ST. MARY'S is the ancient Parish and Civic Church of Nottingham, the largest medieval building in the City and an excellent example of the Perpendicular style of architecture.
It is believed that the present building is the third church on the site which occupies a prominent position in what was originally the Saxon town of Nottingham. (The French town developed around the Castle, built soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066.)
It is not known when the first church was built on this site, but as there was a meeting of church leaders in Nottingham in 930 it is possible that it was held in the town because it had a church, the forerunner of this church.
The first authentic record of a church in Nottingham is in Domesday Book (1086) and because the town was destroyed by fire in 1140, and again in 1174, it is likely that the second building dated from the late 12th Century. Fragments of a building in the Romanesque or Norman style were found buried under the floor of the present building during structural work in 1844-8. The present building was mostly completed by 1475, except for the tower which was finished some 30 years later. It is not known when or why it was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, but the name appeared in a proclamation issued by Pope Boniface IX (died 1404) offering indulgences to subscribers to the building fund.
In 1475 the appearance of the inside of the Church would have differed considerably from the present. In keeping with the times, there would have been no pews or seats for worshippers, the walls would have been decorated with brilliantly coloured paints, especially red, gold and blue. Two fenestrated screens separated the crossing from the nave and chancel. There were large tombs, each with a canopy at the outer end of each transept, the Samon tomb (S transept) and the Thurland tomb (N transept). In addition there were several free-standing tombs adjacent to the west screen, and two small chapels with altars on the east wall of each transept. (There were also chapels in or off the nave). Worshippers stood around the altars watching priests celebrating mass in Latin. Congregational worship in English was introduced following the publication of the first edition of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer in 1547, after which the west screen was removed and the Church was opened up to allow large numbers of individuals to worship together.
[Thomas Cranmer was brought up in Aslockton, near Nottingham, became a Cambridge don and Archbishop of Canterbury, helped Henry VIII secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, upheld Protestantism (except for a very short time when he was threatened with death), and was eventually executed by burning in Oxford in 1556 during the reign of Mary Tudor].
In common with other Established Churches, St. Mary's was Catholic until 1534 when Henry VIII broke with Rome and turned to Protestantism. There was a brief return to Catholicism during the reign of Mary Tudor but shortly after assuming the throne in 1558 Elizabeth reinstated Protestantism, and St. Mary's has been a Protestant church ever since. During the Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth, the Vicar of St. Mary's was replaced by two preaching elders, one of whom, William Reynolds, was subsequently ordained in the Established Church, and is buried in St. Mary's under, or near the present pulpit.
Over the years a great deal of restorative work must have been done on the fabric of the church, but there were periods of serious neglect: thus, Commissioners reported in 1559 that the building was 'in great decay' and that there were many broken windows, (the Great Storm the previous year may however have been responsible for this). Soon afterwards, in 1588 the tower vaulting collapsed into the church - and was not replaced until 1812 (and then in plaster on wood).
Poorly planned ad hoc structural alterations took place from time to time, seemingly at the whim of the Vicar of the day; for example, the west end of the Church was replaced in 1725 in the then popular, but architecturally incongruous Palladian style. This was in turn replaced by the present front in Perpendicular style during the great restoration of 1844-8. In 1839 the Vicar, Dr. Wilkins, had a brick wall constructed to separate the chancel from the crossing, forming what he called his 'workshop', where he conducted more intimate services such as baptisms and weddings. The wall was demolished a few years later during the 1844-8 restoration.
It had been noted as early as 1839 that the four massive pillars supporting the tower were leaning backwards, but nothing was done. By 1843 members of the congregation were becoming alarmed, and on one occasion fled when a rumour circulated during a service, that collapse was imminent. The Church Patron, Lord Manvers, insisted that funds for restoration should come from the Parish Rate. Predictably, insufficient money was available from this source, and the next Vicar, The Revd. Joshua Brooks, appointed later that year, by-passed Lord Manvers, and asked the Mayor to convene a public meeting to decide the fate of the building - demolition or restoration. Happily, the vote was substantially for restoration. Fund raising started immediately and an ambitious programme of works began but, because of poor management, it dragged on for four years during which time worship was conducted in the Shire Hall (now the Galleries of Justice). It soon became apparent that the tower pillars were leaning because the excavation of burial vaults had destabilised their foundations. (The vaults were intended to provide security from body snatching which was particularly prevalent at the beginning of the 19th Century. The best recorded episode in Nottingham occurred in 1827 when about 30 fresh 'subjects' were taken from St. Mary's nearby burial grounds, but none from the churchyard, which by then was secured by iron railings with gates which were locked at night). In addition to rebuilding the tower columns and replacing the west front, the nave was re-roofed and a large gallery was constructed at the west end of the nave. Lamentably, the medieval choir stalls were literally thrown out (but happily were rescued and are still to be seen in St. Stephen's Church, Sneinton). They were replaced by stalls which were in turn replaced in 1872. Fortunately, the lily crucifixion (one of only five known examples carved in stone or alabaster) on the front of the tomb of John de Tannersley (d.1414) was preserved when the front was included in the reconstructed tomb under the Thurland canopy in the N transept. The west-end gallery was demolished in 1868 at the same time as the pews were replaced by chairs, most of which were in turn replaced during 2008.
Suffragan Bishops in the Diocese of Lincoln were attached to Saint Mary's in 1870 and 1877 by which time it was clearly inappropriate that the populous, industrial conurbation of Nottingham should remain in the predominantly rural Diocese of Lincoln. In 1884 the relative merits of having a new Diocese based in Nottingham in St. Mary's, or in rural Southwell (which has a large Minster) were hotly debated. Unfortunately for Nottingham, the decision was in favour of Southwell. The situation is only now being addressed effectively. The new Bishop of Sherwood is based in Nottingham, and the Diocese has been renamed 'Southwell and Nottingham'.
Historically, churches were responsible for several functions now exercised by local and/or national government, particularly poor relief and education. For many years poor relief was confined to outdoor relief but during the Industrial Revolution when towns became overcrowded and families fragmented, demand for care increased so much that urban parishes often opened workhouses. St. Mary's opened a workhouse in 1726 at the south end of Mansfield Road and ran it until 1834 when responsibility for workhouses was transferred from parishes to secular Boards of Guardians. (St. Mary's workhouse was demolished in 1895 to clear part of the site needed for the construction of the Victoria Station.)
Over the years, St. Mary's was actively involved with several free schools for the education of poor children, as well as with the more prestigious school founded in 1513 by Dame Agnes Mellers, from which the Nottingham High School for Boys traces its origin. St. Mary's pioneered Sunday School education for children unable to attend a day school. Pupils were taught the elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as religious knowledge. A Sunday School was opened in 1751, 35 years before the generally acknowledged first Sunday School was founded in Gloucester by Robert Raikes.
As Civic Church, St. Mary's is the historic venue for mayor-making ceremonies. Judges' Services used to be held here before assizes. Civic and Legal Services are held annually, and are colourful occasions when dignitaries process in their robes of office. St. Mary's remains the venue for special services for important national and local events and such services are regularly attended by the Lord Mayor, the Sheriff of Nottingham, members of the City Council, the Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff of the County.
St. Mary's parish was amalgamated with that of St. Peter and All Saints in September 2007.
To access detailed, authoritative and up-to-date (2009) information on St. Mary's go to the DAC History Project.