The Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels stands beside a lane that climbs west from the B6345 as it leaves the village of Felton in Northumberland. This places it just far enough from the village to justify driving to it: there is parking available beside the lane near the church. It is difficult to imagine, as you admire the beautiful and seemingly remote village setting, that the main A1 road lies less than half a mile to the west.
The Pevsner guide to Northumberland describes the church as: "A happy puzzle for the antiquarian and an impressive, if a little incongruous, sight for the layman..." The reason for this description becomes obvious the moment you see the church. At the east end is a well-made chancel with a pitched slate roof. This appears to be attached to a much larger nave that has at some point lost its roof.
From the pedestrian's eye view, nothing of the roof of the nave projects above the wall line. Combine this with a gable end beneath the western bellcote that looks like it was designed to support a pitched roof, and a similar indication on the west gable of the chancel that the nave roof was pitched, and the conclusion that the Church of St Michael and All Angels comprises a small chancel attached to a large ruin is inescapable.
Inescapable, but wrong. It seems that at some point the original nave roof has been replaced with something much flatter. Any lingering doubts on this point are dispelled when you enter the church. The doorway to the nave is beyond the outer porch, which has some impressive rib vaulting. The doorway itself is thought to date back to the late 1100s and, together with a spiral stair attached to the west gable, and the chancel arch, probably formed part of the church given by William Bertram II of Mitford to Brinkburn Priory (then under construction) on his death in 1199.
Tradition relates that the original church burned down and was subsequently rebuilt. The 28 stairs below the bellcote that lead to the roof show signs of having continued further, suggesting that there was originally a tower at this end of the church.
Much of the rest of the church dates back to different phases of rebuilding in the 1200s and 1300s. Your first impression on entering (beyond the fact that it does indeed have a roof) is of the unexpected size of the interior. St Michael and All Angels Church is said to be one of the four largest churches in Northumberland, and as you look around, that's not a claim you'd wish to challenge.
The original church would have comprised just a nave and a chancel. The sense of size comes from extensions added since. The north side of the nave is defined by a series of five arches which separate it from the north aisle. The south aisle is a little more complex, and seems to have been added in the early 1300s. The west end of the south aisle is used as the baptistry, while its east end forms a side chapel which is thought to have been built at the instruction of Roger Mauduit in 1331. The east window of the chapel is the only rose window to be found in Northumberland, and what makes it particularly interesting is that the the tracery has all been carved from a single stone.
Propped up against the south wall of the chapel is the headless effigy of a priest holding a chalice. The quality of the carving is very fine and it is thought that the effigy might have been brought to Felton from another site, perhaps from Brinkburn Priory.
Although the chancel arch dates back to the original church, the chancel you see beyond it today was built in the 1200s. It appears to have been rebuilt a number of times since, but the three lancet windows on the south wall are thought to be original.
A major renovation of the church took place in 1870. The interior was effectively stripped out, and the whitewashed walls were returned to their original stone finish. One grave found within the church held no fewer than 70 skulls, together with other human bones and Scottish coins and spurs. Is it reading too much into this to suggest that the fire that destroyed the church in, perhaps, the 1200s might have been a result of cross-border raiding?
It has been possible to trace the names of the vicars of the parish served by St Michael and All Angels Church all the way back to 1310, when the post was held by William de Glanton. The following year he was replaced by Roger de Thornton. The Norman-sounding names are probably a fair indication of the power structure in Northumberland at this time.