As a Christian settlement we are ancient;
so much so that, sentimentally, one would like to imagine a Roman St Mary's as the heart and centre of a Roman town. This is not,
however, so. Villas there were at Rockbourne and Downton and a pottery of some importance at
Godshill. In all
probability there would have been a few small huts and, perhaps,
a forge at the crossing point but none of the considerable
development that has gone on over the last century has revealed
any trace of the foundations of one serious Roman building. The
town and church would appear of purely Saxon origin. Even the tireless
builders of the Empire did not deem the Avon crossing important enough to warrant a bridge, contenting "themselves
with paving the prehistoric ford.
The Saxons thought otherwise. By the end of the Dark Ages the
watermill, a Greek invention for which slave powered Rome had little use, had come into genera employment. The
small tributary of the Avon, which flows about ^ mile north of the church, lent itself to milling
operations and there began a town plan which has confused historians and geographers ever since. They are
accustomed to river crossing settlements which begin at the
crossing and develop outwards. This makes the development of
Fordingbridge in ancient times a nonsense, growing, as it did,
not from the Saxon bridge, but towards its mediaeval successor;
while the church looks like an afterthought, built at the very
edge of an already developed town.
In truth ancient Fordingbridge did not grow on the crossing at
all; it grew between its two pillars, the spiritual wealth of St Mary's to the south and the material
wealth of the mills on its northern flank, only advancing towards the crossing in early modern times.
By 1086 the pattern is dear. Domesday Book lists the church and
two mills. The entire annual value of the manor is given as 30/- (150p); of this 14/2d (71 p) was provided
by the mills alone.
As time went on, other activities contributed to a growth of
wealth. As a milling centre, the town became a trading centre as well. Church Square was then the market place
while to the west, on the flank of the modern church hall, ran Shops Lane, a street of bothies more
permanent than the transient stalls of the market. At various times rope and canvas were made. So were clay pipes. In
the days when government tried to raise it's revenue by taxing commodities, a thriving black economy arose
from smuggling, as happened in most Forest settlements. Through all other activities, however,
milling remained constant until the last hundred years with its total revolution in the processing and
distribution offoodstuffs. The rearguard was Neave's Baby Food (as sold to the Imperial Russian Court) produced until well
into this century.
The First Reconstruction
For a century after the Norman conquest there was little church
building. The Normans were concerned to hold what they had won and most of their energy went into the
raising of castles. By 1150 the countryside and its new masters
had settled down together. The Lord and people of Fordingbridge
were ready to build a new and better church. The decision is not
surprising; the Saxons were not great builders. They made no use
of the buttress, their walls were thick, their windows small to
avoid any weakening in the structure. First St Mary's has gone, but we can reconstruct it with some certainty. It was not
small. It is mentioned in Domesday, which Bre- amore Church (itself
no wayside chapel) is not; but it was probably gloomy,
unimaginative, oblong and thatched. This was the typical Saxon
Around 1150, then, the parish went to work and second St Mary's
rose. This was probably one of those small, graceful Norman churches which still exist and was
ornamented (as we shall see) with corbels. To gain an impression of its extent, take this book and stand with your
back to the west door (usually hidden by a tapestry). The church
would stretch before you almost as far as the modern altar rails.
The wall at your back is partly that of this church. The sides
are the colonnades of the present church and the Priest's door
into the chancel, a sharply arched Norman door, opens near the
east end of the modern choirstalls. Its ironstone jambs are still
there, now hidden on one side by the choirstall backs, on the
other by the choir wardrobes. The church is empty, save perhaps
for a small chapel for the Lord. Pews, choirstalls, organ and all
the accustomed furnishings of a church today, are yet to come.
