Way back in around the year 700 AD, Staffordshire was such a different area. The River Sow valley was one huge marsh, with what is now Stafford as a bare island, a dry sandy peninsular. The very beginnings of St Mary’s Church means going back to the beginning of the town and beyond. Today the area around the church is a popular spot for many escaping the shopping centre or taking a lunchbreak in the sun, but lots to be learnt inside….
Legend has it that in the 8th Century St Bertelin, a Mercian Prince, set up a hermitage on the island. Over time people came and settled, so what was a reclusive refuge amongst a big marsh grew into a populated place so St Bertelin eventually left. (Stafford’s name come from the words Staithe and Ford – Landing place). Excavations beside St Mary’s Church have shown the plot of the original timber Anglo Saxon church here (The original St Bertelins Church). They found an ancient wooden piece underground, long thought to be the preaching cross of the time, but now believed to be a wooden tree trunk coffin that was buried within. A replica is on display there today.
The current St Mary’s Church (Grade I listed) is old enough in itself, dated from late 12th, early 13th Century. It also had one the highest spires in the whole country! But alas that came down in a storm in 1593/1594. Much has changed over the years within too as we shall see but we shall start with the oldest item, the font.
The font of St Mary’s is known to medieval in age but the coming of it a mystery. There are latin inscriptions for example ‘Tu de jerusalem ror…alem me faciens tam pulchram tam specialem (You give me life-giving water from jerusalem.. making me much as I am, beautiful and distinctive. Stories have it that the font came back from the crusades? Some say it is still medieval but made by foreign workers in Stafford? What all seem to agree is that it isn’t English of the time.
Behind the font is the smaller of the organs, but grand looking it is. The wood case and many of the pipes came from a John Geib organ built in around 1790.
Much has been changed inside over the centuries. The spire for instance when it came down crashed through the roof and ruined much. St Mary’s escaped much upheaval though with the reformation. The church had allegiance to the crown not the bishop and thus was easy to change to what the King wanted. By the 19th Century the inside needed totally refurbishing, it became one of the first churches to be restored by George Gilbert Scott. He went big on restoration, attempting to restore it in its original principles and glory. He ripped out a lot that had built over time but was commended by many on his work here. He ran out of money before he could replicate the huge tower.
Royalty and special guests have made plenty of visits here. Cromwell’s army rested his horses at the church. King Charles I attended whilst staying at the nearby Ancient High House. More recently a service was attended in 2006 by Queen Elizabeth II when a new window was dedicated ‘The shoemakers’. Stafford was huge once upon a time in the leather and shoe industry! The window had included in bits of the most ancient glass of the church.
There is much more to see and learn inside, plus I noticed there were volunteers on hand with plenty of expert knowledge, ready to help visitors.
For instance I would have missed the carved endings of the pews without their pointing them out. each one different, flowers, beings and more.
Taking a closer look outside I saw plenty of gothic creatures looking out over the sun loungers in the grounds