Although the church can be summarised as broadly fifteenth century in style, that belies a complicated past.

Overview

The present layout of the nave dates from 1858 and of the chancel from the 1970s. The memorials, twelfth century font and window glass offer glimpses of earlier periods.

In other respects the stone structure of the building probably looks internally much as it did in the fifteenth century. Like other York city centre churches it is relatively broad in relation to its length. People seated in the aisles have rather a poor view because of the piers, or pillars, which form the arcades separating them from the nave or body of the church. This is inconvenient today, but originally the aisles were intended not to provide seating for the congregation but to accommodate extra altars, dedicated to saints and endowed by members of the congregation (chantries, of which there were at least four in the middle ages) and other religious purposes. Provision for the congregation during the service took up only a small proportion of the total space, since the chancel occupied part of the current nave and was separated from the congregation by a screen. The aisles, too, would usually be screened off. It was a small church, for a small congregation.

A brief tour

In exploring St Helen's it is convenient to begin with the finely carved mid to late twelfth century font, the earliest datable element in the church and on the right as you enter. It is placed on an upturned thirteenth century capital and a quatrefoil base, re-used as the base of the font. It is a reminder of the complexity of a church that has been wholly or partially demolished and rebuilt twice. Above it in the corner is a board listing a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century Lord Mayors; many York churches have such a board marking the office of Lord Mayors with a connection of the parish. The arcade on the south side separating the nave from the aisle is fourteenth century, and if you stand in the aisle and look up you should see weathering indicating that the aisle must once have been smaller and lower. The windows on this side are from 1857-8, though late thirteenth century in style, but contain a selection of old glass in windows distictively reglazed by the architect George Pace in the 1970s. There are some nice memorials, though not always in their original position, the most famous of which is that to the long lived Davyes sisters, born in the reign of Charles II and who died in the reign of George III.

The north arcade is different in style and much less straightforward. You will see that the eastern pier, or pillar, consists of large blocks of stone which are quite heavily weathered, indicating that they must have stood outside for some years after being worked. They are quite unlike anything else in the church. At the base is an inverted capital (ie intended originally to go at the top of a pier) which, like the font base, is thirteenth century, whilst the capital is a reused base of the fifteenth. At the top is a small carving, believed to be fifteenth or possibly sixteenth century and showing St Michael and All Angels. There is a matching carving at the other end of the archway beside the figure of Mary, which despite damage probably shows a soul being lifted up to heaven. They are rare examples of fine decoration which is otherwise mostly nineteenth century. They are probably reused, and it may be significant that there was a chantry dedicated to St Michael in the middle ages. The other piers in the arcade are much less interesting until you realise that they do not quite fit the arches above. Clearly a story must attach to this arcade, the most likely being that when the church was closed and partially demolished in the 1550s part of this arcade was removed and used elsewhere, so that it had to be rebuilt using masonry from several sources. The windows on this side of the church were remade for the 1857-8 rebuilding but were said to be faithful copies of their predecessors. Fourteenth century in style they may be a clue to the date of the aisle itself.

The chancel was built in 1858. Before then the church ended in line with the aisles. The east window showing the four evangelists is Victorian but assembled in its present form in 1962. The figures were originally in the side windows of the chancel and the rest of the glass reused from the east window of the south aisle of St Martin Coney St, which had survived the bombing. When the chancel was built the altar was at the end under the window raised on a series of steps. That altar is now in St Martin, and the altar which had been in the south aisle of St Martin, together with the reredos (the carved screen under the window) were placed in St Helen. Nowadays, for holy communion the altar is normally placed immediately in front of the congregation with the priest facing them, so the chancel was altered in the 1970s to make that possible. Unfortunately the space available left some awkward steps and the effect is not wholly satisfactory. The organ dates from 1959 and the simple casing by the architect George Pace, painted in green and picked out in red, offers a simple solution to the problem of enclosing the organ unobtrusively and at reasonable cost. The painted roof is also a George Pace innovation.

If you then look to the other end of the church you will see a treasure which is invariably missed on entering. The west window, over the door, contains early fourteenth century and later glass though much repaired and originally in other windows. One of the figures represents St Helen (with the inscription 'elena') and the kingly figure probably her son the Emperor Constantine. Another is probably the Virgin Mary and a fourth might be St William, though various possibilities have been suggested.

The pews of 1858 are mounted on wooden platforms over earth and are very plain compared with the fine oak pew of 1872 which can still be seen at the back of St Martin Coney Street or even the pine pews of the 1860s in St Olave Marygate. The 1857 faculty provided for the floor to be concreted and repewed, but the restoration went well over budget. It was probably decided to economise with a temporary solution which could be replaced later.

Outside

The west front of the church is almost all that can be seen. The basic shape has probably remained unchanged since the fifteenth century, though the present tower is from about 1814 (rebuilt 1875-6) and the pierced parapets (battlements) also part of a remodelling at the start of the nineteenth century when the street was widened and the corner cut off. Some have criticised the building, which is perhaps best appreciated as part of the wider setting, but it lost something of its intended proportions when the weather vane on top of the tower blew down in 1961 and was not replaced. The south wall, with its late thirteenth century style windows, was actually rebuilt in 1857-8 and had previously had buildings right up against it, as part of the north side of the church does today.

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