The Church of St. Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire, is an exceptionally harmonious and well-preserved English parish church. Funded by a wool merchant and consecrated in 1497, Fairford Church boasts the most complete set of medieval glass remaining in Britain, along with a fine set of misericords. The surrounding town is also well worth a visit, with its peaceful atmosphere, flowing river, and pretty stone buildings of Cotswold stone.
History of the Church of St Mary
The first recorded mention of a church at Fairford is in the 11th century but only a few traces of the original building remain today (13th century foundations at the NE corner; early 14th-century piers with ball-flowers on north and south faces of the tower within the aisle; early 15th-century tower). The grand church that stands today is almost entirely the work of the late 15th century.
After being passed down through various noble families (including the Despensers, whose fine chantry chapel is in Tewkesbury Abbey), the Manor of Fairford came to rest with the Crown in 1478.
In 1479, the Crown leased the site to John Twynyho and his son-in-law John Tame (d. 1500), a wool merchant in Cirencester. John Tame moved to Beauchamp and Warwick Court in Fairford, just north of the church.
John Tame began the construction of a new church around 1491. A visit from the Bishop of Worcester is recorded in that year, probably to sanction the destruction of the old church.
The new Fairford Parish Church, built in a late Perpendicular Gothic style, was consecrated by the same bishop in 1497. However, construction continued for some years more under John's son Edmund. It must have been complete by 1520, when King Henry VIII stayed in Fairford and heard Mass in the church.
The medieval glass that is the glory of the church was made in 1500-17 by the King's glazier, Barnard Flower, working out of his workshops at Westminster. Many of the glaziers and glass painters who worked on the project were Dutch, which shows in the styling of the windows.
It is remarkable that the medieval glass has survived so intact, but it has suffered some damage over the centuries. Some of the windows may have been whitewashed over by Reformers (1500s) and Puritans (1600s), and the latter seem to have removed some of the heads of figures, but at least the glass was not smashed to bits as in so many English churches.
The west window suffered severe storm damage in 1703 and most of the glass was replaced. In July 1940, all the windows were carefully removed by Oscar Farmer and stored for safekeeping during the war in the cellars of Fairford Park. They were reinstated in 1945-47, with some minor repairs and re-leading.
Since 1988, nearly all the windows have been beautifully cleaned, restored, re-leaded and protected by the Barley Studio in York. The church was featured in a BBC television show A Passion for Churches, broadcast in March 2006.
What to See at the Church of St Mary
St. Mary's in Fairford is a three-aisled church with no transepts, a large central tower, and chapels flanking the chancel at the east end. Entrance is through the south porch. The interior is characterized by especially harmonious Perpendicular Gothic architecture – it has not been modified since its complete rebuilding in 1497.
The central tower is the only significant survival from the previous church. The bottom section, up to the clock, was built by the Earl of Warwick in the early 15th century in a Decorated Gothic style. The upper part was added by John Tame in the late 15th century, in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Grotesque guardians stand at each corner of the tower beneath stone-carved padlocks, one of which needs three keys to open.
Inside, the Early English arch of the tower has three niches, designed as a background for the figures on the rood beam of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and St. John. Above on each side are murals of angels with shields bearing the Five Wounds of the Passion.
The 28 medieval stained glass windows of Fairford form a visual lesson in the Christian faith, with depictions of prophets, apostles, saints, good and evil, and the life story of Jesus. There is pleasing parallelism in the nave and side aisles: the Four Evangelists stand across from Four Latin Fathers; the Twelve Prophets are opposite the Twelve Apostles; and Twelve Persecutors face off with Twelve Martyrs in the nave.
Details of the windows can be seen in our photo gallery and below is a summary of the windows and their subjects. The numbering system is that given by the church guide and referenced in our photo gallery; it begins at the north door and moves clockwise. Links go to corresponding photos.
Fairford possesses another fine collection of medieval art in its choir stalls, which have shield-bearing angels on the arm rests and carved misericords under the seats. They probably came from Cirencester Abbey after the Dissolution and are dated to about 1300 AD. The 14 misericords depict amusing scenes from daily life and the animal world:
There are some remnants of wall paintings on the pillars of the tower, but they are badly faded. Oscar Farmer viewed these murals in better condition in the 1920s and suggested some interpretations in his guidebook:
The ceiling is still made of John Tame's oak, whose beams are supported by 69 carved stone angels bearing scrolls or shields. Eight of the nine orders of angels are high in the sanctuary.
On the north side are Angeli; Arkangeli; Potestes (Powers) with royal cloak, sword and sceptre; Dominacoes (Dominions) with crucifix. On the south side are Cherubim with a book inscribed Ave; Troni (Thrones); Prinsepats (Principalities) with pennant reading IHS; and Virtutes (Virtues) armed with visor and mailed gloves.
Quick Facts on the Church of St Mary
|Names:||Church of St Mary · Church of St Mary in Fairford · Fairford Church · Fairford Parish Church|
|Categories:||parish churches; Grade I listed buildings; England's Thousand Best Churches: Five Stars|
|Styles:||Perpendicular Gothic style|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.709065° N, 1.782060° W|
|Hours:||Summer: daily 10am-5pm|
Winter: daily 10am-4pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Mary|
- Personal visit (October 20, 2007).
- St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire. Excellent book published by the church and available in the shop.
- St Mary's Church - Fairford Town Council
- St Mary's, Fairford - official website
- Photos of the Church of St Mary - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Church of St Mary, Fairford
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Church of St Mary. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.