St. Mary's was probably founded in the tenth century, but in 1123 Roger, earl of Warwick, re-founded it as a collegiate church with (usually) six priests, headed by a dean. St. Mary's has never been a cathedral, but the priests were subject to the same rules as applied to the colleges at York Minster, Salisbury, Lincoln, and St. Paul’s, London. Earl Roger also rebuilt St. Mary's, and its unusually large crypt has survived and can be visited.
Unfortunately, by the middle of the fourteenth century St. Mary's was in very poor repair. The then earl, Thomas Beauchamp, was one of the most feared military commanders of his time, and it was he, along with his son, also Thomas, who built the iconic east towers and barbican at Warwick Castle. The elder Thomas decided to build a new St. Mary's, but he died before much, if any work was done. His son continued with the project, and the new church was finished by 1394.
The elder Earl Thomas is buried in the chancel, along with his wife, Katherine Mortimer. The chancel’s architecture reflects the earl’s life, and his tomb is most unusual, in that it shows him and Katherine holding hands. Only three such examples exist from this time.
The Beauchamp Chapel, arguably the finest funerary chapel in England after the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey, was built under the terms of Earl Richard Beauchamp’s will, and was completed in about 1457. It is of the highest quality, with an extraordinary attention to detail, and is heavily symbolic. The richly coloured glass is some of the most expensive made in the Middle Ages, and includes a rare image of St. Thomas Becket, as most of them were destroyed in the Reformation or the Civil War. Earl Richard’s effigy is cast metal, one of only eight surviving medieval tombs to have this - all the others are royal tombs, with six being in Westminster Abbey, and one at Canterbury Cathedral. The fourteen weepers around the tomb include an image of Richard Neville, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’.
The college was dissolved in 1544, a victim of the Reformation, but its chapter house (where members of the college met) was retained, and is now the only one at an English parish church. It houses the tomb of Sir Fulke Greville (died 1628), which he designed himself and called it ‘a monument to sin’.
St. Mary's also has the tombs of Ambrose Dudley, earl of Warwick (died 1590); of his younger brother, Robert, earl of Leicester (died 1588), well-known for his wooing of Elizabeth I; and of Robert’s son, ‘the Noble Impe’, who died aged just three years old.
The nave, transepts, and tower were destroyed by fire in 1694, but the chancel, chapter house, and the Beauchamp Chapel were saved. The present nave, completed by 1702, features an innovative ‘hall-church’ design, with a single-height roof above both nave and aisles. It is an intriguing conflation of Gothic and Baroque styles. It could have been very different, as the church rejected designs by none other than Sir Christopher Wren.
Work on the new tower had to stop when the supporting piers began to crack, and it had to be moved westwards, which is why it now juts out into the road. This was the last major building work done at St. Mary's.
For more about the history of St. Mary's, see www.stmaryswarwick.org.uk/index.php?/stmarysredesign/history
For more about events to celebrate the 900th anniversary of St. Mary's and how you can help safeguard the the church for the next 900 years, see www.stmaryscampaign2023.org.uk