St Mary’s is the ancient Parish and Civic Church of Nottingham. The present building, well over 500 years old, is believed to be at least the third church on the site.
Referred to in the Domesday Survey, then in the 12th century Nottingham was burnt down three times and St Mary’s (along with St Peters and St Nicholas) all destroyed and rebuilt. Evidence can still be seen of the Norman church.
The present building was started by 1386 to be completed before 1475. It was the town’s largest building, used for civic and legal purposes including the election and swearing in of the mayor and corporation. The oldest door in Nottingham is to be found in the north aisle.
In 1512 Agnes Mellers, widow of Mayor and bell founder Richard Mellers, established the grammar school which became Nottingham High School. The Founders’ Day service still takes place in the church each year.
In 1558, a great storm swept over Nottingham damaging badly St Mary’s. In the Civil War most of the stained glass windows and memorial brasses were lost. During the reign of Charles II, it became compulsory to display the Royal Arms in a church. St Mary’s still has the Lion and the Unicorn freestanding at the west end of the aisle with cushion and crown above the west door.
George Fox, founder of the Quaker Society, attended a service in 1649 and not agreeing with what was being preached, he interrupted the service, correcting the preacher, for which he was imprisoned. His message converted the sheriff, whose name was Reckless, and led to the formation of the Quakers in Nottingham.
The Blue Coat Charity School in Weekday Cross was founded in 1720 and in 1751, 16 children were being educated on Wednesday and Sunday evenings in St Mary’s vestry.
Between 1716 and 1770, the town fire engine was housed in the west end of the nave.
Between 1726 and 1761, considerable rebuilding took place.
In 1810 a building on Barker Gate was bought to establish a boys’ school to be followed in 1835 with the opening of a girls school on Plumptre Place. It was closed in 1951.
In the 1820s 77% of Nottingham’s population, 32,712 people, lived in St Mary’s parish, many of them in extreme poverty. The church had established in 1725 a workhouse, which was to survive for nearly two hundred years.
By the 1840s, the tower was unsafe, which resulted in major rebuilding works, under George Gilbert Scott and William Moffat. At the same time 18 churches were ‘planted’ out of St Mary’s. The 1851 census records 740 people plus 800 scholars attending the morning service, 300 people in the afternoon and 800 in the evening.
In 1874 St Mary’s Institute on Barker Gate was built, to be used for parish activities, for the Sunday school, the youth clubs and for the choir. It was sold in the 1970s.
In 1875 Canon Morse, Vicar of St Mary’s, was involved in founding the Nottingham High School for Girls in a group of Victorian mansions.
In 1885 a new reredos was erected behind the High Altar and soon after the chapter house built.
The first meeting (1895) of the National Council of Women was held in the church, its aim to improve the lot of the lace workers.
More work was done to the building in the 20th Century, including the building of the Lady Chapel with a gallery to accommodate the organ and later the choir vestry.
During the Second World War members of the church took turns in sleeping overnight in the Chapter House on fire watching duty. On the 8th March 1941 an incendiary bomb struck, the ensuing fire which was put out with difficulty.
In 2007 the parishes of St Mary’s and St Peter’s with All Saints’ were amalgamated but on 1 January 2018 St Mary’s Church was re-established as a parish in its own right.