Church of SS Mary & Michael
Great MalvernMalverns
Great Malvern Priory
Church Street
Worcestershire WR14 2AY
 

 

This glorious, 900 year old building is more like a cathedral than an Anglican parish church, but there is a very good reason for this. It is what remains of the original Great Malvern Priory church following the Benedictine monastery’s destruction in 1539.

Visitors will notice that the building is quite unbalanced with a transept on the north side and none on the south. The south walls were damaged during the Dissolution, when the adjoining monastery was demolished.

Nevertheless, this beautiful medieval building is a superb example of early Norman and Perpendicular Gothic architecture. It has the largest display of 15th century stained glass in England, as well as carved misericords from the 15th and 16th centuries and over a thousand medieval floor and wall tiles.

Services
A number of different services are regularly held. For full details go to:
 
This church is a delightful mix of ancient fabric and modern ideology. There is an extremely active Friends Society.
 
The Friends of Malvern Priory
This is a group of non-denominational like-minded people with the objective of maintaining the fabric, furnishings, adornment and facilities of the Priory church.
 
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‘The Friends’ Tile
As their emblem they have chosen one of the locally made 15th century tiles. The ‘Friends Tile’ has a verse written on it advising the reader to be aware of their mortality and so to give money in their lifetime rather than bequeathing later.
 
Two copies of the tile remain in the church. The easiest to find is set into the pillar near the main door, the other (which is rather more worn) is in the bottom row of the upper section of tiles on the wall of the North Choir aisle
 
Brief History
The early religious beginnings in Malvern are shrouded in myth and legend but it is believed that there was a hermitage in the woods with a small number of religious devotees living in it.
 
During the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), St Wulstan, Bishop of Worcester, encouraged a monk, called Aldwin to found a monastery in the isolated forest of Malvern Chase.
 
By the time the monastery was started, the Norman Conquest had occurred and William the Conqueror was king.  Although William retained ultimate control, he temporarily gave the land chosen for the monastery to Westminster Abbey.
 
This meant that the Monastery was not a servant of the Bishop of Worcester, but subservient to Westminster Abbey and had 'Priory' status even though it only housed a small number of monks. Building of the Priory church began in 1085.
 
The wealth of the Priory went to Westminster and not the local Bishopric of Worcester which caused many disagreements. In 1286 the Archbishop, the King and even the Pope were involved in these arguments.
 
1440 - 1500
In the 15th century the Priory church was reconstructed on its original site, keeping the Romanesque piers, arches and curved apse. The Norman tower was replaced and new walls with clerestory windows were added above the Nave. The presbytery, quire and quire aisles were completely rebuilt.
 
The North aisle was also extended but widening of the South aisle was prevented by existing monastery buildings. Floor and wall tiles plus Monk's stalls were added at this time.
 
The Priory’s books and records were destroyed during the Dissolution (1536-41) but it is believed that the rebuilding was completed by, or in, 1460.
 
Of course the church was solely for the monks’ use. The local parishioners had their own tiny Anglo-Saxon wooden church on the site of the current Great Malvern Post Office.
 
During the 1530s King Henry VIII started dissolving the monasteries and liquidating their assets. In 1539 the Malvern monks surrendered their lands and buildings. These were leased and sold to various people. The exception was the disused church which belonged to the Crown.
 
Destruction began; one man paid £1 for the Lady Chapel and destroyed it. The cloisters and the South transept were pulled down and the lead removed from the roofs.
 
At this time the parishioners’ church was falling down. They petitioned the King and succeeded in buying the Priory church for £20. It took them two years to raise the money. The parish consisted of only 105 families and after they had bought the church they had no money left to carry out repairs!
 
Nothing but very basic maintenance could be carried out until the mid 19th century. In 1860 restoration and repair started, probably financed by wealthy businessmen.
 
An imitation medieval ceiling and a pulpit, designed by the great Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott were added. A new north porch was built and work started on restoring the nave stained glass, and the medieval wall and floor tiles.
 
Dring World War II the stained glass was removed and stored in zinc lined boxes which aided its preservation. After the war Dr L.A. Hamand, the organist, painstakingly replaced the stained glass windows in their original positions as far as was possible. Restoration and repair of the stonework and stained glass continues today.
 
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Dedication
It might be wondered how this magnificent church did not suffer the same fate as its associated monastery. Did its dedication to The Virgin Mary save it? The truth is that if the parishioners had not bought the church it would have been reduced to an uninhabitable ruin.
 
