• Short History
  • History

A brief outline of The History of St Mary’s Parish Church

This church is of great simplicity and beauty, built in the 1120s of Isle of Wight stone by Normans. It was given by Henry 1 to a small community of Augustinian or Austin canons (monks.) Their seats in the chancel with arched recesses may still be seen. Their priory buildings that once stretched south to the Roman wall have completely disappeared. The canons moved some four miles away to Southwick for a more quiet life after some 20 years but sent a canon till the Reformation in the 1530s to serve this parish.

The Norman west door is a wonderful example of Norman stonework with a variety of patterns and other devices; it is very popular with photographers and artists. Through the Victorian vestibule into the church is the 12th Century font, carved in Caen limestone with a modern base. On this north side is a large plaque, illustrated, commemorating a grant of £400 from Queen Anne in 1710 to repair the church after its misuse by Dutch prisoners of war from the 1660s.The First World War memorial commemorated military deaths as do many other memorials, often to naval officers and their families.

The oldest ceiling in the church is Elizabethan in the North Transept and gives access to the three bells. It was Sir Thomas Cornwallis, in charge of gambling at the courts of Elizabeth and James 1, who persuaded the queen to fund a wall, blanking off the ruined South Transept and rebuilding the east wall; into this the Perpendicular style East window was inserted. The memorial glass is modern.  Cornwallis was the last royal constable of the Castle and his effigy is to the right of the East window. On the South wall is an Elizabethan plaque, dated 1577, the oldest of this type in the county and a note of the royal grant.

Access through this wall was once to the priory buildings but is now to a room, built in 1977, for Sunday School and tea room activities. The large notice board reflects our Christian outreach connections with many local, national and international communities. Translations of the church guide into five foreign languages are an indication of the visitors who come. We hope to welcome you and your family in the near future- and God bless your journeys.

Do remember that St Mary’s is not a museum, but that it is home to a vibrant Christian community. As you look round you may wish to pick up one of our weekly notice sheets or pause to say a prayer. If you would like to make a donation towards the upkeep of the building and the work of the church, we would be most grateful – you will find a ‘pillar safe’ by the door as you leave.

Below are publications about our church in other languages:-



St Mary’s Church Building

 Built of Isle of Wight stone by Norman masons in the 1120s it was given by Henry 1 to Augustinian or Austin canons in 1133, Their head was a prior, their dress black, their vows traditional – of poverty, chastity and obedience – and their monastic buildings stretched from the south side of the church. No trace of  these remain except the nine exits from their toilet facilities in the Roman wall; the small company moved to Southwick, a quieter location, within a few years. Austin canons left their monastic buildings to work as local parish priests, unlike monks. There were seven Austin houses in England

As you may see the building is of outstanding simplicity, a nave with traditional Norman arches and rounded windows in the north and south walls. The church houses a lively Christian community.

On your left at the west end is the medieval font of carved Caen limestone with Garden of Eden designs but with a modern base.

Nearby is a memorial to the distinguished naval physician Dr James Lind of C18th fame. Along the north wall is a large panel commemorating the gift of Queen Anne in 1710 of £400 to restore the church, badly damaged by hundreds of Danish prisoners in the mid C17th. Past the First World War memorial of some 33 men lost from the parish of 1,000 people is a small squint window allowing light onto the altar. The window is dedicated to Alfred Russell, captain of HMS Kenya who won the DSO commanding a convoy to relieve Malta in 1942.

The Elizabethan roof of the North Transept is the oldest in the church and here there is access to the three bells regularly rung on Sundays. In the chancel or presbytery can be seen the arched recesses above the seats of the canons. The Perpendicular style window was built into the C16th east wall; the new glass is a memorial to a naval son lost at Boulogne in 1914.  The effigy, illustrated here, is of a Catholic courtier of Elizabethan and Jacobean times of Sir Thomas Cornwallis, in charge of court gambling, a constable and renovator of parts of the castle and a local farmer. He persuaded Elizabeth 1st for money to rebuild the South Transept, destroyed by years of weathering. He died in 1618. The altar has recently been moved forward with a temporary rail and the hassocks were embroidered to recall the 850th foundation of the church.

On the south wall of the nave is a plaque of 1577 commemorating the Elizabethan grant, the oldest example in Hampshire. Such plaques were to endorse and emphasise the supremacy of the crown. The pulpit is Victorian oak and there is evidence thought to be of door spaces to the cloister. The ceiling of the nave is C18th and the furnishings are Victorian. The steps are through a medieval archway to the room used for the Sunday School, outreach as a tea room and many other uses. A blocked off window is evidence of the monastic buildings abutting the south wall.

Finally the west wall houses a Victorian window ‘The Good Shepherd’ and the entrance, seen here, is of original scrolled pillars, rolled mouldings and medieval  stonework – a favourite with photographers. The churchyard contains 29 memorials by the Imperial War Graves Commission, the tomb of the naval artist William Lionel Wyllie ( 1851 – 1931 ) and a memorial garden. The lych gate ( from the Anglo Saxon for a corpse) was renovated in modern times.

We trust you have enjoyed this brief tour of St Mary’s history and we look forward to welcoming you to our services at 8.00 am and 10 am on Sundays. God bless.

P. S. You may be interested to know that Carlisle is the only English cathedral that grew from an Austin house and England’s only pope, Adrian IV ( 1154 – 59 ) was once a regular canon. William Corbell, also an Austin, held a succession of bishoprics before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1123. Thomas a Becket was an Augustinian and his confessor Robert was an Austin prior, one of three men at his side when Thomas was murdered. Finally, Martin Luther was an Augustinian!

Text Bryan Jerrard; photographs Robert English