Monday, 11 April 2022

The tower is all that survives
of the Church of Saint Mary
Magdalen in Stony Stratford

The tower of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalen in Stony Stratford … originally a chapel-of-ease for the parish of Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

At different times, Stony Stratford has had two parish churches. For about a century, until 1964, they were Saint Giles Church, now Saint Mary and Saint Giles, on High Street, and Saint Mary the Virgin, now the Greek Orthodox parish church, on London Road. Saint Giles was in Calverton Parish, while Saint Mary’s was built in 1864 as Wolverton was expanding with the arrival of the railway.

Even from the 15th century, Stony Stratford was divided between two parishes and was served by two churches: Saint Giles on the Calverton or west side of the High Street, and Saint Mary Magdalen on the Wolverton or east side of the street.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalen was originally a chapel-of-ease for the parish of Wolverton. It dates from around the 13th century, and the tower was built in 1450. The main part of the church lay to the north-east and this area is now a disused graveyard. The tower is a Grade II* listed building.

The tower of Saint Mary Magdalen, built in 1450, is all that survived the fire of 1742 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was largely destroyed by the Great Fire that raged through Stony Stratford in 1742. The only part of the church that remained standing was the 15th century tower.

After the fire, the church was not rebuilt, and the tower alone remained standing. Through the intervention of the local notary, antiquarian and architectural patron Browne Willis (1682-1760) of Whaddon Hall, the lone tower was saved from demolition in 1746.

Willis had the roof re-leaded, the internal walls repaired and repointed, and the open arches of the ground stage blocked up. All this was in the vain hope that the church might one day be rebuilt. and its parish was united with Saint Giles in 1775.

After a century and a half of neglect, the tower of Saint Mary Magdalen was derelict by 1893, with an elm tree growing out of the top.

The tree was removed in 1893, and the noted Stony Stratford architect Edward Swinfen Harris completed a report on the state of the tower. He described the tower as ‘a precious heritage, which we should all value very highly. It is the work of an able but unknown architect of the latter half of the fourteenth century, but has many features it of a passing note …’

Boldly carved mediaeval gargoyles in the form of grotesque mythical beasts in the corners below the parapet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The interior of the tower now has no floors and only the remains of the circular tower stair. The tower is built of limestone. It has three stages with clasping buttresses to the two lower stages, and is surmounted by an embattled parapet with small gables on the north and south sides.

On the east and south sides of the ground stage there are pointed arches, now blocked up, which opened to the original church nave and south aisle respectively, the aisle evidently having been extended to the west wall of the tower. On the west side is a blocked two-light window.

The second stage has on the west side a square moulded panel, formerly a sundial, and a narrow light. The bell chamber has on each side a transomed window of two lights with tracery under a pointed head.

Boldly carved mediaeval gargoyles in the form of grotesque mythical beasts occupy the angles of the string-course below the parapet.

Some pre-fire headstones survive in the churchyard, which is associated with many stories of body snatchers in the early 19th century. This churchyard was extended over the building area after the fire and was in use until about 1865. Although many gravestones much weathered, many also have lettering of a very high standard.

A local legend says that should the tower of Saint Mary Magdalen ever fall, no fairs shall ever again take place in Stony Stratford.

A local legend says that should the tower of Saint Mary Magdalen ever fall, no fairs shall ever again take place in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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