Parish church dating from the C10 or C11 with later extensions and alterations from the C12, C13/C14, C16, C19 and early C20.
Reasons for Designation
The Church of St Mary, dating from the C10 or C11 with later extensions and alterations from the C12, C14, C16, C19 and early C20, is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* Survival of early fabric: the church has extensive survival of fabric from the Saxon, Norman and medieval periods. The earliest fabric is in the Saxon tower and south transept which date from the C10 or C11. It is considerably rare for a transept from this early period to survive in a parish church, and its importance is enhanced by the fragment of C14 wall painting on the east wall;
* Architectural interest: the church is an architectural expression of the liturgical evolution from the Saxon, Norman, medieval and Victorian periods;
* Artistic interest: it contains good quality C19 stained glass by Clayton and Bell, one of the most prolific stained glass workshops of the period, and a considerable number of marble memorial tablets dating from the C17 to the C19, some of notable artistic merit;
* Historic interest: the church demonstrates different phases of continuous community use and worship for almost a thousand years from the Saxon period to the late C20.
St Mary’s Church has Saxon origins, and was probably founded during the reconquest of England by King Edward the Elder. He captured Bedford in 915AD and constructed a broad ditch and rampart around what became the southern part of the town in which St Mary’s is located. Although the earliest historical document referring to the church dates to the C13, it is a copy of a C11 charter of William II confirming an endowment to Lincoln Cathedral.
It is likely that the church was originally built with a cruciform plan consisting of a nave, transepts and crossing tower. The earliest fabric to survive, dating to the C10 or C11, is in the tower and south transept. The west face of the tower has two blocked-in windows of late Saxon work, and as these are on the upper stage, it is highly probable that most of the tower dates to this period, although it also has later Norman and medieval windows. Other late Saxon work is evident in the south transept which has a pair of round-headed windows facing each other on the east and west walls. The window on the east side had been blocked up during the Norman period and a larger splayed window was inserted below, cutting into the earlier opening. This in turn was blocked up in the C14 when the chancel was enlarged and a mural, depicting a city, was painted inside. Amongst the rubble later found blocking the Norman window was a corbel head with long hair and a moustache, carved out of Caen stone. It is thought to date to the C12 and to depict a Viking; certainly the head resembles those carved in wood at the prow of Viking longships. (It is now on display in Bedford Museum). The nave was enlarged in the C12; and in the mid-C16 the north aisle was built involving the piercing of the north nave wall with four arches. The north aisle was built using stone from the demolished Church of St Peter that had stood opposite. One of the reused stones is carved with crossed keys, the symbol of St Peter, and is incorporated in a buttress.
In the C19 the church was restored and enlarged. The building of the south aisle in 1853 by Thomas Jackson of Bedford (fl.1853-1855) was partly funded by the Society for Promoting the Enlargement, Building and Repairing of Churches and Chapels. A plaque inside the west door records the grant of £70 made by the Society which stipulated that 127 seats should be reserved for the poorest inhabitants of the parish. It is stated in The Buildings of England and the Victoria County History that the south arcade is a C19 replica of the C16 north arcade, but it is claimed in some sources (eg, ‘A Pattern of Stones’ by Albion Archaeology) that the south arcade was also rebuilt in the C19. The C14 chapel on the north side of the chancel was rebuilt as a sacristry, and the tracery and glass in a number of the windows was replaced although the medieval jambs were mostly retained. The vestry in the north-east corner was rebuilt by Jackson, and was later enlarged in 1907-8. Until the beginning of the C19 the nave had a wooden roof covered with lead but then a plaster ceiling was inserted which partly fell down in 1912. It was therefore removed and the nave was practically re-roofed. The last service in St Mary’s took place in 1975 after which the church remained redundant for fifteen years. Since 1991 it has been used by Albion Archaeology. Major repairs were carried out to the top of the tower in 1994, involving the replacement of most, if not all, of the decayed late medieval gargoyles.
Parish church dating from the C10 or C11 with later extensions and alterations from the C12, C14, C16, C19 and early C20.
