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)

Praying at the Stations of the Cross in
Lent 2022: 11 April 2022 (Station 9)

Jesus falls for the Third Time … Station 9 in the Stations of the Cross in the Church of the Annunciation, Clonard, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

We are now in Holy Week, the last and closing week of Lent. n many churches, today is known as Fig Monday.The prayer in the Parish of Stony Stratford with Calverton today (11 April 2022) is ‘May we bear true and lasting fruit.’ But, even before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I have been reflecting on the Psalms each morning. But during these two weeks of Passiontide, Passion Week and Holy Week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the Stations of the Cross, illustrated by images in the Church of the Annunciation, Clonard, Wexford, and the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary adapted in the Church of Ireland;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Station 9, Jesus falls for the Third Time:

In an unusual arrangement, the Stations of the Cross in the church in Clonard are set in the curved outer wall of the church in 14 windows designed by Gillian Deeny of Wicklow. In her windows, she emphasises the role of women in the Passion story.

Her windows were made in association with Abbey Glass, where she worked with the cut-out shapes of coloured glass, the pigment being a mixture of lead oxide, ground glass and colour. Each window is signed by the artist.

The Stations of the Cross on the north and south walls of the nave in Stoney Stratford were donated in memory of John Dunstan (1924-1988).

The Ninth Station in the Stations of the Cross has a traditional description such as ‘Jesus falls for the Third Time.’

In this station, Christ has stumbled and fallen for a third time. In the stained glass depicting the Ninth Station in Wexford, a grieving woman stumbles and falls too in her effort to ease the pain of the suffering Christ as he stumbles on a rock.

In the Ninth Station in Stony Stratford, the Roman soldier who has been whipping and goading Christ all along the way now stands aloof as he also tries to hold up the cross with both hands, his whip hanging limply in one hand, without any hint of a gesture to move Christ on with force.

Christ touches or even embraces the jagged rock that has broken his fall and that must be bruising his already much-bruised body.

Psalm 18 refers to God as ‘my rock, my fortress and my deliverer’ (verse 2), and Psalm 95 speaks of God as ‘the rock of our salvation’ (verse 1). But this morning I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Habakkuk: ‘The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster] will respond from the woodwork’ (Habakkuk 2: 11).

These words of Habakkuk are recalled in Saint Luke’s account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out’ (Luke 19: 37-40).

Jesus falls for the Third Time … Station 9 in the Stations of the Cross in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John 12: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Light in the Darkness.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by the Revd Anthony Gyu-Yong Shim of the Diocese of Daejeon in the Anglican Church of Korea. The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (11 April 2022), invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Anglican Church of Korea and the dioceses of Seoul, Busan and Daejeon.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Figs growing over a garden wall off High Street in Stony Stratford … Monday in Holy Week is known in many parts of the Church as Fig Monday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org