The roof is lower. The clerestory is gone and the tiebeams cross
above your head, near the apices of the mediaeval arches. The
addition, perhaps of an aisle or two as the population grew, and,
possibly, later a small belltower, would seem to answer the needs
of the town. Why then is this church gone almost as completely as
first St Mary's? Why was a modest, adequate and probably gracious
country church suddenly obliterated and turned into something
approaching a miniature cathedral and that within less than a century of its original construction? The
answer to that is, probably the most fascinating part of our
The Second Reconstruction
Around 1230 the north chapel was built and the north and south
aisles added. In a church dedicated to any other patron the north
chapel would be the Lady chapel. In a church, however, which is
entirely dedicated to Our Lady, it is simply the north chapel. The chancel was extended to
its present length, beyond the end of the new chapel, which perhaps means that this was an afterthought.
Both nave and chapel were lighted by typical early English lancets; those in the south wall are still in
position, whereas those in the north have been replaced, although
their positions can still be seen. There was another lancet to
the left of the High Altar, looking out beyond the end of the
chapel. It's position can still be traced; on a fine summer day
it must have given the altar a beautifully light and airy look.
In the midst of this incredible burst of energy, one feature of
the obliterated 12th Century church was lovingly retained. The church had corbels, one of which was a little
oxhead. Someone, the Lord, the Priest, perhaps the whole congregation, evidently had a deep affection for it, for it
was brought into the extended church and mounted above the altar of the south chapel. The altar has gone,
although it's associated piscina is still there, and the west door of the choir vestry stands in its place. The ox
head, however, remains, watching only over the organ today, but still endearing itself to generations of
townsfolk, even though few have known what it really is, or why it is there.
The Third Reconstruction
Yet again, the new church was barely given time to settle on its
foundations, before the masons were at it afresh. Only a century
had passed when the roof was raised, the clerestory added, and
the north chapel extended to the length of the chancel. At the same time the north
lancets were blocked up and replaced. As this was now the decorated period of church architecture typical
windows of this pattern were inserted into the north wall; the central one now carries an extremely fine example
of modern staining, depicting the Annunciation and giving beauty
and light at the same time. It contrasts vividly with the heavy
Victorian glass in the lancets opposite. The extended chapel was
fitted with its east window, of a contrasting pattern to the
chancel window, giving from outside the odd appearance of two
churches side by side. Simultaneously the west window was inset.
This is not stained and, perhaps, this is just as well. On summer
evenings it catches the light in a most striking and beautiful
Still the inspired restlessness went on. What might almost be
termed a fourth reconstruction took place, again within a century. The north porch was added, the clerestory
remodelled and the tower raised. The porch was given a room above, described by some as a room for visiting
priests. This is unlikely. Such rooms were commonly put to this use in wayside chantries, so that the
chantry priest might sleep there to say early Mass for travellers. The porches of parish churches had other uses.
Penitents knelt there, coroners inquests were held, executors paid out legacies, women were churched after
confinement and public notices were displayed. The upstairs rooms in such cases were usually reserved for the
deposit of wills, other documents and such library as the church
possessed. The vestrymen met there, as under their new name of
the P.C.C. they still do at St Mary's and frequently a small school would be held in this room.
Outside our own north porch is a recess for a lamp and two small recesses for "dingbats". These were
iron scrapers for dirty boots in the days of unpaved streets; one may be seen, still in position, outside the west
door. The remodelling of the clerestory windows has left one example of the original form. When the tower was
raised one window was blocked out by its bulk. This, of course, escaped remodelling and can still be seen
in contrast to its fellows. "
This is most unusual. It is not built outside in the normal
manner, nor even centrally as in some churches, but on massive piers within the bay of the north aisle.Whereas the
rest of the church is of flint and rubble construction the tower
is of ashlar work as befits its height, dignity and peculiar
importance to St Mary's. The tower of Salisbury Cathedral sits, a
queen on her throne, drawing all eyes upward to the glory of her
spire. The tower of St Mary's is more like the conductor of an
orchestra, combining disparate, even clashing, components into
one harmonious and beautiful whole. From outside no particular
part of the church is individually lovely. Indeed before the
tower was raised St Mary's must have looked like a collection of
tithe barns hastily thrown together. That the tower draws all
into a whole is only possible precisely because it is built into
the structure. Tacked on outside it would merely have added to
the general confusion. A subsequent century, probably the 17th,
spoiled the whole line by the addition of a pinnacle finial at
each corner. These were not a part of the structure but affixed
with iron rods into the battlements. Mercifully they were
abolished in the 1842 restoration and now rest in the churchyard.
