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The Civic and Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin is situated in the heart of Nottingham’s historic Lace Market, and is the oldest religious foundation in the city. The current building, the third on the site, dates from the late 14th to early 15th century.

St Mary’s is the ancient Parish and Civic Church of Nottingham, the largest and most important medieval building in the City and an excellent example of the Perpendicular style of architecture.

It is believed that the present building is the third church on the site which occupies a prominent position in what was originally the Saxon Town of Nottingham. (The French Town developed around the Castle, built soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066).

The nave of St Mary's Church, Nottingham

The nave of St Mary's Church, Nottingham

It is not known when the first church was built on this site, but as there was a meeting of church leaders in Nottingham in 930 it is possible that it was held in the Town because it had a church, the forerunner of this church. The first authentic record of a church in Nottingham is in Domesday Book (1086) and because the Town was destroyed by fire in 1140, and again in 1174, it is likely that the second building dated from the late 12th Century. Fragments of a building in the Romanesque or Norman style were found buried under the floor of the present building during remedial work in 1844-8. The present building was mostly completed by 1475, except for the tower which was finished some 30 years later. It is not known when or why it was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, but the name appeared in a proclamation offering indulgences to subscribers to the building fund, issued by Pope Boniface IX (died 1404).

In 1475 the appearance of the inside of the Church would have differed considerably from the present. In keeping with the times, there would have been no pews or seats for worshippers, the walls would have been decorated with brilliantly coloured paints, especially red, gold and blue, and two fenestrated screens separated the crossing from the nave and chancel. There was a large tomb with a canopy at the outer end of each transept, the Samon tomb (S transept) and the Thurland tomb (N transept), several free-standing tombs adjacent to the west screen, and two small chapels with altars, on the east wall of each transept. In addition there were chapels in or off the nave. Worshippers stood around the altars while priests celebrated mass in Latin. Congregational worship in English was introduced following the publication of the first edition of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer in 1547, after which the west screen was removed and the Church opened up to allow large numbers of individuals to worship together.

[Thomas Cranmer was brought up in Aslockton in Nottinghamshire, became a Cambridge don and Archbishop of Canterbury, helped Henry VIII secure a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, upheld Protestantism (except for a very short time when he was threatened with death), and was eventually executed by burning in Oxford in 1556 during the reign of Mary Tudor].

In common with other Established Churches, St. Mary’s was Catholic until 1533-6 when Henry VIII broke with Rome and espoused Protestantism. There was a brief return to Catholicism during the reign of Mary Tudor. On assuming the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I ordered a return to Protestantism, and St. Mary’s has been a Protestant church ever since. During the Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth, the Vicar of St. Mary’s was replaced by two preaching elders, one of whom, William Reynolds, was subsequently ordained in the Established Church, and is buried in St. Mary’s under, or near the present pulpit.

Over the years a great deal of restorative work must have been done to the fabric of the Church, but there were periods of serious neglect: thus, the Crown Commissioners reported in 1559 that the building was ‘in great decay’ and that there were many broken windows, (the Great Storm the previous year may have been responsible for this). Soon afterwards, in 1588 the tower vaulting collapsed into the Church - and was not replaced until 1812, (and then in plaster on wood).

Poorly planned ad hoc structural alterations took place from time to time, seemingly at the whim of the Vicar of the day. For example, the west end of the Church was replaced in 1725 in the then popular, but architecturally incongruous Palladian style. This was in turn replaced by the present front, in Perpendicular style during the great restoration of 1844-8. In 1839 the Vicar, Dr. Wilkins had a brick wall constructed to separate the chancel from the crossing, forming what he called his ‘workshop’, where he conducted more intimate services such as baptisms and weddings. The wall was demolished a few years later during the 1844-8 restoration.

