St Mary's Church
Huddling beside the walls of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire is the striking 13th century church of St Mary the Virgin. It is said to have been built by the 1st Baron of Berkeley, Robert FitzHarding of Bristol, on the site of an earlier Saxon church. St Mary’s intimate connection with the Berkeley family makes it a treat to visit.
The church has some fine examples of 13th century stone work, medieval wall paintings, superb Berkeley family memorials and a detached 18th century tower. It is full of other smaller treasures, history and wonderful stories.
Sunday 09:30 – Traditional worship with organ and sometimes a choir.
Sunday 11:30 – Informal service with contemporary worship songs and provision for children
Social tea, coffee and cake are served beforehand, between 10:30 and 11:00.
Sunday 18:00 – Evening Prayer
As well as normal church activities, St Mary’s holds concerts and musical events. There is always something going on in this surprisingly large church and there is a lot to see.
The original tower was joined onto the church and was used by the Berkeley family in the castle to form part of its defences during the Civil War.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy, the old tower was demolished by 1748 and the new tower sited on what are believed to be the foundations of a Saxon church. It was completed in 1753. The clock was installed in 1765 and kept working for over 200 years. A new electronic mechanism has been installed but apart from re-gilding, the clock face is unchanged.
A ring of ten bells hangs in the top chamber of the tower. The bells are rung each Sunday at 10:30, some weekends and at practise on Wednesday evenings.
The churchyard is full of table-top tombs including one to the last Court Jester in England, Dickie Pearce who suffered a fatal accident during a performance at Berkeley Castle.
All that remains of Robert FitzHarding's church is the south door and the font which have probably been repositioned. The Norman features of the doorway are best seen from the outside. St Mary’s was a collegiate church and very important with bands of priests serving district churches over a large area. Its importance declined in the mid 12th century but as late as 1338, ten chaplains were still employed.
The oldest parts of the church still standing are the nave, parts of the chancel and the west front dating from 1225-1250. The Early English arcades on each side of the nave have 7 arches. The pillars have clustered shafts and foliated capitals except for one capital of geometrical design.
The other most important architectural feature of the building is the West Front. Look for the painted 13th century consecration cross, to the north of the door. Above the window-sill there are the remains of two further crosses. The staircase gives access to the north aisle and nave roof.
The west end of the chancel, built at the same time as the nave, dates from the 13th century but the east end is of a later date. The stringcourse at sill level indicates the extent of the 13th century chancel. The lancet window on the north side is original.
The church underwent a lot of rebuilding in the 14th century. The chancel was extended, the south and north aisles were rebuilt, and the north door dates from this period as does the lower half of the porch. The porch has an ogee arched entrance, i.e. the two curved arches meet at an apex. Don’t miss the large wooden bolt used for securing the door.
The door has been relined but the outside shows signs from the civil war when, in 1645, the church was used by the Royalists as part of the defences of the castle. A section in the middle bottom has been replaced where it was damaged by a Parliamentarian gunpowder bomb. There are axe marks at waist-height visible on the right-hand door and there are bullet marks.
The 13th and 14th century wall paintings are a particular feature of this church. They had been buried under layers of plaster and whitewash for centuries until they were revealed during the 1865 restoration. After their discovery the paintings and patterns were traced and recorded before restoration.
The paintings decorate all parts of the church and it is thought that they were used as decoration instead of architectural ornament. Long straight lines of pattern fill up what would otherwise be blank spaces of wall, and enhance the perspective effect. They give a fine impression of the colourfulness of a medieval church.
At the east end of the north aisle there are some fragments of an ancient painting of a martyrdom, near which on the splay of a window, is a beautiful figure of a saint or angel now almost faded away. Over the chancel arch is part of a "Doom Picture", or representation of the Last Judgment.
On the wall at the east end of the south aisle is a painting of the Tudor rose, surmounted by a crown, on each side of which are the letters E. R. Similar decorations are between each of the windows of the south aisle.
Some remains of a later and inferior style of mural decoration have been left on the wall over the north door.
Much of the decoration that we see today is the result of the Victorian restoration; it is over painting of the original. There is little doubt that it reproduces what was there before. In a number of places the original decoration can still be seen.
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15th Century Building
Work carried out included a second storey to the entrance porch in 1450 to provide a Priest’s Room. From the north aisle you can see a window in the priest’s room looking down into the church. The room is now used as an office and not open to the public. The Nave roof was also rebuilt c.1450.
The Rood Screen
The beautiful Perpendicular traceried stone screen is part of the 15th century work. When the chancel was extended the original 1300 screen had to be enlarged.
This magnificent window built in the 15th century has nine lights under a four centred arch. It is glazed with glorious stained glass from a much later period and is the Parish’s memorial to Dr Edward Jenner
, the inventor of the Smallpox Vaccine, Father of Immunology and long-time Berkeley
The Reredos behind the altar dates from 1881. When it was erected a cavity formed of dressed stone was found in the wall about 4 feet above the altar; it contained the radius bone of an arm lying on a quantity of brown dust. This is probably the relic that had been placed in the altar at its consecration. The cavity with the relic inside has been re-sealed.