Here, gathering ivy, they are moderately decorative. A print by G.N.
Shepherd in 1838, indicates how little they did for the tower
It is a common error to imagine that the top windows of a bell
tower are for some reason boarded up. This is not so; they are not windows at all but sounding louvres for the
peal, turning the whole structure into one gigantic musical
instrument. There are eight bells, the earliest dating from 1654.
All were refitted and three recast in 1927. A ninth, Sanctus bell,
purely for calling the congregation to services, was purchased in
1984 in memory of a well respected captain of the tower, Ronald
Norman ("Ron") Marlow.
The North Chapel Roof
The final effort for some centuries to come would seem to have
been the provision of a fine chestnut roof to the north chapel. An earlier guide described it as a "beautiful
hammer beam roof. Beautiful it is; hammer beam it is not. It is a straight tie beam truss, like the nave
itself, the weight being taken by the great beams across the
chapel. The normal end supports of such a truss have here been
elaborated into false hammers, which, structurally speaking, take
little weight. Hammer beam roofs are numerous, tie beams
extremely common; but a tie beam masquerading as a hammer is most
unusual. The false hammers support conventional religious figures
of no individual significance. From the centre of the beam
nearest to the altar, however. God the Father looks down upon His
church. In a corresponding position on the first beam, we see a
clue as to the very late date of this roof; the Tudor Rose.
The Knights Emerge
In the Vatican library is a mediaeval map of England; many of our
modern cities are missing, some because they did not yet exist, some because the church had little
interest in them. Yet Fordingbridge is there on that map.
The reason, almost certainly, for Papal interest was the priory
of the Order of St John which stood on the Stuckton Road (once the main road out of town) near the new
churchyard. A diocesan architect called in by Canon John Bown , gave his opinion that the north chapel was
originally the private chapel of the order. This would explain a great deal, including the existence of a
second chapel for the townsfolk in the south aisle. It would also
explain the extent of the building works and the vexed question
of who provided the money. The townsfolk it was not; the town did not outgrow its mediaeval
bounds until the 17th Century and the church of 1150 would have been quite adequate for them. The Lord of the
Manor it was not. The FitzHughs of Domesday vanish early from the scene, the Bulkleys and Tarrants come
much later. Yet someone found a great deal of money over several centuries to create the present church. The
interest of the Knights of Rhodes would explain the mystery and, indeed might well explain something else.
In the north wall, near the east end of the north chapel, is an
external, recessed tomb. It is a fairly standard piece of work, similar to one at Great Casterton in Rutland,
and is of 15th century date. But the walls of St Mary's are not as thick as those at Great Casterton and evidently
the recess was letting in the damp. Accord- ingly the arch was walled up and a large stone inset. The remains
of an inscription, probably the latin word "finit" can
be traced at the top right hand corner. This inscription possibly
repeats one on the table of the tomb, and certainly identified
the occupant. It is very likely that it also comprised an
exhortation to pray for his soul; certainly that, or something
else about it, so infuriated either the reformers of the 16th
Century or the Puritans of the 17th Century (who installed their own minister Henry
Buntlett), that the inscription was violently gouged out with a
mason's chisel. The arms of the occupant were, however, untouched;
one shield can still be traced on the right of the tomb. Weathering has removed that on
Over the centuries the tomb has collected fairy stories like moss.
