St Mary's Church Lydiard Tregoze

1000 Years of History

Image Credit: Keith (M), Swindon Photographic Society

Time and Place

People have been worshipping at St. Mary’s for over 1000 years and during that time the church has been rebuilt, enlarged, decorated and adorned in response to the changing demands of different centuries.  Social and political upheaval, variations in the population, economic factors and not least the influence of the great families which held the manor of Lydiard Tregoze, have all played their part.

Since the church and house were first constructed either side of what was once the village street and public thoroughfare, their histories have been intertwined.  From 1280 to 1944 the owners of Lydiard had the right of patronage. Until 1830 the parsonage stood close to the churchyard wall and together these three buildings represented the power base in the parish.

St. Mary’s Church is indebted to the late Canon Brian Carne for his scholarly research that informs this text. For detailed information please refer to the Reports of the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz.

Earliest Days

St. Mary’s Church was founded in Saxon days when the Manor of Lydiard was part of a large land holding centred in Herefordshire.  In 1100 Harold, head of the Barony of Ewyas endowed a church at Lydiard and it’s most likely that the nave of the present church is on the same site and scale as that of the earlier building.

Following the Norman Conquest (1066) this large complex of estates with Ewias Castle at its head, came into the possession of Alfred of Marlborough. In some very early records Lydiard is even called Lydiard Ewias.  Towards the end of the 12th Century the Lydiard estate passed by marriage into the hands of the Tregoz family who originated from a village in Normandy called Troisgots. The Tregoz name was added to that of Lydiard so as not to confuse it with the neighbouring parish of Lydiard Millicent.

13th Century and the Tregoz Family

The church was greatly enlarged or possibly even rebuilt during the Tregoz family’s era, including the construction of a new north aisle. St. Mary’s lovely stone font, the church’s earliest surviving feature, dates from this time and may have replaced an earlier wooden tub. Nearby evidence of a blocked up doorway can just be seen under a window in the north aisle. The doorway was known as the ‘Devils Door’.  In medieval times it was left open during baptisms so that evil spirits that were thought to be in the child before christening could escape.

Unlike the outmoded superstitions associated with the disappeared Devils Door, the font has been in continuous use for the baptism of babies, children and adults for some 800 years.

14th Century and the Grandison Family

In 1300 the manor of Lydiard once again passed by marriage, this time to the Grandison family. During this century the south aisle was added and the church, as in previous centuries, would have been brilliantly coloured with paintings. In medieval times most of the congregation would have been illiterate and wallpaintings served as brightly painted ‘visual aids’ to teach the Faith.

The wallpaintings were repainted over the years and the only surviving picture from this period is a vividly coloured depiction of the risen Christ, which can be found on a pillar opposite the organ.

15th Century, Margaret Beauchamp & the St. John Family

In 1420 Margaret Beauchamp (c1410-82), one of the most important, wealthy and influential women of the 15th century inherited all the Grandison’s estates, including Lydiard Tregoze. Her portrait is in prime position above the Polyptych. Margaret’s first husband was Oliver St. John of Fonmon and Penmark in Glamorganshire and their second son, Oliver, inherited the Lydiard estate which they were to hold on to for the next five centuries.

Oliver St. John and his wife Margaret Beauchamp were probably responsible for the enlargements and improvements to the building, begun in the 15th century. These included the remodelling of the chancel in the form we still see today, the addition of a south chapel, the west tower and the south porch.  The whole building was given a facelift with brilliantly coloured decorative patterns on the masonry and a new set of wall paintings.

Wallpaintings and Glass

In the nave you can see pictures depicting the Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, and St. Christopher, patron saint of pilgrims. In the south aisle St. Michael the Archangel is shown weighing souls in a basket.  These paintings were only rediscovered in 1901 under layers of lime-wash, during an extensive restoration of the building.

To complete what must have been a splendid scene, very fine glass was also installed. You can still see fragments in nearly every window in the church including a beautifully drawn head of the Virgin Mary (c1420) in the north wall of the chancel, but sadly much is lost

Margaret’s second marriage to John Beaufort brought the St. John family royal Tudor connections, when her daughter by this second marriage became the mother of Henry VII.

16th Century and a Royal Visit

Minor building modifications were made to the church during the 16th century though it was a time of great change in the pattern of religious worship, due to the general acceptance of Protestant teaching.  The look and feel of the building changed accordingly.

