A Unique Parish Church
Ormskirk is a town whose name, which is Norse in origin, literally means Orme’s Church. Perhaps it is fitting then that Ormskirk’s parish church is unique, being one of only three in the country to boast both a tower and a steeple and unique in having them at the same end of the building.
The earliest documentary evidence for the church comes when, along with all of its endowments, it was bestowed upon the Canons of Burscough Priory by Robert, Lord Lathom in 1189. It remained in the care of the Prior of Burscough until the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.
The church was also the burial place of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, up to the mid 19th century. In the Tudor period in particular this family were arguably the most significant outside of the royal family in England.
Thousands of pages of writing exist on their history and a retelling of it here is not necessary, except to note a few points about the Derby Chapel which forms the south east corner of the church. Within this chapel exist four effigies, representing the first Earl of Derby, his first wife Eleanor Neville, sister of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (“The Kingmaker”), his second wife Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and finally the third Earl of Derby. It was the third Earl who made provision in his will to have the effigies moved from Burscough Priory where they had originally resided.
It is believed the King Henry VII came to worship at Ormskirk whilst on a visit to his mother, who resided with her husband at Lathom House, in 1495.
The chapel was also the burial place of the seventh Earl of Derby, who was beheaded at the conclusion of the English Civil War and his wife Charlotte de Tremouille, who successfully repelled the first siege of Lathom House.
Many of you reading this will have heard the legend of two quarrelsome sisters. These daughters, or perhaps just descendants, of Orme, apparently couldn’t agree on whether the church should have a tower or steeple. This, it is said, is why both were built.
The story generally doesn’t go in to any more depth than this and whilst extremely interesting and entertaining to tell, it is simply local legend. Indeed similar stories exist to explain the construction of both tower and steeple on both other churches in the country to feature this arrangement.
The real story of the unique construction of the church is, depending on your particular viewpoint, just as interesting. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s a decision was made to relocate the bells from Burscough Priory to Ormskirk Parish Church. As the steeple was too small to house the bells a tower was constructed. It is unknown why the steeple was retained, but fortunately for Ormskirk it was, meaning as residents of the town we are now blessed with a unique landmark.
Evidence for this being the true reason for there being two towers exists in the form of a surviving bell, which now rests in the Bickerstaffe Chapel and is dated 1497. It could not have been housed in Ormskirk’s steeple due to its size, so the fact that it predates the tower means it must have been relocated.