One is that the stone is a "miracle stone" and the grooves were worn by the fingers of pilgrims invoking its
properties. Given that the said pilgrims had begun their adoration about the time when Stonehenge was built and had
been hard at it ever since, then by now their fingers might conceivably have achieved the present
appearance of the stone. Yet this one got into a Shell guide to Britain? Another equally absurd is that archers
from the town going variously to the Hundred Years war or the Crusades, used the stone to sharpen their
arrowheads. Actually mediaeval iron did not retain an edge and arrows were sharpened on the eve of battle, every
archer carrying a tiny whetstone as vital to him as the rifleman's pullthrough today. In any case both wars were well over before
the stone was put in position. A third is that harvesters sharpened scythes and sickles on the
stone. Anybody who realises that the blade of a sickle or scythe lies within its curve, will see that to sharpen
either on a flat vertical surface .is a physical impossibility.
Besides, can one just see the priest of that day standing
benignly by while the locals wore holes in his church wall?
In reality the positioning of the tomb, at the east end of the
chapel and close to the altar within, make it likely that we are looking at the tomb of one of the last Priors of the
Order of St John in Fordingbridge. The motive in placing the tomb so close to the altar itself is similar to that
of the wardens and vestry of 1742, who, when the Vicar, Gregory Doughty, died in office, thought so highly of him
that they laid him alongside the altar on its left side.
Other Points of
An earlier guide echoed the words of the architect Ponting who
examined the church for restoration in 1899 and called it "a large unsightly organ''. This is grossly
unfair, although it is true that at that time it was blocking most of the north chapel! Moved to the south aisle it became
inoffensive, particularly since the south altar was abolished forever by the door to the newly built choir vestry.
In any case church organs arc not built to enter beauty competitions but to make music, which this one does
superbly. It is a Walker, dated 1887 with 14 speaking stops and tracker action. Following an extensive
overhaul in 1955 its versatility was increased by the addition of a Bourdon stop, given in memory of his wife by the
then Vicar, the late R.M. Verity.
The Statue in the west wall.
The statue of Our Lady, patron of the church, was removed,
together with any mediaeval stained glass, by the mistaken zeal of the protestant reformers. It was restored in
memory of WJ. Boys, Vicar from 1879 to' 1915, by his widow.
Henry VIII, after his break with Rome, decreed that the Royal
Arms be displayed in all churches. For a short time, under Mary Tudor, the custom was discontinued, returning
with Elizabeth. Cromwells military govern- ment forbade them again. The Clarendon Code of 1662 again made
them compulsory, but during the nineteenth century the custom
died out. The fine Hanoverian Arms over the north door bear no
number to the name George and so are almost certainly those of
George I (1714-1727). The door is flanked by the arms of King's
College, Cambridge, Lay Rector of the church and the Diocese of
Winchester. The arms behind the choirstalls are those of
individuals and institutions, connections of the church and the
Diocese, including the arms of Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, Bishop of
Winchester and Abbot of St Albans. These were recently painted by
On the cast wall of the nave, behind the lectern, is a small
memorial brass commemorating William Bulkley, his wife, three sons and five daughters, all of whom are named,
it is dated 1568 and is especially interesting in that it incorporates a post-reformation prayer for the dead, the
last line being "Whom Jesus Christ have mercy and grant them eternal joy". This presumably escaped the
of the Puritans in that it is not a general exhortation addressed to the congregation. Note that the family, to whom
there are several memorials, became involved with the Earls of
Coventry, changed their name to Coventry-Bulkley and, finally to
Coventry alone. The fine memorial, on the south wall near the High Altar, to Phillip
Clifford, Vicar 1626-1638, did not escape the reformers and was for many years covered with plaster. It was
only recently restored. A sad memorial can be . found at the west end of the south aisle. In February 1770 the
Denbys lost their little daughter Jane, aged 9. Almost exactly nine years later in early March they lost John,
aged 8. The sense of doom in the family can be felt in the
wording and brings home to the reader our good fortune to live in
an age in which little children are no longer struck down from nowhere by "Spring Fevers".
