13 September 2022
Saint Mary’s Church stands
on the site of a Saxon church
in the heart of Aylesbury
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, with its ornate clock tower, dominates the skyline of Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire.
There has been a church on the site since Saxon times, and the present church dates from ca 1200-1250, with additions and alterations in the 14th, 15th, 19th and 20th centuries.
This church is a fine example of an Early English church of spacious proportions found in many market towns. It was saved from certain ruin in the 1850s and 1860s by Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the great architects of the Gothic Revival, who was born near Buckingham.
The Saxon church on this site may have been built ca 571, when Aylesbury was a Saxon settlement known as Aeglesburge, and may be the place here Saint Osgyth, a Mercian princess, abbess and martyr, was buried following her death in the year 700.
Her place of burial became a place of pilgrimage. But, following a papal decree in 1500, her bones were removed from the church and buried in secret.
The early church was a Prebend in Lincoln Cathedral, and the Prebendary of Aylesbury was attached to the See of Lincoln as early as 1092.
The Norman font at the west end of the church and other artefacts found in the 19th century point to the existence of the earlier church. The font, found in three fragments, has given its name to a style of fonts known as the ‘Aylesbury Fonts,’ normally dated to 1170-1190.
It is shaped like a chalice, with a wide fluted bowl, border with delicately-carved foliage, and supported on a square base with semi-circular cushions.
There are other Aylesbury Fonts are at: Bledlow, Buckland, Chearsley, Chenies, Great Kimble, Great Missenden, Haddenham, Little Missenden, Ludgershall, Monks Risborough, Saunderton and Weston Turville.
The church was built between 1200 and 1250 with a cruciform shape, including a chancel, nave, transepts and tower. It retains that basic shape to this day, although it has been altered and modified over time.
The effigy of a knight in the north transept is assumed to be that of James Butler (1359-1405), 3rd Earl of Ormonde, who in 1386 founded the house of Greyfriars, thought to have been on the site of Aylesbury Railway Station, and acquired Kilkenny Castle in 1391.
The Lady Chapel and the Sacristy (now called the Vestry) were built at the east end of the south and north transepts in the 14th or 15th century.
The Lady Chapel has a sedilia. The room above the sacristy is a priest’s chamber or priest’s hole.
The clerestory was were added in the 15th century. The east ends of the north and south chapels were probably extended about the same time, to form two larger chapels known today as the Chapel of Saint George and the Chapter House.
The Guild of Saint Mary was founded in Aylesbury by John Kemp, Archbishop of York, in 1450. The Guild was influential in the final outcome of the Wars of the Roses. Its premises at the Chantry in Church Street, Aylesbury, are the site of almshouses today.
John Stone of Aylesbury left a bequest in 1494 to maintain a clock and chimes in the church tower.
Henry VIII made Aylesbury the county town, replacing Buckingham, supposedly to with favour with Thomas Boleyn, a descendant of James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, so that he could marry his daughter Anne Boleyn.
Later in the 16th century, the remaining sides of the south-west pier were encased in stonework. The same work was carried out on the north-west pier in 1599, and the arch abutting against it was walled up probably at the same time.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche over the west door survived the worst excesses of the Reformation, and in 1970 it was re-placed on the north wall of the chancel for its preservation. Some mediaeval misericords survive among the stalls in the chancel.
The figures on each side of the south porch door, now the main entrance facing onto Church Street, represent the patrons of the daughter churches, Saint Peter of Quarrendon and Saint James of Bierton.
Two piscinas by the sacristy door in the north transept are among the five surviving mediaeval piscinas in Saint Mary’s Church. They indicate mediaeval altars and side altars and the daily celebration of the Eucharist in the church until the Reformation.
An alabaster monument in the north transept commemorates Lady Lee, who died in 1584, wife of Sir Henry Lee of Quarrendon, an Elizabethan courtier. Once, it was profusely decorated with gold and colouring. A bequest from Sir Henry Lee led to the foundation of Aylesbury Grammar School in 1598, which was first housed in the church.
Lady Lee looks surprisingly humble kneeling with her daughter and where there were images of her two children who died young and were buried in their swaddling clothes. An inscription laments the loss of her children, and asks for a red rose to be placed on her memorial – a request that is honoured to this day.
But her two infant boys, who have been part of the life of Aylesbury for four or five centuries, have been missing for almost a year. They seem to have been stolen from the monument last October.
