St Mary’s is Nottingham’s greatest ancient building, rich in history and a tranquil oasis in the midst of a busy, modern city. Take a look around this fascinating, beautiful building: feel free to wander at your own pace, or use the guide below to explore some of the church’s historical and artistic highlights.
You enter the church through the porch on the South side of the building. The doors are made of bronze and are decorated with scenes from Jesus’ life. They were designed in 1905 by Henry Wilson, in memory of Francis Morse, a vicar of the church who oversaw important restoration work in the 1800s.
The South Aisle
Stepping through the bronze doors brings you into the South Aisle. Look up and see the regimental banners, recalling battle honours of regiments and veterans associations connected with St Mary’s. You will also see some of the church’s beautiful stained glass windows, casting richly coloured light into the church on sunny days. A few metres East of the porch is the Scout window, dedicated to the Scout Movement in 1929 – look out for scouts on camp, cooking their food over a fire.
Pass between the pillars and you enter the nave, a soaring space 108 ft (33m) long. Take a seat for a moment to enjoy the stillness. The church was built at the very end of the Middle Ages, when advances in building technology made it possible to use incredibly slender pillars to support the high windows and oak roof.
Looking West you see the Lion and the Unicorn, which originally decorated an organ which was built in the church at the beginning of the 18th century. Beneath your feet is a much more modern addition to the church: the chevron-patterned floor designed by acclaimed artist Tess Jaray in 2012 and completed in 2013.
Near the door on the North side of the nave a glass panel surrounds the base of one of the columns. When the Jaray floor was being laid, workmen discovered stones from the Norman church which stood on this site before the current church was built, which can be seen through the glass panel, a tantalising glimpse into the history of St Mary’s.
Walking East towards the high altar you find yourself beneath the tower. Ahead of you is the screen, erected in 1895. To your left is the North transept, and on your right, the South transept, each with their own soaring window filling the church with light. The medieval tombs in the transepts date from the period while the church was still being built.
Legend has it that Robin Hood came to St Mary’s to pray, and he knelt at the rood screen to pray. The church Robin Hood knew was replaced by the current building, but it would have been in this area that he heard the priest say mass. Unfortunately for Robin, a treacherous monk roused the Sheriff of Nottingham, whose men arrested him in the church porch as he tried to escape, though not before Robin hit the sheriff’s helmet with such force he broke his sword in two.
Pass beneath the screen and you enter the chancel, with the choir stalls and high altar. Hearing the choir filling the church with beautiful music is an experience not to be missed, especially in the traditional service of Evensong, held at 6.15pm on Wednesdays and 6.30pm on Sundays. The painted screen above the high altar dates from 1885.
The Lady Chapel
Though it looks ancient, the Lady Chapel, to the right of the high altar, is quite new: it was begun in 1912 to make space for a new organ. Above the altar is a very fine stained glass window which recalls Nottingham’s prestige as a centre of lace-making. Katherine Wade-Dalton was married in St Mary’s on 23rd October 1918 and died only a week later, and the window depicts her wearing a beautiful lace wedding dress and veil. Nearby is a rare example of medieval carved alabaster, made in Nottingham in the fifteenth century.
Exploring the monuments and tombs of St Mary’s in the Lacemarket is a great way to get to know some of the people who have left their mark on the history of the city. There are over fifty different memorials in the church – below is a selection of the most impressive, touching and fascinating.
Facing each other from the North and South transepts are the church’s only remaining medieval tombs, the Thurland tomb and the Samon tombs. The Thurland tomb (North Transept) is actually made up of three different medieval tombs. The carved alabaster tomb is believed to have belonged to John de Tannesley, who died in 1413/14, when the church you see now was still being built. The elaborate stone canopy originally covered the tomb of Thomas Thurland who died just before the nave was completed.
The Samon tomb (South Transept) is another impressive medieval tomb, containing the effigy of a man with a sword slung over his shoulder. He is likely to have been John Samon, four times Lord Mayor of the city, who died in 1416.
The most touching monument in St Mary’s is certainly that erected by the parents of poor Henry Plumptre, who died aged only ten in 1719. A plaque hung on the west wall of the North Transept records Henry’s remarkable academic career: this precocious young scholar had mastered ‘Jewish, Roman and English history’, could speak fluent French and was ‘not inconsiderably advanced in the Latin’.
St Mary’s and the Slave Trade
Two monuments record the impact of the slave trade on the city of Nottingham. On the northern side of the churchyard is the grave of George Africanus, who was brought to Britain from Sierra Leone as a child slave, but won his freedom and became a prosperous merchant in the city. He died in 1834. Within the church, near the door to the choir vestry, is a plaque to a young man from Nottingham who served in the Royal Navy as Britain attempted to stop ships transporting slaves across the Atlantic. Lieutenant James Still died of yellow fever as his ship, HMS Pheasant, patrolled the seas off Sierra Leone.
On the North wall by the High Altar is a fine bronze memorial to the men of the Sherwood Foresters, designed by Henry Poole.
In the South aisle are three memorials to Nottinghamshire regiments from the Boer War.
The medieval church was renowned for its painted glass. Although it has been assumed much was destroyed by the Puritans, there is evidence suggesting otherwise.
When the church was restored in 1839, ‘the stained glass artist was replaced by the upholsterer who was called in to keep the worshippers from the rays of the sun, and vast curtains were stretched over the windows.’
It was then realised that stained glass as well as being protection against the sun, was educational, and gave a new atmosphere inside the church so their restoration was started in 1865. Those on the south side of the chancel illustrate our Lord’s Life and Teaching; and those on the north the Acts of the Apostles. The great windows in the transepts represent, in the south the Parables, and in the north the Miracles. Some of the smaller windows illustrate scenes from the Prophets.
There are 37 stained and/or painted glass windows containing 384 lights in total.
Bells have been a part of St Mary’s since at least October 1393 when a complaint was made against Robert de Ayton who had not paid 2s of silver for the painting of a bell of the cross at the corner of the Church of the Blessed Mary.
Some or all of the bells of the medieval church may have survived a storm which caused the collapse of part of the tower in 1558. The fourth bell was recast in 1595 and it has survived all subsequent restoration and is the eleventh of the twelve bells now in existence. At 20¾ cwt, it is the largest surviving bell by the Oldfield firm. Decoration covers the shoulder and soundbow, and on the waist it displays the Royal coat of arms alternating with his own large foundry badge that Oldfield reserved for important commissions.
In 1699 the bells were increased from five to six. The new bell frame allowed the bells to swing full circle to accommodate the new and developing art of ringing changes.
In 1760 two smaller bells were added and then a year later two more. A new frame was built to accommodate the new bells and, with minor modification, the frame survived until 1934.
It was also around this time that the ringers in Nottingham formed themselves into the Society of Sherwood Youths, which society has continued to the present day.
In 1934, the wooden frame of 1760 was found to be in a poor state. The bells were removed and nine of them recast (the tenor bell now weighs approximately 1¾ tons – the heaviest and largest ringing bell in the diocese.)
The ringing chamber was enlarged, the floor relaid and a new more compact stairway was constructed. A massive iron A-frame, supported by steel girders, was erected replacing the wooden bell frame. The new ten bells were rededicated on 2nd November 1935 at a service attended by more than a hundred ringers from all over the county.
Two additional treble bells were added in 1980.