MATERIALS: mainly limestone rubble quarried locally at Pavenham, and also ironstone from Northamptonshire, sandstone from the Greensand Ridge, and clunch quarried at Totternhoe. The roofs are clad in tiles except the vestry which is covered in slate.
PLAN: the church is located on the east side of St Mary’s Square and is surrounded by a small churchyard. It consists of a C12 nave, C16 north aisle, C19 south aisle, C10 or C11 crossing tower and south transept, C12 north transept, C14 chancel to the east, C19 sacristry on the north side of the chancel, and late C19/ early C20 vestry in the north-east corner.
EXTERIOR: the nave has embattled parapets but no clerestory windows. The west end rises to a shallow pitch and the central merlon of the embattled parapet is surmounted by a stone cross. Gargoyles protrude from each side. It has C19 three-tiered buttresses at each end, and another pair flank the central doorway, and there is a stone plinth with a moulded string course above. The doorway has a moulded square surround with spandrels containing carved foliage and plain shields, a hoodmould, and an inner four-centred head. The double-leaf door is timber. The west window, which was rebuilt in the C19 (a blocked window arch is visible above), consists of three cusped lights with moulded jambs and dropped tracery of C15 style under a four-centred head. The stained glass was a gift from the Nash family who ran a brewery in Bedford. It was made by Clayton and Bell, and depicts the scene of Christ suffering the little children to come to him. The flanking west sides of the north and south aisles have sloping embattled parapets and two-tiered diagonal buttresses. They are lit by C19 three-light windows with plain, uncusped three-centred heads, set in a moulded square-headed surround with a hoodmould.
The north aisle includes some herringbone stonework and reused moulded stone, such as a section of a mullion. It has a parapet with moulded capping and is divided into four bays by three-tiered buttresses. The windows in the first, second and fourth bays (from the left) are probably C19 copies of C16 windows. The first two have four lights, whilst the last one has three, all with plain three-centred heads set in moulded square-headed surrounds with a hoodmould. In the third bay is a two-centred timber door with elaborate strap hinges, set in a projecting square porch, probably C19, which has decayed quatrefoils in the top corners. Following this is the north transept which was once probably as high as the south transept. It has been much altered, and the east wall was rebuilt in the C19. It is one bay wide, under a steeply pitched roof, and is lit by a three-light window of the same design as those in the north aisle.
The C19 south aisle is divided into four bays by three-tiered buttresses. Each bay is lit by a square-headed window with four cinquefoiled lights and hoodmoulds. There is a moulded string course at cill level which is interrupted by the buttresses. The south side of the south chancel has ashlared quoins, moulded kneelers, and some herringbone stonework below the window and in the gable head. Like the north chancel, it has one bay lit by a C19 window with three cinquefoiled lights with C15 style tracery. Affixed beneath the window are three stone memorial tablets of C19 date with moulded surrounds. High in the east wall of the south transept is a round arched window of C10 or C11 date, now blocked with masonry. This window is also visible from the interior. Just below it on the right is what appears to be the jamb of a C13 lancet, its other jamb being overlapped by the chancel wall. Also on the east wall is a small timber door with strap hinges, set above the ground. In 1973 it was recorded that a stone staircase, set in the angle between the south transept and the chancel, led up to this door. There was a corresponding wooden staircase inside, parts of which were described as ‘ancient’, giving access to the tower. There is now no trace of either of these staircases.
The central tower has heavy ashlar quoins, an embattled parapet with crocketted pinnacles and corner gargoyles, most or all of which were replaced during major repairs in 1994. The upper stage appears to have had two or three small plain round-headed windows on each face, traces of which are particularly evident on the south and west faces. The middle window, if there was one, has been destroyed by the insertion of two-light C15 windows with traceried heads and hoodmoulds. The upper stage has Norman round-headed openings on each face enclosing two smaller openings whose arches spring from a central shaft and shafted responds. The capitals are of Norman cushion type and, although the capitals of the responds are very weathered, there is evidence of a spiral volute.