It seems that the monastery as well as the church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. A Charter from King Henry I in 1128 AD refers to Great Malvern Priory as 'the Priory of St Mary'. In 1154/6 Westminster Abbey obtained a 'bull' from Pope Adrian IV which confirmed a strong relationship or dependency of the priory of St Mary, Malvern, on the Abbey of Westminster.
 
We have to remember that Western Christendom was Roman Catholic until the 16th century and that the Virgin Mary has always been held in highest esteem in Roman thinking, theology, and devotion. Therefore, many monasteries/churches were very likely to take the Virgin as their patron saint. Malvern Priory was directly spawned on the initiative of Bishop Wulstan of the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Worcester.
 
We must also remember that the Dissolution of the Monasteries and King Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome was more to do with wanting a divorce from his first wife in order to marry someone who could give him a son. He wasn’t trying to change religious beliefs; rather it was a great way of wrenching money and power from the Church of Rome. Even Henry wouldn’t take the risk of upsetting the Virgin Mary.
 
To have such a dedication was almost of guarantee for survival. It didn’t save the monastery but the local parishioners saved the church.
 
The Building
The original Norman church was much smaller and part of a Priory built for thirty monks. The church was part of the Monastery buildings on the south side. We enter the church through the North Porch rebuilt in 1894.
 
The Nave
The magnificent Romanesque round pillars and arches are part of the original church built in 1085. The Nave is the main seating area for the congregation. The choir and clergy process through the Nave towards the High Altar at the East end.
 
Although the largest windows are glazed with medieval glass and very fine, there are also excellent examples of Victorian and modern stained glass.
 
North Aisle
The North Aisle is 15th century and houses the shop and the children’s space. The floor tiles are Victorian copies of medieval tiles and there is a Victorian stained glass window depicting Queen Victoria herself. Standing behind her is her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, resplendent in a scarlet uniform. The window was given to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
 
South Aisle
The South Aisle was part of the original monastery and could not be widened in the 15th century extensions.
 
The East Window
This is the largest East window of any parish church in England. Made of medieval glass it depicts the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 
The West Window
At the west end of the Nave is the great West window donated in the 1480s by the Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. Originally it depicted ‘The Day of Judgement’ but was later re-glazed with pictures of angels, saints and bishops using glass from other windows in the church. The window depicts St Lawrence, St George and St Christopher.
 
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The Crossing
Above the Crossing is the tower. While facing the great East window and the altar, the north transept is on your left. As you can see, there is no south transept.
 
North Transept
The Transepts are the short arms of the cross as viewed from above. At the end of the North Transept is a window given by King Henry VII in 1501. It is known as ‘The Magnificat Window’ and depicts scenes from the Virgin Mary's life. It contains the words (from Luke ch 1) in which she praises God for making her the mother of Jesus.
 
South Transept
Only the arch to the transept remains and this is now filled with the huge Nicholson organ.
 
The Quire
This is where we find the "monks' stalls" with their 15th and 16th century misericords (mercy seats). The seats are left hinged up so you can see the ornamental ledges on which the monks could rest, taking the weight off their legs during the numerous long daily services. 
 
Some of the carvings have mythical subjects but most are scenes of medieval daily life. They can be very humorous and naughty. Well worth looking at carefully.
 
The High Altar
The focus of worship in a church is the altar. Backing it is a glass mosaic reredos dating back to 1884. The subject is the Adoration of Christ by the Magi and Shepherds. The Virgin and the infant Christ occupy the centre and a text along the lower edge reads: "They shall call His name Emmanuel".
 
Interesting Tombs
Flanking the high altar are two contrasting tombs. On the north side is a rather flattened effigy of a knight c.1240. On the south side is the Knotsford monument, a splendid alabaster altar tomb.
 
The Knotsford monument is particularly interesting because John Knotsford was one of the men responsible for the destruction of the monastic foundation. The effigies are life-sized; John, who died in 1589, is seen lying beside his wife Jane. John’s daughter Anne, who gave the impressive monument, kneels at the foot of the tomb.
 
St Anne’s Chapel
On the south side of the Sanctuary is St Anne’s Chapel. This chapel is used regularly for Holy Communion services. There is a mixture of medieval and Victorian stained glass in this chapel.

