The parish church of St Gregory the Great serves one of the largest and most sparsely populated parishes in England, covering an area of 42,000 acres. In medieval times the parish consisted of 15 townships – now mainly small hamlets and isolated dwellings.
This has been a place of worship since the 11th century. The first incumbent to be identified was Stephen, priest from 1153 to 1197. However, little remains of his church. The earliest church visible today was a cruciform building without aisles. It was not until the early 13th century that a north aisle was added.
Border warfare resulted in periods when the church building was in ruins. So dangerous were those times that in 1463, the vicar was licensed by the Bishop of Durham to say Mass in any safe place in the parish other than in the church, as it was thought unwise to have parishioners gathered in one place while hostilities continued! The building itself became derelict.
During rebuilding in the late 15th century, the extremely long chancel was replaced by the shorter chancel we see today. The old foundations form the base of the north and south walls which are only a metre high and it is from these extremely thick walls, presumably built to guard against assault, that the distinctive barrel vaulting rises.
The south transept is known as the Burrell chapel and named after the family whose burial place this was. The church has been rebuilt a number of times during the centuries. John Dobson, the Newcastle architect, completed the last major restoration in 1860; producing the nave, porch and north aisle in the Lancet style which typified much of his work. The tower was added some years later in 1880.
One of the features of this church is the relief of the Adoration of the Magi on the facing wall of the chancel arch above the priest’s stall. It is thought to date from at least 12th century. However, some experts believe it dates from the 9th century.
Another is the grave of Josephine Butler, the Victorian social reformer, whose grave lies to the west of the tower. Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born in April 1828 at Milfield Hill, the 4th daughter of John Grey of Dilston and his wife Hannah Annett. She was baptised at St Gregory’s in May of that year. The Greys were a prominent Northumbrian family, known for their liberal views. In 1852, Josephine married George Butler – later to become Canon of Winchester Cathedral. Perhaps unusually for those times, he was a very supportive husband and encouraged Josephine in her campaigning work. Despite – or perhaps because of – the tragic death of her little daughter, Eva – she was determined to campaign on behalf of vulnerable people in society. She expressed the need to ‘find some pain keener than my own’. Her particular concern was improving the lot of disadvantaged women and at the forefront of this was her crusade against the cruel Contagious Diseases Prevention Act of 1864 which effectively gave the authorities the power to place women ‘living immoral lives’ under police supervision and to force these unfortunate women to undergo medical examination. She endured opposition and personal threats, some very dangerous, during her long campaign to have this infamous Act abolished. Finally in 1886, the Contagious Diseases Prevention Acts were repealed. During her life her Christian faith never wavered. She devoted herself to a life of prayer, believing that her vocation was a gift from God. Widowed in 1890, Josephine Butler lived peacefully near her eldest son, George Grey Butler, until her death in December 1906.
In 2006, to mark the centenary of her death, the Vicar and Parochial Church Council commissioned Helen Whittaker to create the beautiful stained glass window and sculpture in the church porch. The window bears the inscription: ‘She loved, she prayed, she endured’ – surely the very essence of this remarkable woman.
Among the many graves in the churchyard is the Davidson family mausoleum. Davidson was chandler to Horatio Nelson and Davidson’s monument can be seen on a hilltop across the valley to the north of the church. Perhaps most poignant are those of the airmen who were based at Milfield during the Second World War. So many of them came from the Commonwealth – most were in their twenties when they died.
11:00am Parish Eucharist (1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays)
11:00am Service of the Word (2nd Sunday)
11:00am Matins (4th Sunday)
There is a special service in July every year in The Cuddystone Hall, College Valley.
The church is open during daylight hours and visitors are most welcome.