The spiritual life of the people who lived and died in the Yorkshire Dales in prehistoric times can only ever be the subject of speculation. That they venerated their dead and practised rituals of one form or another is all that we can say. The burial of the dead has left us some of the most numerous prehistoric field monuments. The earliest burials have been found in caves such as Raven Scar Cave near Ingleton but the evidence is usually fragmentary and inconclusive. The earliest above ground burial site is the Neolithic chambered cairn called Giant’s Graves lying in a spectacular location at the foot of Pen-y-ghent. During the early Bronze Age, many hundreds of burial cairns and barrows were built such as those at Rylstone and Cray, indeed there are far more graves known than there are settlements from this period. Ritual monuments are represented by the circular banked and ditched features that archaeologists call henges, for example, Castle Dykes, and stone circles such as the one above Hebden in Wharfedale.
Only when Christianity arrived in Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire do we begin to understand more about what the archaeological evidence is telling us. The gradual change over from pagan to Christian worship is represented by burials such as that found at Wensley where an Anglo-Scandinavian farmer was buried in an Anglo-Saxon Christian graveyard, along with his weaponry just as if he was on his way to Viking Valhalla. Anglo-Scandinavian hogback tombstones representing traditional Viking houses have been found at Burnsall Church along with 10th century Christian stone crosses.
The earliest churches that the first Christians in the Yorkshire Dales built were probably of wood and no evidence survives for them. The arrival of the Norman conquerors in the 11th century saw the building of stone churches on manorial estates all over the Dales. A fine example of a Norman church can be found at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The Norman period also saw the foundation of several monastic houses in the Yorkshire Dales, such as Bolton Priory, while others some distance away, like Fountains Abbey, gained vast land holdings. Their considerable economic and social influence was destroyed in Tudor times when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The centuries passed, and people continued to bury their dead around their parish churches, often travelling great distance to do so since the upland parishes and sparse populations were unable to support a more compact network. In Swaledale, the dead had to be carried on journeys down the dale lasting two or three days in order for them to be buried in the consecrated ground of Grinton churchyard. Lesser chapels-of-ease such as St Simon’s in Coverdale, at least allowed people to worship nearer home.
The scattered parishes and independent nature of the working population led to them turning to a number of other Christian movements from the 17th century onwards. First the Friends (Quakers) and then the Methodists came, often facing years of persecution for their faith. By the 18th century, the state was more tolerant and chapels and meeting houses sprang up all over the area. Some still house worshippers such as the Quaker Meeting House in Bainbridge, others such as the Sandemanian Chapel in Gayle have been converted to other uses. Many of these independent chapels and meeting houses also had their own graveyards. Some survive long after their house of worship has gone such as the Quaker graveyard in Hawes.
The Christian faith has proved to be a strong one in the Yorkshire Dales and its many different churches and chapels support a vibrant community of worshippers with a long tradition of faith. These holy places are often the oldest building in a village and represent the best of local skills and craftsmanship. Communities have begun to recognise the value of this rich resource and the Church Heritage Initiative is spreading the message via the internet. For those of a less religious nature, the wonderful landscape of the National Park provides non-denominational spiritual refreshment to many thousands of visitors and residents on a daily basis.