Great Malvern Priory is a large parish church in Worcestershire. It is an attractive edifice, nestled in a valley below the town of Great Malvern, but the greatest joy here is in the details.
The splendid former priory church features a Norman nave of c.1085, a magnificent set of misericords, the largest collection of medieval tiles in England, and a great quantity of medieval stained glass.
History of Great Malvern Priory
Not long after the Norman Conquest (1066), the Bishop of Worcester encouraged a monk named Aldwin to establish a monastery on this site. At the time, the area was known as the Malvern Chase and was preserved for the hunting of wild animals.
This particular site was on land owned by Westminster Abbey, which was under control of the Crown. The new monastery was thus subservient to Westminster and given "priory" status. Perhaps inevitably, this led to occasional conflicts between the Priory and the Bishop of Worcester.
Work began on the Benedictine priory in 1085. The first priory church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Michael, was designed for 30 monks and was significantly smaller than it is now. The great Norman pillars of the nave arcades and the transept crossing survive from this period.
Significant changes were made to the priory church in the period 1440-1500. The north aisle was widened, but the south aisle could not receive the same treatment due to the monastic buildings on that side of the building.
King Henry VII and the Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) donated the west window and north transept window, which survive fairly intact today. Malvern Priory's other great art treasures - the tiles and misericords - also date from this period.
In 1539, Great Malvern Priory surrendered to King Henry VIII as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monastic buildings were sold off to various people, who then tore it down and sold the materials. One man paid £1 for the Lady Chapel and then destroyed it. The south transept was pulled down and the valuable lead was stripped from the roofs.
The priory church still belonged to the Crown, and the citizens of Malvern (only 150 families) were able to persuade Henry to sell it to them for £20 to use as a parish church. It had taken them two years to raise the funds and then they had no money left to repair the building.
The upside of this (for us at least) is that they could never afford to replace the "idolatrous" stained glass windows, so they have survived mostly intact. The glass also survived the 17th-century Civil War with its accompanying Puritan destruction, even though it raged in nearby Worcester, because it was still surrounded by the forest of the Malvern Chase. However, significant damage was done by various storms over the centuries.
With the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution came the funds to finally repair Great Malvern Priory, and restoration work began in 1860 under Sir Gilbert Scott. The north porch, the nave ceiling, and some stained glass date from this Victorian period.
The stained glass windows were removed during World War II and kept in zinc-lined boxes for protection. After the war, the organist undertook the long process of replacing the windows. Continued restorations have been underway since 1977, mainly of the windows.
What to See at Great Malvern Priory
Given the predominantly Gothic exterior of the priory church (with an elegant Perpendicular tower inspired by Gloucester Cathedral), the austerity of the Norman interior is a bit of a surprise.
Huge cylindrical Norman piers of 1085 support the nave arcades, which have unadorned capitals and rise to a plain wall. The impression is much more Cistercian (an order that disapproved of ornamentation) than Benedictine. The clerestory, however, is Perpendicular Gothic and provides a great deal of light.
There is no choir screen to block the view down the nave, which sweeps all the way to the chancel with its impressive Great East Window. The chancel is a delicate Perpendicular Gothic, contrasts with the Norman severity of the nave. Like the tower, it is based on Gloucester Cathedral. The High Altar has a Victorian mosaic reredos of 1884, depicting the Adoration of the Magi.
About a third of the Great East Window is original (late 15th century) and much of it is a jumble of restored fragments, but the Crucifixion and apostles are clearly recognizable.
The west window is also medieval and was copied from a window in Exeter Cathedral. The medieval south choir aisle windows depict Old Testament scenes including the Expulsion from the Garden and the Burning Bush.
These windows are surely one of the great treasures of the church, but they are so badly fragmented that in my opinion several other churches in England have the Priory beat. In addition to York Minster, which the Priory's entrance sign mentions, these include Fairford Church, Canterbury Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral.
What is first-rate at Malvern Priory, however, are the choir stalls used by the monks of the Priory. Dating from the mid to late 1400s, they feature misericords in excellent condition, including a nearly complete set of Labors of the Months and a variety of strange and amusing creatures. The arm rests are also decorated with wood-carved sculptures of various beasts.
Another important set of medieval art is the collection of wall tiles forming a screen alongside the High Altar. They were made specifically for the choir screen in 1456. In total there are more than 1,200 medieval tiles with about 90 different designs, which is the most varied collection in any English church.
The north aisle, widened in 1440-1500, is home to the Priory's small bookshop. It terminates in the north transept, which has the great North Transept Window donated by King Henry VII. Created by the king's glaziers in 1501, it includes a rare depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin, which was a particular target of Reformers and Puritans. Beyond this is the North Chapel, with a modern stained glass window, which is used for prayer.
The south aisle is narrower than the north, because it was never widened like its counterpart. There is no south transept, as it was torn down after the Dissolution. St. Anne's Chapel occupies the full length of the south choir aisle. Under the tomb on the north side are various architectural fragments and some gravestones found during excavations. The larger one bears an epitaph to Prior Walcher (d.1135), an outstanding scholar and the first western man to record the use of the astrolabe.
Quick Facts on Great Malvern Priory
|Names:||Great Malvern Priory|
|Categories:||churches; priories; priory churches; England's Thousand Best Churches: Four Stars|
|Styles:||Perpendicular Gothic style; Gothic|
|Dates:||11th, 15th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||52.110515° N, 2.328506° W|
Great Malvern, England
|Lodging:||View hotels near Great Malvern Priory|
- Personal visit (May 5, 2007).
- Great Malvern Priory - the Tour - official website
- Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches (Penguin, 2000), 748.
Map of Great Malvern Priory
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