St Mary’s Church, Guildford, Surrey

The Church of St Mary is a fine medieval parish church occupying a prominent position in Quarry Street, Guildford overlooking the River Wey with a great deal of surviving Saxon fabric. It was built on a steep site with unusual level changes between the nave, tower and chapels.

The church is of national importance and is listed at Grade I. It is also on the Heritage at Risk RegisterInevitably the building has been altered, but its principle building materials are flint and chalk rubble with clunch dressings. The clunch was replaced by Bargate stone mainly on the exterior of the tower parapet.

The most prominent feature of the church is the tower built in flint and chalk rubble. It dates to the eleventh century and would have been one of the few stone-built structures in the town. The tower may have been connected to the chancel. This plan is also known as the cellular linear plan, but there is little evidence to support this. The tower was crucial to the development of the church, as the chancel, chapels and nave were all built around it. It remains one of the most important pre-conquest structures in Surrey and was later converted into a central tower.

fullsizeoutput_b7bFig 1: Showing the west elevation of the church (Fazzalaro, 2016)

The church of St Mary’s has a long architectural history spanning almost a thousand years. It is of cruciform plan and the earliest structure is the tower which has been dated the eleventh century based on the splayed windows. Following the Norman conquest, the north and south transepts were added to the tower and pointed arches were cut through the tower perhaps for liturgical purposes.

This was part of the national Great Rebuilding which involved the commitments of craftsman and resources on an unprecedented scale. There is no trace of an early nave, but one may have existed.

IMG_0184Fig 2: The Chapel of St Mary with its rib vaulted roof (Fazzalaro, 2016)

The nave arcade with its pointed arches was constructed in around 1180 as part of a great rebuilding of the church. The capitals of the columns contain scalloped decoration and the thickness of the columns suggests these are in the transitional style of architecture.

Around 1240, the aisles were brought out to the line of the chapel walls and the aisles were widened. This was part of a general reordering of the church.The windows were also added around this time and consist of lancet windows and fine quatrefoil windows with three lights. Often stained glass windows depicted biblical scenes as most of the population was illiterate.

IMG_0211Fig.3. The nave arcade showing the scalloped decoration of the columns. (Fazzalaro, 2016)

The stair turret was built early in the thirteenth century. The partially blocked lancet in the south chapel adds credence to this. A noticeable change in the church plan indicates that the floor may have been altered as flights of steps were added leading to the chapels and chancel. Traces of wall paintings on the south chapel were discovered but have since faded. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the church was re-roofed and now contains plain tiles, however the roof over the chancel may be earlier. The reformation ushered in a simpler decoration with the internal walls being whitewashed and the stained glass replaced with plain glass. Much of the church was refaced in the nineteenth century excluding the tower and the chancel was shortened in 1825.

The church developed by successive enlargements during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Consequently, it contains features typical of Saxon, Romanesque, Transitional and Early English Architecture.


Author: Jeremy Fazzalaro


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