Text of Talk


Friends of St Mary's Church, Cricklade, Wiltshire, U.K.


Chairman: Hugh Dudley, 4 Pleydells, Cricklade, SWINDON, SN6 6NG

Secretary: Gerry Dudley, 4 Pleydells, Cricklade, SWINDON, SN6 6NG

Treasurer: Tony Barratt, 13 Boundary Close, Stratton, SWINDON, SN2 7TF


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The following is a text of a talk given to members of Cricklade Historical Society on their walk in and around the churches of Cricklade on Sunday 8 August 1999. The text is based on upon research undertaken by Edmund Lee and Bernadette Yarnold.



There were two parishes within the circuit of the Saxon boundaries of Cricklade - St Sampson's (which you visited earlier) and St Mary's.

St. Mary's was much the smaller of the two, covering an area of about 120 acres extending North from the line of what is now Gas Lane up to the Thames river, and East beyond the town boundary to include the manor of Abingdon Court.

The history of the church remains little more than a series of linked mysteries and we have to rely upon the findings and observations of the diocesan architect C E Ponting in the 19th century, and the historians Thomson and Taylor in this century, plus Radford and Haslam, and most recently our own archaeologist Edmund Lee to provide a reconstruction.

Haslam suggests that when the town was laid out in the tenth century, the parish of St. Mary's was set aside to serve as a "ward". This would have been an open area that could be used for the defences of the town, - in peacetime as a source of revenue from rents, and in war as a space for the temporary accommodation of people and livestock from the surrounding countryside.

Archaeological evidence suggests that about one thousand years ago the Saxon defences of Cricklade were demolished. The "ward" then became redundant and, in 1008AD, was granted by the king to the abbey of Abingdon, near Oxford. The abbey may then have built the earliest church on the site, although it is possible that there was an even earlier Saxon chapel, perhaps dating back to the foundations of the town in the tenth century .

Radford records the Excavations at Cricklade in the 1960s. The archaeological excavations on the line of the town walls included a small trench adjacent to the north wall of St Mary's. This excavation revealed the stone footings of the small north chapel which now houses the organ. They were of differing construction and alignment to the north aisle, suggesting that the chapel was earlier and may date back to the establishment of the church on the site in the opening years of the second millennium.

By the 13th century, we can be sure that a more substantial building stood here, and from this date onwards we can reconstruct a likely sequence for the development of the building based on clues in stone, window and arch shapes, the bonding of walls etc.

The most comprehensive study of the architecture of St Mary's was that undertaken by Thomson and Taylor in 1965/66.

The chancel arch of the church is Norman in date and style. It is thought to be early 12th century -1120-50AD. We have to exercise our imaginations to reconstruct the rest of the building. Almost certainly it would have had a smaller chancel than the present building, and the nave was probably only as wide as the central aisle. The church would have been dark inside - glazed windows were a later addition - and worshippers may have stood for the services.

The Norman church was expanded by the addition of a square tower at the West end of the nave, and an aisle on the south side. Then, some time in the 13th century a disaster seems to have occurred which caused a complete rebuilding of the centre section. Many features of the building date to this period. Restoration work in the 19th century revealed burnt timbers built into a floor of this date, and it is possible that these are re-used timbers left over after a fire.

What emerges from the 13th century rebuild is, in essence, the church as we see it today, with nave, north and south aisles, chancel and tower. The north chapel was rebuilt in about 1450 and incorporated into the north wall of the chancel. The chancel was widened and lengthened, extending out into the line of the high street. Edmund Lee suggests that this enlargement reflected a change in the style of worship at that time which required a larger chancel perhaps to accommodate the choir? It does serve to illustrate that the church had sufficient influence in the affairs of the town that it was allowed to encroach on to the thoroughfare.

The building of crosses also reflects the importance of the church in the 14th century .You may be familiar with the cross in the churchyard, south of the chancel. It has a square top with each of the four faces carved with scenes representing the crucifixion, the assumption of the Virgin Mary , a bishop, and queen and a knight.

In the 15th century, the church was further developed while retaining the same basic plan. The nave archades are mid 15th century. Some of the existing windows can be dated to this period on stylistic grounds, (the glass is later). Cricklade Museum includes a stained glass panel dated 1558 and including the arms of the Hungerford family, which is thought to have come from St Mary's. The Museum also houses the chained bible from St Mary's dated 1613.

From the 17th century, the history of the church starts to become clearer, and the individual members of the community emerge from obscurity with the commencement of the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in 1683. We get some idea of the size of the parish from Compton's census of 1676 which gives the number of communicants as 133 and nonconformists 7. 

The altar table is of oak with turned column legs and inscribed with the initials of the churchwardens Zacariah Mills and Thomas Betterton 1627- CW ZM TB.

The pulpit, of oak with archaded panelling, is Jacobean.

It is recorded that in 1553 St Mary's had three bells. In 1779 three new bells were cast by Thomas Rudhall of Gloucester.

There was a fourth bell - a call bell - dated 1733 - inscribed "Come away make no delay" Sadly this is the only bell to remain in St Mary's. The larger bells were taken down because they made the tower unsafe. They were sold some years ago - one found a good home in Cricklade, at St. Sampsons.

The brass chandelier is 18th century. (1790) We still enjoy its occasional use - at Christmas.

The exterior of the church at the turn of the 19th century would be recognisable today. It was recorded by John Buckler, architect and medievalist, who was commissioned to paint all the churches of Wiltshire. A print of his work on St Mary's is on display at the back of the church. It is dated 1810. You will see that the bell tower is shrouded with climbing vegetation, the churchyard is open to the street and there is a curious lean-to structure at the junction of the nave and chancel. This housed an external staircase of 1779/80 which had replaced an earlier access to a rood loft.