Under Edward VI St. Mary’s wallpaintings would have been covered up as praying through saints was no longer permitted.  A picture which appears to have escaped covering at that time shows the Head of Christ (1520) with pomegranate decorations, a symbol of the Resurrection and free of association with Catholic saints. Very unusually, the painting is found over the door in the South Porch.

The Rood Screen bearing a crucifix with the Virgin Mary and Sir John on either side, would have been removed from above the chancel arch at this time, along with other statues. In its place a rare and remarkable wallpainting survives showing figures in secular Tudor costume ranged around the cross.

In 1592 the first of the great series of St. John family monuments, was erected by John St. John in memory of his parents Nicholas and Elizabeth St. John. Later that year he was knighted by Elizabeth 1 at Lydiard Tregoze, a huge honour for the family. John’s portrait hangs in Lydiard House along with numerous other portraits of the St. John family dating back to Elizabethan times.

17th Century and Sir John St. John 1st Bart

The most spectacular change to St. Mary’s happened in 1633 when the south chapel and the burial place of the St. John family were remodelled by Sir John St. John (1585-1648). Sir John was greatly concerned to perpetuate the family pedigree.  The number and richness of the monuments he erected to the family create an impression of a private chapel rather than that of a parish church.  They continue to amaze visitors to this day.

Underneath the chapel Sir John built a new two chamber vault , it being fashionable in the 17th century to create spacious vaults rather than burials just under the floor or in a stone or brick grave. On the external south wall of the building, facing the house, he added embattlements and above the family’s private entrance to the chapel, their Coat of Arms.

Another addition, possibly by Sir John, is the finely carved Jacobean pulpit.  It was originally a two-decker with a sounding-board above it and it stood against the north wall of the nave, facing the St. John family pew. In the 19th Century it was moved to its current position facing the congregation. The manorial pew was re-made in the 17th century and incorporates carved panels from the previous century including a wonderful moustached mermaid.

Restoration England and a More Literate Congregation

Sir John’s 6th son Walter, inherited the Lydiard estate in 1656. He was a less enthusiastic royalist than his father and elder brothers and was even found to be ‘backward in kissing the king’s hand’ at the time of the Restoration in 1660. Perhaps to improve his standing Sir Walter erected a particularly fine Royal Coat of Arms above the chancel screen.

The Arms shown on St. Mary’s screen are those of the Stuart Kings which remained unaltered for the reigns of James I, Charles I, Charles II and James II. They are very unusual because they are deeply carved on both sides and intended to be free-standing.  As part of the Conservation Project the Royal Arms were removed in 2019 and their joinery repaired, to be followed by works to stabilise and clean the historic paintwork.

Sir Walter left no monument to himself but during his life time the nave became more of a preaching house, which is how it remained right up until 1840.  Over the chancel arch the Ten Commandments and appropriate texts gave a new stern and sober feel to the building, speaking to a more literate congregation than in past generations.

Towards the end of the century Sir Walter’s son, Henry, continued the embellishment of St. Mary’s, most probably commissioning the ornate wrought-iron altar rails which incorporate the a falcon, the St. John family emblem. He also updated the Polyptych with new heraldic panels to display grand new connections, including his own marriage into the family of the Earls of Warwick.

18th Century – Comparatively Modest

Very little work was done to the fabric of the church in the 18th Century as the St. John family turned their attention to the manor house. In about 1725 the comparatively modest introduction of a new reredos or painted panel under the east window features the Commandments between the figures of Moses and Aaron. Clumsily overpainted in the 19th century and in a poor state of repair, the reredos was painstakingly conserved in 2014.

The only other notable addition was a memorial to John, 2nd Viscount St. John (d.1748) and his first wife who were responsible for remodelling Lydiard House in the 1740s. The monument is thought to be the work of Michael Rysbrack or possibly Sir Henry Cheere, both of whom had undertaken previous commissions for the St. John family.

Galleries and Hatchments

Perhaps a more exciting introduction from the congregation’s point of view was the addition of galleries at the west end of the church, providing extra space and a place for a choir of singers and musicians.

In 1787 a hatchment, a funeral panel showing armorial bearings, was erected in memory of Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. Due to his divorce from Lady Diana Spencer the hatchment only displays Frederick’s own Arms.  Inheriting great wealth at a young age, Frederick had played fast and loose with the St. John family fortunes which seriously declined from his time onwards.

