The site of the church had some Christian significance a thousand and more years ago, for there are preserved from that time a fragment of an Anglian (Saxon) cross-shaft (built into the first floor of the tower) and two parts of a Viking hogback tombstone, now in the porch. Though we know that a cross stood here then and that the site was a place of Christian burial, we do not know whether there was a church building here. It used to be said that a church was built wherever the body of St. Cuthbert rested, during the period of its being carried about to preserve it from the Danes (875-890), and that Plumbland was one of the places so honoured; there is, however, no good evidence for this. What we do know is that during Norman times, about 1130, a church was erected here and that it stood until 1869. The outstanding relic of that ancient building is the fine chancel arch of the present church.
It is often asked: “Why is Plumbland church at Parsonby?”. The glebe land granted to the Rector by the Lords of the Manors of Plumbland, Arkleby and Warthole was by the 13th century concentrated around the church and rectory and formed into a separate manor, with the Rector as Lord and with a number of customary tenants, who held land from him by providing him with agricultural labour. This led to the establishment of a village in which the tenants lived and which was naturally called Parsonby, ‘the parson’s settlement.’ This prompts a second question: Why was the church built in what, before Parsonby came into being, must have been an isolated spot? There are at least two possible answers. The first is that it was placed to be equally convenient for dwellers in the three settlements of Plumbland, Arkleby and Warthole. The second is that there might have been an older, Anglian (Saxon) settlement, which has now disappeared, close to the church; there was an Anglian cross on the site and a group of fields a short distance to the east is called Housesteads.
From 1840 to 1875, the Rector of Plumbland was the Rev. John Wordsworth, second son of William Wordsworth the poet. He was at the same time Vicar of Brigham, where he lived. During his long incumbency, his duties in Plumbland were performed by a succession of curates. In 1868, the curate in charge was the Rev. Shepley Watson Watson; he advocated the demolition of the Old Church on the grounds that it was inconvenient for worship and not worth repair. The building was arranged and furnished on Protestant lines, and there can be little doubt that Mr. Watson longed for a new church, designed in accordance with the then fashionable architectural and theological ideas of the High Church school of thought within the Church of England. An energetic and much respected man, Mr. Watson had little difficulty in persuading the parish to agree with him. Generous financial support was immediately forthcoming from the wealthier parishioners and the local gentry, making it possible for the architect’s first design to be rejected in favour of a more ambitious scheme. The price quoted for the erection of the new building, £2,155. 13s. 9d., was accepted and the demolition of the Old Church began on Monday, October 18th, 1869. The new church was opened for worship on Easter Tuesday, April 11th 1872
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