The Jenner family vault is to the left of the High Altar. Dr Edward Jenner
is buried here along with other members of his family, including his father who was Vicar of Berkeley
On the right side of the High Altar is the Berkeley Chapel. Most of the Berkeley tombs are splendid affairs with heraldic devices and alabaster effigies lying atop table tombs.
James, 11th Lord Berkeley
The tomb of James, who built the mausoleum, lies in the arch between the chancel and the burial chapel. The smaller effigy on the tomb is that of his second son James. The difference in their ages is indicated by their sizes. They are both in armour with Yorkist collars of alternate suns and roses, and both heads rest on tilting helmets.
The tomb is of alabaster under a freestone canopy. The tomb-chest is adorned on the north side with a row of canopied niches containing figures of saints and panels with quatrefoils. The ground level on the south side is lower and there are two rows of saints in ogee-shaped canopies separated by pinnacles. The canopy above the tomb has niches without figures.
Thomas, 8th Lord Berkeley & Lady Katherine
In the south-east nave, another impressive Berkeley tomb is that of Lord Thomas, 8th Baron by tenure, (d. 1361) and Lady Katharine, his second wife.
The effigies are of alabaster and life-sized. Thomas is 6 feet 2 inches tall and depicted as a Knight in armour. His wife is 5 feet 8 inches tall and is dressed in the costume of a mid-14th century lady of rank. They are lying side by side on top of a large chest tomb, their hands pressed together in prayer. The tomb has an embattled Gothic edge; and the sides have panels of shields of arms within quatrefoils. The deep-blue glass strips were mostly renewed in 1864.
Lady Katharine founded The Katharine Lady Berkeley School at Wotton-under-Edge in 1384. It is one of the oldest schools in the country. Her husband was one of the most powerful barons in medieval England. Thomas was Lord of Berkeley when King Edward II was murdered in the castle in 1327.
Berkeley Mortuary Chapel
The chapel is the mausoleum and private property of the Berkeley Family and not open to the public. It was built in 1450 by James, 11th Lord Berkeley (d.1463). There is an elaborate ogee crocketed arch over the doorway with the Berkeley arms held by an angel. Outside, the parapet has carved enrichments and pinnacles.
To the south of the High Altar is a 1 foot 10 inch brass of William Freme (d. 1526). The brass shows a well-to-do yeoman of the reign of Henry VIII. On his breast he holds a heart inscribed with MCY that was probably intended to indicate his sincere trust in the promises of God. Round the margin of the stone was a fillet of brass with an inscription in Latin.
John Trevisa was born in Cornwall, possibly on a Berkeley manor. He became chaplain to the Berkeley family. He was involved in the early translations of the Bible and was a Vicar of Berkeley (d. 1402).
Nobody knows exactly where he is buried but there is a tomb of a cleric in the central aisle that bears the date 1402.
- Altar Table
The South aisle Altar table is Elizabethan.
- Old Clock Mechanism
Towards the back of the church visitors can see the original 18th century clock mechanism. The clock was made by William Meredith of Chepstow in 1765 and had to be hand wound every day. For over 200 years somebody climbed the tower to keep the clock going!
A corbel is a structural piece of stone jutting from a wall to carry a very heavy weight, in other words, a type of bracket. Most of the corbels in St Mary’s are 14th century and are decorated with amusing figures.
Look out for the Toad Corbel. It is a hood-mould corbel of two female gossips’ heads surmounted by a toad. The colouring is medieval. This is a sermon in stone to teach that gossip is like the poisonous tongue of the toad.
- The Font
This is a most unusual font from the mid 12th century. It is rectangular and large enough to allow total immersion of an infant. The bowl has a scalloped bottom edge; this pattern looks very much like horseshoes. It is supported on corner shafts with moulded capitals and bases and keeled sides.
It bears signs of rough usage but there is no record of the cause of this. The remains of staples for locking the font can be seen on either side. This was to prevent water, which in Pre-reformation times used to stand in the font for long periods, from being stolen for superstitious uses.
- The Vicar
The current encumbent, Rev’d Richard Avery, is the Vicar of Berkeley, Hill & Stone. He lives near the church in The Vicarage in Church Lane and is contactable every day except Monday. See contact details below.
Plan Your Visit
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During daylight hours
Parking is very limited in the vicinity of the church. (Street parking normally available on Sundays in the Market Square and Salter Street).
Toilet normally locked outside service times.
Guide leaflets are available in the church (on the table as you enter), and a booklet is available for purchase
There is a wheelchair ramp into the church. Assistance may be required to open the heavy door.
Assistance dogs allowed; induction loop system installed.
Toilet is wheelchair accessible, but is normally locked outside church service times.
Contact & Further Informantion
+44 (0)1453 810 294
Google Maps - St Mary's Church