The original church was built between the 12th and 15th centuries with subsequent rebuilding and restoration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was constructed using magnesian limestone ashlar and has a red plain tile roof and stone slates to the porch with 2-bay chancel, 4-bay aisled nave, south porch and south-west tower. The thirteenth century chancel and fourteenth century north aisle have become the current vestry with straight-headed windows and perpendicular tracery. On the north side of the church, there are 2 lancet windows and a badly-weathered door with roll moulding and the remains of moulded capitals. The south porch was rebuilt in 1935 and covers the original round-arched door. The Bell Tower was built in the early fifteenth century. More information can be found on the website for Historic England, or “Yorkshire the West Riding”, Pevsner, N. Penguin Books 1979 pp 159 – 60.
There is a special tribute window on the north wall dedicated to Dot Hunt, who gained enormous respect from the local community, for whom she worked tirelessly throughout her life. Sadly, she died on 14th November 2009. Such was her reputation, with monies raised after her death, it was decided to install a stained-glass window as a lasting tribute to her and her dedication to the church. It is a simple window which consists of a representation of bells and butterflies, poppies and snowdrops and the words Faith, Love, Hope. Take a few minutes to read one of the printed sheets which have been placed below the window and which explain the meaning behind the symbols. This was written by Ian Ellery who was Rector of Cawood Church at that time.
The site chosen for the church, although so close to the river, is the highest point in the village. This would have been a good vantage point and safe place in the fenland. The highest point in the area was the usual position for a church as testimony to its importance. The bench-mark on the south wall of the tower is 29ft 3in above sea level.
Pillaging Danes sailing up the river and ravaging Normans on their way to York no doubt carried out their destructive work in the area. Consequently there was nothing to record and so no mention of Cawood or Wistow is to be found in William the Conqeror’s Domesday Book of 1086. The Danes anchored in the river before the battles of Gate Fulford and Stamford Bridge. The Normans may well have “laid the area bare” during the harrying of the North, in punishment for the York/Northern rebell:on of 1069/70.
It is not until 1294 that there is definite reference to this church despite the fact that Cawood was one of the homes of the Archbishops of York for seven centuries from 937 AD. It is likely that the church was used as a chapel by the Castle up to 1271 when a chapel at the Castle is mentioned. Cawood came into favour at this time, prior to this Sherburn was used as the main residence of the Archbishops.
Stone and lime from the Huddlestone quarries at Sherburn in Elmet were Brought to Cawood, possibly along the Bishop Dyke, for the Castle and the church. Stone was taken to York for the Minster up the River Ouse after transhipment at the riverside staith, remains of which it is said can be seen at very low water.
The probable date for the beginning of this church would be about 1150 AD. It then consisted of a nave (2) and chancel (3). All that remains of that early church is part of the gable-ended western wall, to the right of the door, (5) and its doorway, consisting of a plain order forming a square opening and two shafts on each side, with semi-circular arch moulding (late Norman). This is in marked contrast to St. Helen’s, Stillingfleet which is of similar date (1147).
During the next hundred years, up to about 1250 AD, the church was enlarged by extending the chancel, rebuilding the chancel arch (6), removing the south wall of the nave, erecting the pillars and so adding the south aisle (7). The piers are quatrefoil monoliths only 11in in diameter. Of this phase, the eastern part of the chancel, the chancel arch and the south arcade of the nave remains.
Before 1350 AD the north wall of the nave was removed and octagonal piers erected to form the north aisle (8). Traces of red ochre decoration are to be found on the aisle pillars and most clearly on the chancel arch. This is a 14th century interlacing pattern. The side arches were added and Chapels (9 & 10) were built. A detached piscina and shaft of Early English Style suggest the chapels were part of the original plan. The South chapel was the Cawood family chapel. The Cawood and Acclom coats of arms can be seen on the outside as can the line of attachment to the chapel.
During the next century, from about 1450 to 1525 extensive alterations took place. The large traceried East window (11) was inserted, the chapel south of the chancel was demolished (10), the north chapel (now the vestry and organ chamber) rebuilt and enlarged, the outer walls of the north and south aisles rebuilt and the tower (12), at the south-west corner, was constructed. Unusually this is set at the south-west corner, leaving the west door intact. The tower is of three stages, the lower with octagonal buttresses at the angles with carved cornices from which rise diagonal buttresses of the second stage. The upper stage has an embattled parapet with pinnacles. So almost four fifths of the outer walls date from this period, giving a late perpendicular character to the church.
Very little work on the fabric was then carried out until Victorian times. In 1880 the Rev. B. Day requested the famous architect Gilbert Scott to make a report on the church with a view to restoring it in a “becoming manner”.
During the restoration in 1887 much of the glass was replaced, the two windows in the south aisle belonging to this phase. A statue of the Virgin and Child was removed for safe keeping from its niche (14) high up on the west wall of the tower. Unfortunately it became lost and it was not until 1961 that a replica was specially sculptured and installed in the recess. The south porch (13) was rebuilt in 1935.
Two fragments of medieval tomb slabs can be seen in the north wall above the oil tank and one piece to the left of the west door, together forming one motif.
In the churchyard on the left just through the west gate is a stone with deep depressions, its function is thought to be the same as that of the Burtonstone in York, that is for depositing money in vinegar for collection by lepers. Other pieces of carved masonry can be seen in the churchyard near the west door.