The Doomsday book records a Priest as resident in Fairford so it's not an unreasonable guess that somewhere, perhaps deep under the foundations of St Mary's, lies a Saxon Church. But it is not its early foundation that has brought this church to national prominence, St Mary's church in Fairford is famed for the completeness of its Perpendicular style and the fact it has maintained a complete late medieval glazing pattern.
This site was set up to record the village and small town church, it eschews the grand and monumental, rather it seeks humbler meat to serve its viewers. However sometimes the exceptional forces an entrance and in St Mary's we have a significant example.
But before we express surprise at such a church in a small market town we need to consider some economic history. Before we had Docklands and its excesses of banking vanity the British economy was driven by its manufacturing base which brought wealth and over confidence to the industrial towns. But before the manufacturing towns (and skipping lightly over the Triangle Trade in sugar and slavery which enriched so many ports) there was the Wool Trade and here the engines of the economy sat in Cotswold towns like Fairford and the trading houses of London and Bristol. This then is a Wool Church, a late medieval monument to God and the prosperity of the local wool magnates.
Records indicate a Norman Church stood here from at least the beginning of the 12'th century and traces of this earlier church can be found in stonework near the base of the tower. A partial rebuilding in the early 15'th century gave us the tower in roughly its current form. At the end of the 15'th century John Tame bought the rights to the local manor from the Crown and instituted an almost complete rebuild of the church. This rebuild was not completed until the end of first quarter of the 16'th century and after John Tames's death in 1500 was carried on by his son.
The visitor will perhaps proceed up the nave to the tower base and thence through the Choir in order to give a moments respect at the altar. But before we take that step look back to the West along the Nave, here you can start to appreciate the wonder of the medieval windows. And these windows are wonders indeed with a crisp economy of line and subtlety of detail. Compared perhaps to Victorian stained glass one could almost say the windows appear much more modern, stylish and realistic than their later siblings. These windows should be considered as one work of art, a single idea in a glorious unity.
And this single idea was to illuminate and instruct, just as the wall paintings of earlier and humbler churches did. So the East Windows illustrate the nativity and life of Christ, separated across the nave are the Old Testament prophets and Christ's Apostles. Whilst up in the clerestory the persecutors of the early church glower across to face the Saints of Christianity. Thus the East Window is the crucifixion, whilst the West Window is the day of judgement.
The West Window is perhaps the most adulterated, the upper panels being a Victorian replacement by a restorer who mistook their instructions, local horror led to a suspension of all restoration beyond maintenance. In the late 20'th century a major restoration was undertaken and the original windows now sit behind protective external glass.
In the tower base, which is partly shadowed by the placement of the organ, there are traces of medieval wall paintings. The choir stalls can be lifted to show fine and instructional carvings under the misericords. To the North of the Chancel is the lady chapel which contains on its South side a memorial tomb to John Tame, the North side has a fine carved monument to a descendant. The South chapel is less ornate.
Overall the church has maintained a unity of design, not really marred by the addition of a 19'th century vestry. There is much fine stonework replete with carving and decoration to admire. Sited in a large flat graveyard on the North side of the town this church is open during the Spring Summer and Autumn.
Photographed in August 2012 for theChurchPhotographer by Nick Temple-Fry.