rood loft. At Barnburgh the ascent to the loft was by wooden ladder, but often a stone stairway was hollowed out in the stone pillar. A close examination of the fragment of the rood screen left to us will give some indication of its antiquity and original beauty.
And now let us commence a tour of the church. In the North Wall of the North Aisle will be found a diamond shaped hole cut out in one of the stones. It is a few inches across and has a recess of about the same depth. Four holes filled with lead show that a small iron or wooden door covered the recess at one time. This hole or recess has been the subject of much conjecture, and popular rumour has it that it is a "Lepers Squint." I do not agree with this, as if it had been intended as such it would have been placed in such a position that the lepers (who were not allowed in church) might see the high altar. I am more inclined to the opinion that it was made as a reliquary (a place for relics).
The family of Cresacres is reputed to have had more than one member taking part in the Crusades and it was a common custom when a knight died in the Holy Land to bring back his heart which was then blessed and placed in a box, or hole similar to that at Barnburgh, to be preserved for all time. Often valuable articles of gold or precious stones were placed with them. At the Reformation, however, these reliquaries were completely destroyed and their contents scattered.
The next item is the shaft of what was a cross near the first pillar of the North Aisle. This would be the original praying or preaching cross around which the people of Barnburgh would gather before they had a church. It is of Saxon origin and is older than anything else about the church in which it now stands. It was found last century, buried in the churchyard, in two pieces, one piece it is said was actually under the foundations of the church. Fortunately it was brought and re-erected in its present position some years ago by the Rev. W. R. Hartley. It lacks arms and is much decayed but it can be seen that it must have been a piece of fine workmanship for its day. The carvings show the figure of a priest with a kind of interlacing work acting as a support for the body. A very careful examination will also show pilasters with voluted capitals, and it is this that helps us to arrive at the period of its construction, which would be about a 1,000 years ago. This cross is one of few of its kind remaining in the country and is mentioned in every book I have seen on such subjects.
The bases of the pillars of the North Aisle should next be noticed. They are of late (or Transitional) Norman style and are remnants of the first enlargement which took place to the original church, about 1200. The Transitional Norman arches would be taken down and replaced, and the bases of the pillars lifted when the clerestory was built.
And now we come to the Cresacre Chapel which is of course the great attraction to many visitors to Barnburgh church. There is enough here to interest us for half a day if we examine carefully all it contains. The first thing to attract us is the Cresacre Tomb with the "Cat and Man" effigy which is the centre of one of the most remarkable legends in the land. The tomb and the legend I have dealt with fully earlier in this volume, but there is one thing to which I would draw attention. It will be noted that the two arches between the Chapel and the Chancel are modern (though to be sure they do blend well with the remainder of the church), and these replaced a single arch under which the Cresacre tomb originally stood. These alterations were probably carried out early last century, for the organ, which stands almost under one of the arches was put there in 1829, the gift of Henrietta Griffith of Barnburgh. It may be that these arches were inserted at the same time.
Of the other items of interest in the chapel I have already mentioned elsewhere the two mural tombstones to the Vincents of Barnburgh Grange, the slab tombstone of Alice Cresacre, wife of Sir Percival, and the brass to the memory of Anna Cresacre, the last of that name.
On the wall of the chapel there are three boards which record the charities of the Parish and as they are almost unreadable. Behind one of the boards, the oaken door by which the Cresacres made their entrance can be seen, still hung, the walling up of the doorway having been done on the outside only.
The screen which now encloses the East end of the chapel to form a vestry for the clergy, is part of a much older one than the rest of the screen work in the church and may have been part of the screen which stood in the original arch dividing the chapel and the chancel. It is of excellent though rather crude workmanship and of a design peculiar to South Yorkshire.
This North Chapel is now almost filled by the Organ, the Cresacre Tomb and the Choir and Priest's Vestries so that it is not easy to try to see it as it was when it functioned as the Cresacre Chapel with its own altar under the East window. However, the piscina remains, although its front edge has been shorn off. It is probable that this Chapel continued as a private place of worship to a much later date than the South Chapel.
It is a surprising thing that the North Chapel, which was undoubtedly in the possession of the Cresacre family for several centuries before, was, apparently, not founded as a Chantry Chapel until 1507.
In the Chancel there is a seat for about three persons which, though restored, is extremely old and is of the same workmanship as the small screen at the East End of the North Chapel. Indeed the Rev. E. P. Cook suggests it is part of that screen reconstructed to form a seat.
In the Chancel also may be noted the piece of a roof beam end (now serving as a small table) which I have mentioned earlier, and a number of brasses and tombstones of interest, all of which I also covered in parts of this little book.
Before the Reformation many of the windows of the church would be filled with beautiful stained glass, but unfortunately all was destroyed, with the exception of a few fragments which still remain in the small upper lights of the East window of the South Chapel, during Oliver Cromwell's time when his soldiers even used the churches as stables for their horses.
For two or three centuries after that the windows were filled with plain glass, but to-day there are several windows which once again fill the church with many colours. These are :
Part of the Great East window, given in memory of the Rector who built the present Rectory and gave us our greens the Rev. T, C. Percival and his wife.
In the South wall of the Chancel there is a window given in 1904 to the memory of John Hartop of Barnburgh Hall by his nephews and nieces. He was a great lover and benefactor of Barnburgh Church.
The window behind the font was given in the year 1906 to the memory of her sister by Mrs. Mary Hartop, and the window on the other side of the Tower Arch, in the North Aisle, was given in 1914 to the memory of this same Mary Hartop.
The latest coloured window to be inserted was that in the East end of the South Chapel which was given in 1946 by Archdeacon Clarke in memory of his wife, nee Christabel Marie Lockwood, formerly headmistress of Becket Road Infant School at Doncaster.
Barnburgh Church has a peal of three very fine bells, and although they are of no outstanding historical interest (none of them are pre-Reformation and none have inscriptions apart from being dated) they are of excellent workmanship and have a fine mellow tone. They were cast in the early part of the seventeenth century.
Update:-These have now been filled. Barnburgh was fortunate to be one of the churches chosen to receive Ringing in the Millennium funding, and this was used to add a treble and tenor to the "minor" key ring of three. The Trust donated the tenor bell (second-hand) and the treble came from a redundant church in Doncaster (Christ Church).