Aylesbury Grammar School moved to what were then church buildings in 1611. The school remained here until 1907, and the buildings now house the County Museum.
The Cromwellian Commissioners and Visitors listed the Revd John Barton of Aylesbury a ‘scandalous minister’ in 1642 and voted to expel him. The House of Commons was told on 8 July 1642 that John Barton had spoken against the Parliament. He was arrested and was brought in custody before Parliament. He did not recant his words, was committed to the ‘Gatehouse,’ and was later driven from the Vicarage.
Nehemiah Wharton, a Parliamentarian soldier, and his supporters broke into the church in August, 1642, defaced historical monuments and windows, ‘and burned the holy rails.’ The Battle of Aylesbury on 1 November 1642 was a key event in the Civil War.
The small spire that crowns the church tower is believed to date from the reign of Charles II.
A surviving monument in the chancel recalls Sir Francis Barnard, the last Governor of Massachusetts in 1760.
A surveyor’s report in 1765 confirmed the building was in a very unsafe state and required re-erection.
By the early 19th century, only part of the church was used for public worship and it was partitioned off from the transepts. The south transept was said to resemble ‘a marine store,’ parts of the church was used to hold the equipment of the parish fire brigade, and during the Napoleonic Wars, local regiments stored their stocks of gunpowder in the church.
Extensive renovations were carried out after a report from 1842 on, beginning with the interior of the south transept. However, a surveyor from London reported that the Church might probably stand until he got to Watford, but that it would fall before he reached home.
The fastenings holding the chimes in place in the tower gave way during the Sunday service on 24 September 1848, and created panic in the church before the service resumed. A survey by Sir Gilbert Scott that year revealed considerable problems with the foundations, the walls and the roof.
Scott carried out extensive restoration work in the 1850s and 1860s while the church was closed and public worship held in the County Hall. Pews, galleries, partitions and other fixtures were removed and sold, the late Perpendicular east window was replaced, and Scott was criticised for destroying the mediaeval fabric of the church.
When the congregation returned to the church for public worship on Pentecost Day 1851, the restoration was far from complete. There were no seats and the restoration of the chancel had not yet started.
The restoration of the west end began in 1866, and the completion of the restoration work was celebrated on 28 September 1869, when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford and Bishop Harold Browne of Ely preached.
The east window with three lancets was put in place during the Victorian restorations. The figures of Saint Peter with his keys and Saint Paul with his sword were carved in Oberammergau. The great triptych above the High Altar was designed by JL Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral, and was installed in 1891.
The colourful Victorian glass filling the 15th century perpendicular west window above the font depicts Biblical scenes from Creation to the Prophets.
Saint George’s Chapel has been restored by the Buckinghamshire Battalion of the county regiment as a memorial to those who died in two World Wars.
The church was considered perilously unstable once again in the 1970s, and at one time it appeared to be facing demolition. Following storm damage in 1976, the battlemented parapet was removed from at the top of the tower.
The church was closed in 1978 for further restoration work. A new internal layout, floor, lighting, and heating system were installed, and the work was completed within a year. A refectory was built in the old south porch and the main entrance was moved to the door in the south transept.
The churchyard may have been much larger in the late Saxon and mediaeval periods. Skeletons have been found at 12 Church Street in a water main trench and in the cellars of 14 Temple Square and 2 Saint Mary’s Square. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1857.
Music plays an important role in the life of Saint Mary’s Church and community life, particularly at formal worship, and other activities, including concerts and lunch-time recitals.
The original church organ was a gift of a Mrs Mary Pitches in 1782. The organ was built by Green of Lichfield and was improved in 1858. But little of the original instrument now remains.
To some visitors, Saint Mary’s Church may appear to have a superficial Victorian Gothic Revival appearance. But that would ignore its past and its historical significance, and it is a Grade I listed building.
Today, the church is a true community church , in the heart of the old town of Aylesbury and an oasis of calm in the midst of a busy and vibrant town.
• Saint Mary’s Church is in the modern Catholic tradition. Father Doug Zimmerman, who gave me a guided tour of the church during my visit, has been the Rector of Saint Mary’s since September 2014, having moved from Florida. The Sunday services are at 8 am (Said Eucharist, Book of Common Prayer), and 10 am (Sung Eucharist).