It had been noted as early as 1839 that the four massive pillars supporting the tower were leaning backwards, but nothing was done, and money was wasted on short-term, trivial and sometimes eccentric projects. By 1843 members of the congregation were becoming alarmed, and on one occasion fled when a rumour circulated during a service, that collapse was imminent. The Church Patron, Lord Manvers insisted that funds for restoration were to come from the Parish Rate. Predictably, insufficient money was available from this source, and the next Vicar, Revd. Joshua Brooks, appointed later that year, ignored Lord Manvers, and asked the Mayor to convene a public meeting to decide the fate of the building - demolition, or restoration. Happily, the vote was substantially for restoration. Fund raising started immediately and an ambitious programme of works began, but because of poor management, dragged on for four years, during which time worship was conducted in the Shire Hall - now the Galleries of Justice. It soon became apparent that the tower pillars were leaning because the excavation of burial vaults had destabilised their foundations. The vaults were intended to provide security from body snatching which was particularly prevalent at the beginning of the 19th Century. The best recorded episode in Nottingham occurred in 1827 when about 30 fresh ‘subjects’ were taken from St. Mary’s nearby burial grounds, but none from the churchyard, which by then was secured by iron railings with gates which were locked at night. In addition to rebuilding the tower columns and the west front, the nave was re-roofed, and lamentably, the medieval choir stalls were literally thrown out (but happily are still to be seen in St. Stephen’s Church, Sneinton), and replaced by stalls which were in turn replaced in 1872.

Suffragan Bishops in the Diocese of Lincoln were attached to Saint Mary’s in 1870 and 1877 by which time it was clearly inappropriate that the populous, industrial conurbation of Nottingham should remain in the predominantly rural Diocese of Lincoln. In 1884 the relative merits of having a new Diocese based in Nottingham in St. Mary’s, or in rural Southwell (which has a large Minster) were hotly debated. Unfortunately for Nottingham, the decision was in favour of Southwell. The situation is only now being addressed effectively. The new Bishop of Sherwood is based in Nottingham, and the Diocese has been renamed ‘Southwell and Nottingham.

Historically, churches have had responsibility for several functions now exercised by local and/or national government, particularly poor relief and education. They inherited care of the poor and sick from the monasteries. For many years help was confined to outdoor relief but during the Industrial Revolution when towns became overcrowded and families fragmented, demand for care increased so much that urban parishes often opened workhouses. St. Mary’s Workhouse was built in 1726 at the south end of Mansfield Road. Responsibility for running workhouses was transferred from parishes to secular Boards of Guardians in 1834. St. Mary’s Workhouse was demolished in 1895 to clear part of the site needed for the construction of the Victoria Station.

Over the years, St. Mary’s has been actively involved with several free schools for the education of poor children, as well as with the more prestigious school founded in 1513 by Dame Agnes Mellers, from which the Nottingham High School for Boys traces its origin. St. Mary’s pioneered Sunday School education for children unable to attend a day school. Pupils were taught the elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as religious knowledge. A Sunday School was opened in 1751, 35 years before the generally acknowledged first Sunday School was founded in Gloucester by Robert Raikes.

As Civic Church, St. Mary’s is the historic venue for mayor-making ceremonies. Judges’ Services used to be held there before assizes. The Church now hosts Civic Services and Legal Services, both of which are held annually, and are colourful occasions when dignitaries process in their robes of office. St. Mary’s remains the venue for special services for important national and local events and such services are often attended by the Lord Mayor and members of the City Council.

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Articles tagged with st marys, heritage

Heritage Open Day 2015

Adele Siepmann

Heritage Open Day 2015St Mary's will again open its doors to welcome visitors for Heritage Open Days, 2015.  Experience its history, learn about the architecture, and enjoy activities that will bring the building alive.As we...

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Many thanks to all those who worked hard to make the Heritage Open Days at St Mary’s and St Peter's such a success. Roughly 600 visitors were welcomed into the churches over the weekend.

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how to find / contact us

opening hours

The Parish Office

Monday 9am - 4.30pm
Tuesday 9am - 5pm
Wednesday 9am - 4.30pm
Thursday 9am - 5pm
Friday 9am - 5pm

St Peter's

Monday - Saturday, 10am - 4pm

St Mary's

Monday - Saturday, 10am - 3pm

For information on service times at All Saints', St Mary's & St Peter's, visit the services page


Map of All Saints', St Mary's and St Peter's churches, and the Parish office

All Saints' Church - Raleigh Street, NG7 4DP
St Mary's Church - High Pavement, NG1 1HN
St Peter's Church - St Peter's Gate, NG1 2NW

contact details

Please contact the Parish Office for details of any events or to get in touch with a member of staff.

The office is situated on the upper floor of the St Peter's Centre, on the south side of St Peter's Church and adjacent to Marks & Spencer.

The Parish Office

The Parish Office
St Peter's Centre, St Peter's Square
Nottingham, United Kingdom,

0115 948 3658 (+44 115 948 3658 outside the UK)

Further information

If you wish to trace a former resident or member of the parish, please address your requests to the Nottinghamshire Archives.

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