Over the centuries so many burials upon burials took place that
the ground - to quote one local dignitary - "resembles a plum pudding"! Accordingly in 1896 it was
closed to burials and a new churchyard opened on Stuckton Road. The limes, known as the "twelve apostles"
which form the avenue to the north porch are now elderly. They appear as fine healthy trees in a print of the 1830s
by G.N. Shepherd, but today are kept going with cement injections
and other geriatric attentions. The step style is of some
interest. It dates from the days when Fordingbridge was in the
Forest confines and animals roamed the streets. At that time the
main gates - not the present lych-gate, erected by the
parishioners in memory of W.J. Boys - were kept locked when not
needed for services to prevent intrusion by ponies and cattle.
The steps were provided for those wishing to visit tombs or use
the cast path. This was then a broad, gravelled, walk and the
remains of the gravelling can be seen in the present path,
maintained with great care by the choirboys. Similar styles, for
the same purpose, can be seen at Boldre in the Forest and at St Runius, Marown, Isle of Man. Ours differs in the interesting
stone set as part of the wall. It is a pillar base, matching no
pillar in the church itself and from its condition, not likely to
have come from the Norman church. It is possibly the base of the
old Market Cross.
Apart from the clock, now electrically operated, there are three
sundials from an earlier day, at different points of the building. The one most easily seen today is that on the
north-west buttress of the tower, which was recently restored by
Messrs Shearing who replaced the gnomon. These arc not full
sundials but Massing dials, concerned only with those hours
between which Mass was celebrated. The times may seem strangely
early to a modem observer, but mediaeval man rose and slept with
the sun. Before the introduction of summcrtime during World War I,
it was broad daylight at 4 a.m. on a summer day and church times
were regulated accordingly.
Before the restoration of 1900, when the choir vestry was built,
the roof of the church, including that of the north chapel, was hidden by a system of low ceilings. There was
also a large gallery, extending deep into the nave, which, with the cramped pews of the time, gave a total
seating capacity of 1050, compared with today's 450. All this meant a dim,
cluttered, interior, almost ugly in
aspect, but easy to heat. Opening up the church and abolishing the gallery restored the Mediaeval beauty of the
building. The tiebeams can now be seen, one of which retains the original chevron decoration. But it has
caused a heating problem. The architect of the 1900 restoration, Ponting, recommended two "tortoise"
stoves. Older members of the congregation can still remember the inadequacy of this arrangement! Experiments with
thermometers have proved that whatever is done below is of most benefit to the beetles in the roof! We are
hoping that the conversion to gas in 1985 has at last solved a
recurring winter problem.
Fittings and Furnishings
The Mediaeval font has a Purbeck marble bowl lined with lead.
During the restoration of 1842 it was banished to the churchyard and replaced by a modern piece. In 1902 it was
restored to its rightful position and the inter- vening font
given to the (then) daughter church at Ibsiey. With the exception
of those sixty years, children born in the town have been baptised in this font for over six
centuries. By contrast, the reredos is modern and was carved by
Herbert Read of Exeter in 1920. The new Altar rails were provided
in 1950 and in 1951 the ancient aumbry at the High Altar was
fitted with a new oak door. There are three piscinae, the disused
one in the old south chapel, a fine specimen with double drain at
the High Altar and a thirteenth century piscina, repositioned
when the chapel was extended, in the north chapel, tn the south
porch there is a holy water stoup, but there is no sign of one in
the north porch. It may have vanished in a restoration, but on
the other hand may well have been a standing stoup, such as can
be seen in modern Roman Catholic churches. The screen to the
north chapel is modern and constitutes the town's War Memorial to
the dead of 1914-18.
In the north chapel is a very fine iron safe, cast at the
Bramshaw foundary in 1813. Hampshire, like Sussex, was famous for its iron in the old charcoal fired days. When
Abraham Darby I of Coalbrookdale introduced coke smelting in 1708, iron making began an inevitable slow move
to coalfield areas. This charming piece however, reminds us that
long after the main centres of ironmaking had moved away, small
charcoal burning foundries still carried on in the Forest. At the
back of the church is a antique carved cupboard, presented to St
Mary's by Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth. Between representations of Our
Lord with His Mother at different stages of His growth can be seen St Francis being greeted by a greyhound
who has, unfortunately, lost the lower part of his hind legs.