19th Century Revealed

Other than the addition of a vestry, little had changed to the exterior of the building since the 1630s.

Fascinating evidence of the church is revealed in a wooden model made by the itinerant model-maker and surveyor, Thomas Lloyd in about 1840, following repairs to the building.  It shows the interior of the church in great detail, including the configuration of the pews and the galleries for musicians and singers at the west end of building, reached by an outside staircase.  Most strikingly, the imposing two-decker pulpit looks directly towards the St. John family pew and dominates the nave. Sadly most of the detailed churchyard setting shown in the black and white photograph was lost in the 1970s but the interiors remain largely intact.

The model is being conserved as part of the Conservation Project to allow study by research groups by appointment.

Victorian Sobriety

Not long after Thomas Lloyd made his model of the church it was given a 19th century makeover, overseen by the Rector, Giles Daubeney. Works completed by 1859 reflected a more sober minded Victorian era. The great pulpit was reduced to its single height and moved to its present position and the nave given a new set of pews, all facing east. The singer’s galleries were removed and the jolly music made in them was probably replaced with more reverential hymns.

The removal of the 18th century galleries and doorway through the west window allowed for re-glazing and marked a new departure for the building. Though crude in colour and lacking artistic merit the new stained glass nativity scene, conveyed a purely Christian message without any reference to or symbols of the St. John family.

Some of the paintwork did get touched up, though a little clumsily. In around 1880 the chancel was redecorated and the Golden Cavalier monument painted gold all over – hence forth known as ‘The Golden Cavalier’.

The 20th Century: Rectors and Restoration

A new rector for a new century, Rev. Ebenezer Humphrey Jones embarked on a ‘restoration’ of St. Mary’s which unfortunately saw the removal of 15th Century plaster panels from the nave ceiling.  On a more positive note the works uncovered many of the medieval wallpaintings and saw the arrival of an organ in 1902.

The fabric of the building was rather neglected over the next fifty years though further modernisation came in the 1950s when the church’s old oil lamps which were suspended on chains from the roof, were replaced with electric light.

Canon Brian Carne, Vicar of St .Mary’s 1960-68.

National Recognition

The 1960s marked the beginning of an extraordinary revival of interest in St. Mary’s Church  thanks to the arrival of the late Canon Brian Carne, Vicar of St .Mary’s 1960-68.  A much loved vicar and St. John historian, Brian began to research the church and the St. John family, founding the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz (now The Friends of Lydiard Park) and editing 40 annual publications which led to an awareness of the importance of the monuments in the church and their subsequent conservation. Many repairs to the building were carried out under his watch; the ceiling was replaced in the nave and following its spectacular crash, the Sir. John St. monument was restored.

In the 1980s, a major project took place to repair and conserve the great St. John family Polyptych.  Amateur overpainting done in the Victorian era was removed to reveal the wonderful delicacy of the original painting. The story of this extraordinary monument, including the discovery of its hidden genealogical tables, is told by Brian Carne in his beautifully illustrated book Curiously Painted.

The last conservation works of the 20th Century focused on two large hatchments, one commemorating Frederick 2nd Vsct. Bolingbroke and the other, his daughter- in- law, Charlotte, 3rd Viscountess Bolingbroke. Dilapidated, torn and covered in years of grime, the hatchments were transformed through careful repair and cleaning.

Chair of Conservation Project Board Paul Gardner with Conservation Architect Jonathan Saunders and Heritage Advisor Sarah Finch-Crisp

21st Century

During a spate of vandalism in the last years of the 20th century stones were thrown at the East and West windows causing serious damage. Canterbury Glass Studios were brought in to make the necessary repairs and undertook a full conservation of the beautiful early 17th century east window.

By 2009 it had become increasingly apparent that that the church’s historic interiors were in need of a comprehensive programme of conservation and to prevent further deterioration a piecemeal approach was no longer going to be sufficient. Discussions began with the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and in 2011 St. Mary’s launched its major fund raising appeal.

An early grant from Historic England enabled essential fabric repairs to the building and emergency stabilization of the chancel arch wallpainting. Since then the 18th reredos has been beautifully conserved by St. Mary’s wallpainting conservator, Jane Rutherfoord, and thanks to a substantial grant from the NLHF and other generous donors, the major conservation project got underway in 2017.