St. Mary's church

In the centre of Hitchin on the banks of the river Hiz the church building is a central focus for visitors to the town.

Buy this photo online from the Francis Frith Collection

The church in 1903.
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There has been a church on this location ever since the year 792 when King Offa of Mercia founded a Benedictine community on the site. The church you see today is mainly of the 14th and 15th century but the foundations of a Saxon church lie under the floor of the Nave and are probably those of the original building.

The first church was dedicated to St Andrew and by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 was being described as a Monasterium. It was described as having five hides of land (approximately 600 acres) and from its size and significance it would have been one of the old minster churches of Anglo-Saxon England.

How the church may have looked originallyHow the church may have looked in the 12th century

The church that you see was built by stages and originally is believed to have been cruciform with a central tower. History records that in 1115 a substantial part of the building was destroyed by a "great wind". And as a result the Nave had to be completely rebuilt. The new work didn't stand for long, in 1298 the centre of the building collapsed in an earthquake and as a result, in 1304 the roof fell in. The remains of the 12th century Nave can still be seen in the substantial corners of the present Nave. See our timeline for the church.

In the East window above the chapel you will see the only surviving fragments of medieval glass left in the church. The original glass was smashed by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers who took over the church in the 1640s. They also damaged the font, defacing the carvings of the apostles made around 1470. This damage can still be seen today. The fine carved cover is a Victorian addition.

If you look down the church you will see that it has not been built in a straight line. This is not and uncommon feature in churches, and is due to the church being modified in stages. Tradition has it that it is there to rimind us of the cross, for on the cross Christ's head lay on one side. The cynical would say that it is simply a weakness in medieval architectural skill!

Click to see our panoramic tour of the church

The Thompson MouseCan you find the Thompson Mouse?

Carved on the altar rail and a hallmark of the carver "Mousey Thompson". Robert Thompson was a famous wood carver, his hallmarks being a surface produced by an adze, and the famous mouse which he carved on all his work (which can be seen in Westminster Abbey, York Minster, 700 churches and Ampleforth College).

He apparently had the idea for the mouse when carving a beam on a church roof and another carver said something about being poor as a church mouse, on the spur of the moment Robert Thompson carved a mouse and a tradition was born.


 

Above: The church at night
Right: from Hollow Lane

 

Scenes from the church tower.

Left: towards the Market Place
Below: towards Bancroft

 


For those wanting a more historical and architectural guide there is a short history of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin by Reginald Hine. There is also a guide for children and other souvenirs on the bookstall in the church.

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