Brief history and guide
It is likely that Christian worship has been celebrated on this site since Saxon times though the building in which you are now standing was built and re-built from the 13th to the 15th centuries (the mediaeval period) when the church formed part of the endowments of Malmesbury Abbey. The picture above, showing the church with box pews, comes from the Georgian period with was before the major Victorian restoration which took place in 1872.
This following description takes visitors on a short tour of the building starting at the West Screen at the back of the church.
The bell tower was the last major development in the latter part of the 15th century. The tower holds a peal of eight bells, the oldest of which was struck in 1598, the newest in 1989.
From here you can take in the sweep of the whole building. Ahead of you lies the nave and beyond that the chancel and sanctuary. On either side are the two aisles. On the left the North aisle, with a war memorial to the dead of both World Wars at the mid point and the old pulpit which dates from 1920 and was given in memory of a Vicar, John Veysey. On the right, the South aisle at the east end of which are St Nicholas’ chapel, and beyond that, alongside the chancel, the Lady Chapel. Cast your eye up and you will see the fine trussed rafter roofs; though there is a simpler style over the North Aisle. If you look carefully note that the truss ends on the north side of the nave are longer than those on the south, probably to support the linking with the north aisle roof.
The nave, originally built in the 13th century, is the oldest part of the church. As you walk down it, take a good look at the pillars. You will see that the top three feet have been added to the base, part of the 15th century rebuilding which considerably enlarged the church. However, the original capitals (the carved blocks that top the pillars), which are 13th century, were retained.
Look closely at some pillars and you may notice traces of mediaeval decoration. You have to imagine the whole of the church interior being a riot of colour in mediaeval times, most of the decoration telling Biblical stories for the benefit of those unable to read, but also to create a sense of awe and mystery. There is decoration at the top of two of the three arches in the nave, but this is largely Victorian re-creation.
Pause in the centre of the nave and turn to your right, facing the South door. There you will see, to the left of the Georgian royal arms, traces of a mediaeval wall painting. This represents “Christ of the Trades”: the wheel may reflect the concept of the wheel of life, or it may portray the hurt caused to Christ by those who used their tools on a Sunday. Above and to the left you may be able to pick out a crowned head of St Peter who is holding the keys to the heavenly Jerusalem sketched behind him. You will also see the font, around which we gather for baptisms and which dates from the 13th century. In 1907, after being rescued from use as a horse trough for many years, it was sited at the West Screen and was only moved to its current location during the internal renewal work in 2020/21. It was during this renewal work that the old Victorian pews were removed from the nave (replaced with upholstered wooden chairs) and that the raised dais at the front of the nave was built.
Continuing your progress down the nave, notice the windows above the North aisle. Most of the stained glass is Victorian, but the fragments in the left hand window are mediaeval, as are those in the uppermost parts of the right hand window above the main lights.
On the left hand (North) side of the dais is the lectern, a commemorative gift to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. On the right hand side is a half pillar with a capital that differs from the others in the nave. It may be from an earlier church on the site. The carving in the pillar is thought to represent the Annunciation. Originally on an outside wall, hence the weathering, it was brought inside in 1872.
Cross the dais and you are now at the crossing, the entrance to the chancel, and underneath the central tower and spire built in the late 14th century. St Mary’s is unique in having tower and spire at this point and the second tower at the west end. Only two other churches in England have a comparable arrangement.
Passing through the Chancel where the modern choir stalls are, turn to the left between them, and you will find at the entrance to the vestry to the right of the organ, two interesting carved mediaeval heads.
Returning to the choir stalls and moving into the Sanctuary you will see on the North side the original 13th century door to the churchyard, now the entrance to the vestry which may once have served as the cell of an anchorite (someone who leads a solitary life of silence and prayer). The blocked-up window and a counterpart of which traces remain on the south side are of the same period. The present windows are 15th century. The cavity in the north wall near the altar may have once held a tomb.
The painting of “The Last Supper” in the reredos is from the school of the 17th century Dutch painter, Jacob Jordaens, and was given to the church by the dowager Countess of Shaftesbury in 1782. It was stolen in 1994, returned from the United States in 2001, badly damaged, restored and then returned to its historic location in 2004. Still on the South side, you will see a piscina – a form of sink for washing the sacred vessels – and a sedilla, a stone seat for priests’ use during the Eucharist service. On the wall near the altar rail is an 18th century memorial plaque in Latin to two members of the Shaftesbury family which held the patronage of the parish until the 1920s.
Leaving the chancel, turn South through the glass door into the Lady Chapel. The fine panelling is from the 1920s. In the South wall is an aumbry, which traditionally held the Blessed Sacrament reserved for the sick, and another piscina. The beautiful wall painting on the South wall is of the “Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary “ from the 14th century. It was damaged in later times by a doorway being cut in the wall. The window above and to the left is filled with fragments of pre-Reformation glass, assembled to produce a wonderful collage in 1927. Note some of the fine heads, including in the upper right panel an angel playing the bagpipes. The stained glass above the altar is Victorian. As you leave the Lady Chapel via a second glass door to the , notice on the stonework to your right a replica of a 14th century figure of Christ. The original was found by a metal detector in Purton and is now in the Museum in Devizes.
You now move into the St Nicholas Chapel. It is thought the church may have been dedicated to St Nicholas at one time. You will observe another piscina on the South wall and an interesting decorated open stone block, known as a squint, between this and the Lady Chapel. The altar and the memorial tablets on the south wall came from Braydon Church when it was closed in 1980. Other memorial tablets are some for the Maskelyne family. Nevil Maskelyne was Astronomer Royal in the 1760s and is buried in the churchyard. Before you leave this chapel, turn and look up at the archway where there are further traces of mediaeval painting.
As you move down the South aisle towards the South door, turn round and look up where you will see above the archway to the chapel, particularly interesting mediaeval wall painting. In this instance one painting has evidently been superimposed on another, a common enough occurrence. The upper one shows a group of angels playing musical instruments. Behind on the left is a kneeling Mary Magdalene and a standing Christ; on the right are the Virgin Mary and the Archangel St Michael: the archangel is weighing souls for their fitness for heaven, Mary is tipping the balance in their favour.
Beyond the South door (through which you entered the church) lies the South porch with a priest’s room above it. The walls of the porch host stone seats for the benefit of people meeting, as the forerunner of the Parish Council would have done in earlier times.
Moving down the South aisle, you can see a final wall painting fragment. At the end on the south wall is another painting of the Last Supper painted in his 92nd year by Leslie Holland, a local artist, and placed in the reredos during the forced absence of the Jordaens painting.