History of St Mary's Church, Edgeworth

St Mary’s Church, Edgeworth.  

The church has been a place of Christian worship for at least a thousand years. The original Saxon building has been altered, extended and remodelled by successive generations, standing testament to the people who worshipped with in and the rectors and wardens who served. 

Little remains of the original Saxon Church , which would have been a tall, narrow rectangular building with small windows. The addition of the west tower and porch during the middle ages presents us with the exterior view we now see. The most recent extensive restoration was undertaken during Victorian times. Today’s church interior is largely the work of the Revd. George Shaw, Rector of Edgeworth for forty years from 1864- 1904. and has not left many medieval features. However, the oldest surviving fragment of stained glass is of particular interest. It depicts an archbishop, with right hand raised in blessing, his left hand gloved and holding a cross staff. The figure wears a brown robe under a chasuble, which is white and decorated with golden flowers. It is believed to be a rare survival of an image of St Thomas a Becket. Edgeworth has a strong association with St Thomas a Becket through the “Edgeworth Miracle”. The miracle was recorded by the contemporary chronicler, Benedict of Canterbury and is one of thirteen Gloucestershire miracles attributed to the healing powers of St Thomas . The miracle is also commemorated in one panel, known as the Edgeworth panel, within a window recording miracles attributed to St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral. 

“Richard Sunieve, son of a poor woman, but herdsman of a well to do knight of Edgeworth, Sir Henry Fitzherbert, suffered like many others from sleeping out of doors. He awoke with his face swelled and spotted, and for eight years the leprosy spread through his body, until at last he was forced to leave not only the knight’s house, but even the village. His mother alone ‘followed him lest he should perish’. From head to foot he was a mass of ulcers. There was not ‘the space of an arrow’s point’ sound. So foul was his state that even his mother could only give him his food at the end of a long stick, or place it where he could find it. Now the boy heard of the Martyr’s fame, and wept that he had no strength to travel to him. His tears were useless till he invoked the Saint and rose from his bed and turned towards Canterbury. When admitted to the Sepulchre (of St. Thomas) he kissed it, and a great swelling like a small apple, which had projected between his nose and lip, suddenly disappeared. He thought it must have fallen, and felt for it, but could not find it. On tasting of the Water taken from the spring waters in the Well in the Crypt, near to the Saint’s tomb, and mixed with a spot of the Saint’s blood, he was affected like one intoxicated. His feet tottered and he could scarcely make his way out of the Church. Then he fell into an ecstasy. Presently, arising from the ground, he felt a new nimbleness in his body, and the skin, which, at the moment of his fall, had been distended by leprosy was now, to his great astonishment, quite thin and wrinkled. To put off his return was not to be borne. So, in order to present himself to his friends whole, he gladdened them before us by going home at once.”

Detective work in the chancel of St Mary, Edgeworth
The evidence for a former Romanesque Barrel Vault

Malcolm Thurlby, PhD, FSA
York University, Toronto

The exterior of the rectangular chancel of Edgeworth church retains much of its original Romanesque detail including the pilaster buttresses, richly carved corbels and the small round-headed window in the east wall. The low setting of this Romanesque window is most unusual yet is paralleled in the east wall of St Mary’s, Kempley (Gloucestershire). The Domesday Book records that the manors of Kempley and Edgeworth were both held by Roger de Lacy and, after 1095 passed to his brother Hugh (d. 1121).

Kempley church is famous in the history of English church architecture of the twelfth century in that it retains its original painted barrel vault. Is it possible that something similar once existed at Edgeworth? We will never know about the painting but close examination of the interior of the east wall of the chancel suggests that it was indeed barrel vaulted.

The heavy ‘restoration’ of the chancel of Edgeworth church between 1868 and 1872 has obliterated most of the original Romanesque interior detail. Fortunately, the destruction was not complete. The stonework of the east wall is particularly important for our investigation. At the junctions with the north and south walls the lower sections of the east wall are each constructed with seven cut stones, above which the wall is built of rubble. At the south-east angle starting at floor level of the sanctuary we count up six squared stones which contrast with the rubble masonry to the left. The seventh stone up does not fit snugly against the south wall but is finished with an angled trajectory at the upper right where a small, roughly shaped piece of rubble fits the space to the south wall. Above this, the trajectory of the angle continues above the stone so as to indicate the arc of a former vault. The change from ashlar (cut-stone) to rubble masonry in the upper wall is consistent with the construction of a vault at this point. There is a similar change in the masonry at the same level of the north end of the east wall at the angle with the north wall, although here there is no sign of the trajectory of the former vault. The placement of the pilaster buttresses on the exterior of the north and south walls of the chancel may be equated with transverse arches or ribs in the vault to provide a division of three bays. The bays would be too narrow to facilitate a groin or rib vault in each bay and, therefore, a barrel vault is the only solution. The result would be like the western bays of the presbytery of Ewenny priory (Glamorgan) and, with wider bays, in the abbot’s chapel in the first floor of the west range at St Peter’s abbey (now cathedral), Gloucester.  

Vaults in Romanesque parish churches are far from common and the inclusion of one at Edgeworth suggests the work of a very ambitious patron. 

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