ST MARY’S CHURCH at Astbury has been standing on this site at the head of the village green for many centuries.
Its unusual trapezoidal plan and 5-bay west front may be unique in a church with only three main vessels (ie, nave and two aisles). It has been described by Raymond Richards, FSA, as ‘one of the most beautiful churches in the county’.
The exterior, dominated by the detached tower and lofty spire, is visible as a landmark for miles around and is matched by the majesty of the interior. F H Crossley, FSA, described the church as one of the glories of Cheshire; it ranks next to the Cathedral and Nantwich in size and possesses more complete ancient fittings than any other church of large scale in the county.
For Nikolaus Pevsner it is ‘one of the most exciting Cheshire churches’ with ‘thrilling’ roofs, low-pitched with camber-beams, and with plenty of bosses and also some dainty openwork pendants’. When the length of most of Pevsner's church notices can be numbered in lines, the two pages devoted to Astbury are significant.
The 2,000-year old yew tree to the north of the church and the freshwater springs nearby testify that this has been a site of religious significance for as long as Man has been in the area. A fragment of the Saxon preaching cross on display in the church dates from AD 950, and the priest mentioned in the Domesday Book ministered probably from a timber church occupying the area of the present North aisle.
A stone doorway was inserted in about 1150 and a stone chancel, incorporating Saxon stones, added to the east about 1250. A tower to the west was also begun but taken down and rebuilt to the north, though separate from the church, shortly afterwards. A radically new plan was then adopted in the later 13th century, the date of the South wall, showing that the trapezoidal plan had been already adopted.
The West respond of the South aisle can be related to work at Chester Cathedral of c 1260-70, as can the sedile and piscina in the Lady Chapel. Complete internal rebuilding continued now for 150 years, suggesting a false start on the south arcade (E bays) and a rethinking for the North; the clerestory seems to belong to a last campaign in the mid 15th century.
The sanctuary is clearly incomplete and probably missing a never-built east bay. The reconstruction of the church in the Late Perpendicular style in the fifteenth century may be attributed to the growing importance and population of the parish, in particular the town of Congleton. The spire was struck by lightning and rebuilt in 1838, and the interior ‘restored’ by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1862 (‘the least harmful and “thorough” of his Cheshire restorations’, Richards 1947).
Among the many must-see interior highlights are the eagle lectern reliably dated to 1480, the fine tracery of the chancel screen with its Tudor motifs of pomegranates and Welsh dragons and the carefully restored medieval wall painting of St Mary blessing St George prior to his battle with the dragon. Of a similar age is the stone font although it was subjected to re-carving during the Victorian period. The cantilevered wooden font cover is 17th century Jacobean work as are the majority of the box pews in the nave and side aisles. As may be expected in a church with such a long history, stained glass can be found dating from medieval times right up to the 20th century. The early medieval glass windows were destroyed in the Roundhead occupation of Civil War but fragments were collected and used in later restoration work.
According to parish records, the churchyard is home to over 50 thousand graves, one of the oldest being the canopied 13th century tomb with the disreputable history of a long-standing dispute of ownership by two local families. On a happier note, the registers record the marriage of Josiah Wedgewood to his second cousin Sarah on 25th January 1764. Sarah's parents lie at rest just outside the south porch.
Even before television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, many people had begun to research their family history and were discovering their ancestors. Among the best resources are the records of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials held in Church Registers and the Inscriptions on the Gravestones in Churchyards.
St Mary's records date back to 1572 and in consequence are not open to public inspection. However it is possible for us to search the records if you wish: the Church of England fee is £31 for each hour (or part) for a straightforward search where you are able to supply a name and a date within five years of the event. The fees for other searches are by negotiation. Please contact Mr Ball (01260 279276)
In the 1980s Manchester Public Libraries filmed all our registers. These images from 1572 to about 1910 are available to buy. Also available are all the Memorial Inscriptions (from 1608) and lists of the burial places of everyone buried in our churchyards between 1892 and 2004. It is easy to search through the more than 10,000 names recorded.
The images in pdf format are available on a memory stick (flash drive) for £34, including p & p.
Cheques should be made payable to Astbury PCC and sent to:
Mr W B Ball, The Old Vicarage, Reades Lane, Dane in Shaw, Congleton, Cheshire, CW12 3LL.