The gabled east side of the chancel is dominated by a C19 window which is set within C14 jambs. It has five cinquefoiled lights with geometric tracery in the arched head consisting of two trefoils and a multifoil. The window dates to the 1870s, and is a memorial to Thomas and Jane Green. The stained glass, thought to be by Clayton and Bell, depicts the Crucifixion and four saints. The small burial area enclosed by railings outside the east chancel wall was given to the Nash family (who donated the west window), and there are two C19 stone memorial tablets to the family to the right of the east window. The south side of the chancel has three bays, divided by three-tiered buttresses, and lit by C19 three-light trefoiled windows with traceried heads in C14 style. The jambs and heads are in part of C14 date. Below the window in the first bay (from the left) is a single-light trefoiled window with jambs of probably C14 date and C19 stained glass depicting St Mary. To the right of this, still in the first bay, is a two-pointed arched timber door with C19 stonework.
The north side of the chancel has been obscured by the later sacristry and vestry. The C19 sacristry is situated between the north transept and vestry. It has a pitched roof running parallel to the chancel and is divided into two bays by buttresses. The first (left hand) bay is lit by a window with two ogee-arched lights and elongated trefoils in the two-pointed head. The second bay is blind. Following this is the early C20 vestry which has a recessed timber door in a round-arched, deeply chamfered and moulded portal. Immediately to the left of the doorway the wall projects at a right angle in the form of a prominent buttress with stepped tiers and a gablet. This wall is pierced by a casement window with leaded lights which is set in a stone architrave. This has a distinctive moulded lintel consisting of a recessed circular motif flanked by wing-like shapes, giving the impression of an angel. After the buttress the rest of the north side of the vestry is blind. The gabled east side, which projects further than the chancel, has prominent stone buttresses and stone banding in the gable head. It is lit by a large ten-light window with decorative leaded lights, set in a stone surround divided by mullions and a transom, and has the same distinctive carved lintels already described.
INTERIOR: the four-bay nave arcades, all painted white, have pointed arches with two moulded orders separated by a hollow. They spring from slender piers consisting of four half shafts separated by a concave moulding; each shaft having a semi-octagonal moulded capital and base. The north arcade is thought to be C16 whilst the south arcade is a C19 replica. The east bay of the latter has a half arch only, as part of the south wall of the formerly aiseless nave was probably left to support the tower. There is a Victorian timber screen elaborately carved with Gothic motifs across the west end of the nave which forms a western lobby and supports a gallery. The floor of the nave is stone-flagged, and the early C20 ceiling is timber-clad with king-post trusses.
The four tower arches have all been re-done, probably in the C19, and now have plain round arches. The arch on the west side is decorated with a Victorian dogtooth hood-mould, and above it is a small round-arched Norman opening. The east wall of the north transept was rebuilt in the C19. In the south transept are two round-headed window of late Saxon date in the east and west walls. A larger splayed window was inserted below the earlier window in the east wall during the Norman period. This in turn was blocked up in the C14 and a mural was painted inside, a fragment of which remains. It depicts the towers and roofscape of a walled city which could perhaps be the holy city of Jerusalem. There is a C20 spiral staircase in the north-west corner of the south transept giving access to the tower.
The chancel has a canted ceiling with timber ribs and slender beams which rest on moulded stone corbels decorated with painted angels or shields, all of C19 date. The only remaining parts of the organ chamber are the spandrels pierced with trefoiled arches. There is an Edwardian corner fireplace in the former vestry which has a carved timber overmantel and retains its glazed green tiles. The only church furniture to remain is the C19 timber pulpit with carved Gothic detailing, located in the south-east corner of the nave.
The church has a considerable number of marble memorial tablets dating from the C17 to the C19, mostly located in the chancel and sacristry. Amongst these is a Baroque memorial, carved in the form of a flowing cloth sheet, to Mary Lysons who died in 1682; and a neo-Classical monument depicting young people mourning at a pedestal with a palm tree behind. It was carved by J. Loft of 92 Dean Street, Soho, to commemorate Major William Mills who died in 1838.