At least 70 years older than Guildford Castle, St Mary’s Church tower is the oldest surviving piece of architecture in Guildford, however, when the history of Guildford is mentioned, few people think of St Mary’s, even though it is almost 1,000 years old. But it still stands proudly in Quarry Street, a little known treasure tucked away just off the High Street. Though renovated and extended and changed to fit with the times, St Mary’s remains a wonderful example of historic beauty.
St Mary’s almost certainly stands on the same site that Guildford’s first church, likely a small timber construction, was built around 600AD. The very first settlers of Guildford would have built the town around this place of worship, as the church would have been the centre of the community. However, the beautiful stone construction that we know today was not built until almost 500 years later, around 1050AD and as we know, the tower of this original Saxon building still stands today.
It is thought that the canons of Merton Priory rebuilt the church further, giving it a cross shaped plan, when they acquired St Mary’s around 1120. The evolution of the church, from the first timber building to the church we see nowadays is an interestingly rich one, marked well by the changes in attitude towards worship and the church itself.
Upon visiting St Mary’s Church in modern times, with its beautiful stone vaulted ceiling and stunning stained glass windows, it is easy to imagine both the everyday town residents and visiting royalty walking the stone floors to worship. Of course the church is much changed now since the days of kings ruling from the castle and bowing before god within the church walls.
The church was gradually extended, with St John’s chapel being added to the south of the building in the 1140’s, but the greatest change to St Mary’s came during the middle of the sixteenth century, at the time of the Reformation. During this period attitudes changed a great deal regarding the way in which churches were decorated and used but fortunately the corbels (stone brackets supporting the timbers in the aisles) predominantly survived. One, on the South side, shows a wonderful carving of ravens placing food into Elijah’s mouth. Two others in the north aisle, however, remain scarred by destruction and used to display engravings of angels.
It is likely that during the Reformation, these depictions of spiritual beings were seen as idols and thus lead to their heads being knocked off and destroyed. There is even evidence of the Reformers white washing over the bright paintings that would have once decorated the walls, and destroying all but three of the seven alters that used to stand. All of this was done to emphasise the belief that it was the King or Queen, not the Pope, who controlled the Church of England.
The next marked change came when the chancel was shortened in 1825 to make Quarry Street wider, and then in 1863 St Mary’s was restored by Thomas Goodchild. Much of the stonework was renewed, the galley was removed and a pulpit was added. It is in this pulpit that the Reverend Charles Dodgson, whom you may recognise by his pen name Lewis Carroll, used to sometimes preach. He would take the opportunity to preach at St Mary’s whilst visiting his families nearby home, ‘The Chestnuts’ and it was actually within St Mary’s that his funeral was held. To picture the man who brought to life Alice, the Jabberwocky and the Mad Hatter, standing in St Mary’s preaching to the gathered congregation seems a strange image indeed!
The church still stands, a mixture of Saxon, Reformation and Victorian construction, having watched over Guildford for nearly 1,000 years. Its walls have sheltered both the common folk and royalty while they worshipped, offered sanctuary to the town folk and truly withstood the test of time. When exploring Guildford, a visit to the church is a must for those interested in the town’s history, or even just for those looking to appreciate a little slice of beauty nestled away in the busy commercial centre.
Though gaining entry to the church requires a modicum of timing, it is well worth the effort to see the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, and to inhale the deeply timeless scent of history itself. St Mary’s is open on the first Tuesday of every month and on most Thursdays between 11:00am and 3:00pm. It is certainly a beautiful piece of Our Town’s history.
Charli Aisha Harris