The staircase led up to a gallery, known as the Priory Gallery, which was built above the south aisle. Looking at the space today it is difficult to see how it would have been possible for anyone to stand up in the low roof space, it must .I have been very cramped.

In the main body of the church the seating was in box pews, probably owned by different families. There is a floor plan drawn in 1861, prior to the restoration, at the rear of the church. It gives us a fascinating insight into the late 18th century arrangement of the church. The focus of attention is on the reading desk and pulpit, rather than the chancel - and, a line of posts running across the nave at the back of church may have been supports for another gallery .( or continuation of the Priory Gallery).

All was set to change - "Churchwardens' gothic" was out "present improved taste" was in - to quote the Wilts and Gloucester Standard of the time.

The Rev Hugh Allan, incumbent of St Mary's from 1834 till his death in 1882, together with an architect Mr Gilpin, a pupil of the celebrated Pugin, drew up new plans for the church in 1862. The interior of the church was completely altered from "a mass of mouldering woodwork, and crumbling stone, of ricketty galleries and irregular pews" to "the most finished specimen of what a country church should be" to quote the Wilts and Gloucester Standard again.

New pews, which survive today, were installed facing the chancel. The galleries were removed together with the external staircase, and the roof and porch replaced. The roof of the nave is a plain one of three bays with trussed rafters and tie beams. The rafters were enclosed before the restoration, the nail marks are clearly visible. The dormer windows above the south aisle were also removed but were reinstated in 1906 by popular request to provide more light.

Finally, a clock was added. The face is on the exterior east gable of the nave and the mechanism is in the tower. They are connected by a rod running under the rafters. The clock was the gift of Major Henry Smyth and his wife Elizabeth.

Before the restoration, there was, in the north aisle, a small window in place of the present two light window. On its being removed, it became clear that there had been a Norman door there. A number of stones of zig-zag moulding and more or less corresponding to those in the chancel arch were found in the wall. These stones when set out make up almost the complete arch of the doorway. They are preserved in the chapel window and in the former Rectory garden.

The church interior continued to develop and a pipe organ was installed in 1893 (156 8s 6d.) This sum included the re-roofing of the chapel with its moulded principals, purlins and ridge piece. The roof had to be raised to make room for the organ pipes.

In 1906 the East window of the chancel was replaced by the stained glass memorial to the Rev John McKaye, Rector of St. Mary's 1885 - 1905.

Later, other stained glass windows were added as memorials to Thomas Butt Miller and his wife Cicely both major benefactors of the parish - and to the Rev Charles Wray, Rector of St. Mary's 1912- 1927, remembered for the boys club which he founded and ran in a hut down Rectory Lane.

The baptismal font, which has so far escaped mention, has a bowl dating from 13th century and is thought to be an inverted column base on a Roman capital. The triple shaft replaced an earlier single shaft when it was reset in the 19th century. The font cover, of wood with wrought ironwork decoration and handle, was made by Mr Daniel Nash whose forge was close to the church. (Where Blackwell's used to be - now new houses).

In 1981, after a rationalisation of Anglican places of worship in Cricklade, St. Mary's was declared redundant. Happily, the Catholic community in need of a more permanent base managed to secure the lease for 100 years. The first Mass since the Reformation was celebrated in St. Mary's on New Years Day 1984. We are very fond of our new home and have not made any significant changes to its interior except to remove the choir stalls and raise the floor in the chancel by means of a wooden platform. Those wishing for a view of the church prior to our tenure may like to peruse the album on display at the rear of the church. There are some fine photographs taken by Mr Raymond Hutchings of Pauls Croft.

Any good history should have its ghosts or skeletons from the past. There are two worth mentioning.

In the late 18th century the house beside the churchyard gate was occupied by William Peare and his sister Mary. William was convicted for robbing a stage coach and hanged in 1783. Tradition has it that he was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary's churchyard - at dead of night.

Not long afterwards, on the evening of 7th May 1819 a man was murdered on the road between Purton and Purton Stoke. Robert Watkins was convicted of the murder and hanged at Purton at what became known as Watkins Comer. The victim was Stephen Rodway, a coal merchant. He is buried in St Mary's churchyard, - this grave is clearly marked by one of the largest headstones.

There is little to add regarding the churchyard. There are two chest tombs which are listed ancient monuments. They date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Burials were discontinued in 1882 (except in existing vaults and walled graves ). The last recorded burial in the churchyard is that of Ellen Agnes daughter of the Rev Hugh Allan, she died in 1884 aged 27 years.

For such a small churchyard, there seems to have been a remarkable number of burials. 900 are recorded between 1605 and 1840. It would be wrong to assume a similar burial rate before the 17th century, as between 1600 -1800 there was a population explosion, when the population of England rose from 4M to 14M, - a 250% increase. Nevertheless, I think we can reasonably calculate that between 2 and 3 thousand people have been buried in the churchyard over the years.

Finally, this tale has been one of continuous renewal and repair, and so it is today. The north wall is suffering subsidence, the tower needs repointing, the fabric of the roof of the north aisle is being checked for decay and rot. Last year, we formed "The Friends of St Mary's" to oversee its maintenance and to preserve this lovely church into the third millennium. Thank you for your interest today, perhaps some of you may like to consider extending your interest by joining "The Friends" in their venture. Details are to be found in the leaflets at the back of church.


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