Photos by Rob Tysall
In Medieval times, St Mary’s Church was at the heart of Warwick life. Ann Evans visited this beautiful church to learn something of its history.
If you’re visiting Warwickshire this summer, be sure to spend time in the historic town of Warwick itself. Famous for its magnificent castle, the town is full of historic charm, blending the old and the new with gift shops, antique centres, art galleries, traditional tea rooms, fine restaurants, historic buildings and much more.
One of its treasures is the Collegiate Church of St Mary in the Old Square which dates from the 12th century and is one of England’s finest Medieval churches. Its architectural grandeur is awe inspiring. From its 174 ft (53 metres) tower down to its Norman crypt. It’s a church steeped in history and contains Medieval and Tudor tombs of the rich and powerful. The magnificent tomb of the 13th Earl of Warwick, Richard de Beauchamp, a medieval nobleman and military commander is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Medieval art.
The effigy of the Earl in his suit of Milanese armour – the best money could buy in its day, is made of gilded bronze. His effigy rests on a tomb of Purbeck marble in the heart of the beautiful Beauchamp Chapel, arguably the finest chantry chapel in the country. The effigy was modelled and cast by William Austen of London, and gilded and engraved by Bartholomew Lambespring, a Dutch goldsmith.
At the North Transept of St Mary’s is the Chapel of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with its many regimental flags and banners. While in the Chancel is the tomb of Thomas Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick and his Countess, Katherine Mortimer, their effigies made of alabaster. A more sombre tomb is that of Fulke Greville, an Elizabethan poet, dramatist and statesman, which is located in the small Chapter House. He was granted Warwick Castle by King James 1 in 1604 and his ghost is said to haunt the Watergate Tower in the castle. Down in the atmospheric Norman crypt of St Mary’s which dates back to 1123AD you’ll find beneath its vaulted ceilings one of only two surviving Medieval ducking stools in England.
The original Nave of the church along with the transepts and the tower were destroyed in the great fire of Warwick in 1694. On 5th September of that year, a stray spark from the blacksmiths in the High Street started a fire. Due to the weather, and the closely packed nature of the town’s dwellings the fire swiftly spread, lasting for six hours. Many townsfolk ran to the church for safety as it was one of the few stone buildings in the town. Many took items with them that were smouldering or burning, causing damage to St Mary’s. What you see today was rebuilt at the start of the 18th century with the financial help of Queen Anne, whose royal coat of arms is on the north-western pillar.
While some of the magnificent stained-glass windows were destroyed by the great fire and the Civil War, much is still intact, including panes depicting scrolls of music held by angels. The music is Gaudeamus, and is often played in St Mary’s, the acoustics of the church being renowned as are the church choirs.
Covid restrictions permitting, there are volunteer guides at the church who are happy to show visitors around and talk of its history and the people associated with it over the centuries – the Earls of Warwick, the Grevilles, the Dudleys and the Kings and Queens who have made their mark on the church throughout its rich and colourful history.