Sir Nikolaus Pevsner
St Mary’s Church is visible from almost every part of the market town of Beverley. Historically its turrets were lit to guide wayfarers safely across the Westwood, and visitors heading into Beverley across that vast pastureland are still greeted today by the church’s elegant tower emerging from the trees. The medieval streets of North Bar Within and Hengate provide easy access to the building for the 20,000 visitors who come through St Mary’s doors each year.
Like many parish churches, St Mary’s had modest beginnings at its 12th-century foundation, but its surprising scale (at almost 200 feet long), and the richness of the medieval architectural styles, reflect Beverley’s prominent place in the country’s history: the town was for some time the tenth largest in England after London, and its flourishing medieval trade guilds and mercantile class made St Mary’s their home. Centuries of generous sponsorship by the people of Beverley transformed St Mary’s into the glorious venue it is today. In comparison to its sister church, Beverley Minster – a monastic establishment – St Mary’s has always been the town’s church.
The substantial rebuild of the late 14th and 15th centuries, in the Decorated and Perpendicular styles, almost doubled the church’s height, creating the sense of spaciousness and light which so strikes visitors today. John Betjeman spoke of the “perfection of its proportions … its lightness and many changing vistas as one walks around it.” The porch also dates from this time and much town business was carried out here, from market deals to civic ceremonies.
St Mary’s history is not a simple upward trajectory, however. The tower collapsed in 1520, and although it was quickly rebuilt – with the magnificent roof bosses also restored at this time and new carvings added – the late sixteenth century saw a decline in the town’s fortunes, as the wool trade moved away and pilgrimage dwindled post-reformation.
A new wave of wealth arrived with the Georgian era: Beverley became a fashionable social centre, and the 19th century saw investment in restoring St Mary’s. The work was tastefully carried out by the great architects of the day, AWN and EW Pugin and Sir George Gilbert Scott, and has stood the church in good stead until recent times. Today, the congregation is thriving and the church’s calendar is busier than ever; however, the building is once again due major restoration to ensure its continued life for future generations. See our heritage pages for more details of this major project.