The southern stained glass windows here are full of excellent medieval glass showing chronological scenes from the Old Testament. The eastern window is a Charles Kempe, commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

Crypt Chantry
Alongside St Anne’s Chapel is a two-bay sunken chantry. One bay contains two coffin lids, one of which records an epitaph to Prior Walcher who died in 1135. He was Malvern's most outstanding scholar and the first man in the western world to record the use of the astrolabe, an early form of sextant marked in degrees.
 
Other treasures unearthed in the Priory grounds are stored here – a 4th-8th century Celtic stone head, a pre-historic ritual adze and various bits of stone carvings.
 
The Medieval Tiles
Sited on the lower part of the wall behind the High Altar is a well preserved collection of medieval wall tiles. They are the finest to be found in any church in England. Nineteen of the larger tiles bear the date 1453 in Roman numerals. Eleven tiles carry the Arms of England, lions and fleur-de-lys. The French emblem is a reminder of the days when France considered England belonged to them!
 
The North Chapel
The original windows in this area were intended to illustrate Christian doctrine but parts were used to fill gaps in the great East window. Instead, there are two modern windows designed and made by Thomas Denny. They are based upon themes taken from Psalm 36 and are known as The Millennium Windows.
 
Misericords
The parish church is blessed with three rows of "Monks' stalls" from its time as the Great Malvern Priory church. Each seat has a beautifully carved misericord on its underside. Some depict mythical beasts, others domestic scenes and there is a complete set depicting the Labours of the Month.
 
Misericords are very interesting because they are a contemporary record of medieval life. You see the clothes, tools and even hairstyles of the time. It was a chance for local carvers to show off their skills, often with a sense of humour. It is thought that these misericords were carved by the same craftsmen who worked on the ones in Worcester Cathedral and another little parish church near Tewkesbury, St Mary’s at Ripple.
 
Interpretation of the Labours Misericords

- January is represented by a man seated at a table holding up a wine cup in each hand

- March is represented by the man with a bag fastened to a strap over his shoulders with a seed container on his left. He is a seed-sower

- April or August may be represented by the man reaping or weeding. In his hands he holds two implements to tend the corn

- May is represented by the man holding a large bunch of flowers in each hand

- June is represented by a man with a scythe

- September is represented by a smiling man carrying a bunch of grapes in his left hand and a basket in his right and

- October is represented by a Swineherd, dressed in the usual flat cap, doublet and hose, and pointed shoes, knocking down acorns.

Tower Bells
There are 9 bells but only 6 or 8 of them are normally rung. All 9 are only rung on New Year’s Eve when the old year is rung out and the New Year rung in.
 
The lightest bell has the highest note and the heaviest the lowest. The heaviest bell also happens to be the one heard when the clock chimes the hour. Ringing always starts with "rounds", where the bells follow each other in size order, and the lightest, highest note starts first.
 
The oldest of the bells was cast somewhere between 1350 and 1380 by John of Gloucester. When you think about it, this is more than 100 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America! The next oldest bells are dated 1611 and quite rare.
 
The next oldest bells are the three Queen Anne bells cast by Abraham Ruddall of Gloucester. One was cast in 1706 and the other two in 1707. The last three bells to be added were in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
 
Annie Darwin
In the churchyard is buried Charles Darwin’s young ten year old daughter, Annie. He was trying to cure her of TB by using hydrotherapy. It is a poignant reminder that sometimes ‘the cure’ failed.
 
Opening days & Times
Every Day 09:00 – 17:00 hours
 
Admission Cost
Free but donations are most welcome
 
Disabled Access
Yes – Guide dogs are welcome
 
Other Activities
Events at the church include concerts, organ recitals, Welcome Days, occasional tours of the Tower and Ringing Chamber, and Thursday Lunchbox – bring your sandwiches and enjoy a half hour talk or recital. Tea and coffee can be purchased. To find out ‘What’s On’ go to the church’s website calendar.
 
Facilities
Prayer area with prayer request book, candle stand,
Informative Guide Leaflet entitled ‘Welcome to Great Malvern Priory’
Children’s space, quizzes, brass rubbing,
Toilets, wheelchair
Shop in the north aisle sells cards, postcards, gifts, books and guide books,
Guide on duty to answer questions and queries
 
Photography
There is no charge but a donation is always appreciated.
 
Contact & Further Information
Telephone   +44 (0)1684 561 020 (Parish Office answer phone)
 
Getting There
The Priory website has an excellent Google map.
 
Google Map - Church of SS Mary & Michael, Great Malvern