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Bernard Gilpin's altar tomb in the south transept of Houghton Parish Church

Bernard Gilpin's tomb in 1938


In the south transept of St Michael & All Angels Church can be found the bulky and four-sided altar tomb of Houghton’s adopted Saint and former Rector, Bernard Gilpin.
Copyright © Books of the North 2008.
Gilpin, or Gylpyn as it is sometimes recorded, is often referred to as the “Apostle of the North” or “Father of the Poor” for his many good deeds throughout his lifetime, as well as during his incumbency as Rector of Houghton (1558 to 1583).

Locally, Gilpin is renowned for his ox roasting practices over Michaelmas (or Houghton Feast), when he would welcome and feed his parishioners each Sunday from Michaelmas to Easter.

Rector Bernard Gilpin

Rector Gilpin was stuck down by an ox in Durham Market Place. He recovered sufficiently to leave his bed but that accident had left him weakened. In February of 1583 he became sick, and died shortly afterwards on the 4th of March 1583, at the age of 66 years.

His Will, which he had made out in 1582 while the plague was ravaging Houghton, was often displayed in Church during Houghton Feast.

His body was interred in a freestone altar tomb within St Michael & All Angels Church, Houghton-le-Spring. The tomb features ornamental chainwork on the sides, and the Gilpin Arms of boar and oak tree on the west face.

Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

Sketch of Gilpin's Tomb

The following inscription can be found in raised letters:


Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

and translates as:

Bernard Gilpin, Rector of this Church, died on the 4th day of March in the year of our Lord 1583

The epitaph on the tomb reads:

See here his Dust shut up whose generous mind
No stop before in Honour’s path could finde.
Truth, Faith and Justice, and a loyall Heart
In him show’d Nature, which in most is art.

Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

It is often incorrectly stated that Gilpin died in 1584. Indeed the Victorian parishioners of St Michaels, ably led by Rector John Grey, marked the tercentenary (300th) anniversary a year out, in 1884 [see other article – Gilpin Tercentenary Clock].

Traditionally, in the twentieth century, the Gilpin Tomb would be adorned with evergreens for Houghton Feast, but the custom disappeared for many years. However, in October 2001 the tomb was once again decorated and became the location of the ‘Houghton Well Dressing’ for the duration of the Feast. Indeed, the entire Church was brought to life with warm colours and amazing scents for a special Houghton Feast Flower Festival. The tranquillity of the south transept was extended with the peaceful tinkling of running water from the well.

Sketch of Gilpin's Tomb

In recent years the tomb has again not been decorated over the Feast period, presumably owing to a shortage of funds. In February 2008 during the reordering of the church works, Gilpin’s Tomb was hidden (briefly) from sight by around twenty green bags full of soon-to-be-reburied charnel bones from the excavated floor.
Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

But this is not the only time in the Church’s history that the tomb has been obscured from view, as this comment from 1840 shows:

“The most extraordinary circumstance is that the tomb is nearly buried with pews. They are thrust close up to it so that the sides are completely hidden, and nothing is to be seen but the top and one end. The traveller comes from a far-distant place to have the satisfaction of seeing, for once, the resting place of the Apostle of the North… and finds with surprise his tomb scarcely allowed a place in that church, where he so long proclaimed the Gospel, in that village where he wrought so many good works, and whence his reputation spread; finds it elbowed up with parish pews, and as far as possible jostled out of the world with worm-eaten boards.”
William Howitt, 1840

Bernard Gilpin's Tomb some years ago

It is more than likely that, when the reordered church and heritage centre are unveiled in late summer 2008, the tomb will be back on full display, but I am sure that Bernard Gilpin, being the man he was, would not have minded one bit if his Tomb was buried with pews and worm-eaten boards!

Investigations of the tomb’s interior with a key-hole camera some years ago revealed that it is empty.
Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

Build your own card craft model of Bernard Gilpin's altar tomb!
Build your own card craft model of Bernard Gilpin's altar tomb! Click HERE to download the template.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

:: Thanks to Heather Williams for providing the vintage photo of the tomb.

:: Tales of the North Country, by Eva Carter, 1947

:: The Third Friday Book of North Country Sketches, by Paul Brown, 1938

:: History & Antiquities of the County of Durham (Sunderland & District Section), by Robert Surtees, 1908

:: Bernard Gilpin by Georgina Battiscombe, 1947

The tomb of Bernard Gilpin is located in the south transept of St Michael and All Angels church. The tomb of Gilpin is a massy alter of freestone, with some ornaments of chain work on the sides. On each side of the tomb in raised letters is the inscription ‘BERNARD GILPIN' RECTOR HUJUS ECCLESLÆ ORBIT QUARTO DIE MARTII AN.DOM.' This translates to ‘Besides this tomb, there are a number of others in the church, that bear names of some note.



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The Gilpin family crest as found on Bernard Gilpin's altar tomb

PAGE UPDATED: 04/03/2011

Bernard Gilpin Weekend Once again we celebrate the life of Houghton-le-Spring’s most famous Rector, Bernard Gilpin, with a variety of events to suit all tastes and all ages! Bernard Gilpin lived during Tudor times so we are basing our weekend on “Exploring the Tudors” concentrating on the everyday lives of the people. On Saturday 3 March between 10.30am and 2pm in Church we are holding “Exploring the Tudors”: A Family Fun Day. There will be Tudor Cookery Demonstrations Tudor Dance: Come and learn a few new steps Storytelling by Bernard Gilpin, himself! Tudor singing Craft activities History Trails and Quizzes Admission Free Timetable In Church 10.45-11.15. SINGING 11.15-11.45. COOKERY DEMONSTRATION 11.45-12.15. DANCE 12.15-12.45. SINGING 12.45-1.15. COOKERY DEMONSTRATION 1.15-1.45. DANCE On Mezzanine Floor: Bernard Gilpin Story telling at 10.30-45, 11.30-11.45, 12.30-45 & 1.15-1.30 Arts and crafts tables going on throughout the day. Later on Saturday 3 March in Church at 5pm there will be a Concert celebrating Bernard Gilpin and performed by the Royal School of Church Music. Admission free. On Sunday 4 March at 10am we hold our Bernard Gilpin Service and are delighted to have as our preacher The Vicar of Gilpin’s home parish of Kentmere. The Service is followed by the Gilpin Lunch at 12.15pm in the Kepier Hall. Tickets £5 from Next 900 Team or sign the list in Church.