The parish church of St Denys is a small Grade 1 listed church, in terms of surviving fabric among the oldest of the city centre churches. It had a close connection with the powerful Percy family, Earls of Northumberland, whose town house stood opposite and several of whose members are buried here. It was also associated with the mediaeval York Fishmongers’ Guild, whose market was near Foss Bridge. It is one of about 40 in England dedicated to St Denys, patron saint of France and of Paris, who is depicted holding his severed head in our 15th century east window. According to tradition, Denys (or Dionysius) was a Christian missionary martyred in AD 258 at the place later called ‘Montmartre’, and buried in what became the abbey of Saint-Denis, Paris.
The church was founded before 1154, on the site of a late Saxon church and an earlier Roman building. A Roman altar and an Anglo-Danish ‘hogsback’ tombstone were found on the site in 1846. Traces of these earlier buildings came to light during trial excavations in 2001 to investigate the church’s foundations (which proved extremely stable).
The present building dates mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries, but has been much reduced from its original size, due to a series of a historical mishaps – the former spire was damaged by Civil War cannon fire and then struck by lightning, and the transepts and long nave were demolished in 1797.
So what survives now is only the east end with its flanking chapels, making an unusually square-shaped church entered through a fine Norman doorway (from the demolished nave), set in what was originally the site of a window. The present west walls and a new tower were added in 1846-7, when a tiled reredos (currently scheduled for restoration) was also inserted.
The church building is generally in good condition, thanks partly to the large amount of work done on it during the last two decades. This has included the virtual rebuilding of the Victorian tower and the strengthening of the whole south aisle and the restoration of its glass. As with all ancient buildings, however, much remains to be done, and constant vigilance has to be exercised.
We are also one of the few churches to possess not only a knitted Last Supper, but also a knitted Advent Calendar!